Growing your own vegetables is a great way to provide your family with homegrown, organic food, but it’s not always easy to tell when crops are ready to harvest. Harvesting at the right time can have a big impact on crop yield and quality, and in order to help you get the most from your garden, we wanted to share our best tips on harvesting vegetables.
4 Tips to Harvesting Vegetables:
Bigger isn’t always better
Many vegetables reach peak quality and tenderness when still immature; salad greens, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, peas, potatoes, radishes, and turnips for example. Even cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are harvested before they mature and their flower buds open. Others, like tomatoes, muskmelons, watermelons, and sweet potatoes are best picked when they are fully ripe and their flavors have been given ample time to develop. Even culinary herbs, like oregano and basil taste best when harvested before the plants flower. At that stage, their leaves are packed with flavor.
Avoid wet weather
Vegetable gardeners know how important it is for plants to receive regular moisture, but generally it’s a good idea to stay out of the garden when it’s raining. This is especially critical with disease-prone crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and beans, and you should avoid harvesting from or working around these vegetables in wet weather. It helps to plant a food garden in a spot where it receives direct sunlight and plants can dry off quicker after rain or irrigation. And speaking of moisture, if there is heavy rain in the forecast and you have a garden full of ripe or almost ripe tomatoes, grab your harvest basket and start picking. Why? Heavy rain can cause excessive water uptake and lead to fruits splitting or cracking.
Harvest vegetables often
Anyone who grows zucchini will tell you that a tiny fruit can go from 2 inches to 2 feet in mere days. Therefore, it’s a good idea to stay on top of harvesting. Frequent harvesting can result in higher quality and better tasting vegetables, but it can also encourage a larger yield.
Use proper tools to harvest vegetables
For many vegetables, harvesting tools are unnecessary; beans, peas, lettuce, and kale, for example. But, for certain crops like zucchini, large-fruited tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, and carrots, it pays to use a sharp knife, pruning shears, garden fork, or other implement to prevent damage to the plant or the part being harvested. Damaged plants provide an entry point for disease, and fruits like zucchini or tomatoes can bruise easily which will decrease storage life and eating quality. Place harvested vegetables in a basket, trug, or handy garden colander to prevent damage and allow easy washing.
A Handy Guide to Harvesting Vegetables:
Below you’ll find advice on how to harvest a variety of common crops.
How to harvest asparagus
Asparagus is one of the first crops harvested each year when the spears push out of the ground in mid-spring. The plants of this hardy perennial vegetable take a couple of years to size up, but once they reach maturity expect to enjoy decades of spring asparagus spears. Using a knife, carefully cut spears at ground level. The harvest from established asparagus plants typically lasts 6 to 8 weeks each spring.
How to pick beans (pole and bush)
Snap beans are best picked slightly immature, when the pods are firm and crisp and the interior seeds are still small. When plants begin to produce, pick every day or two to stay on top of the harvest. If pods are allowed to mature on the plants, production will slow. Bean plants are susceptible to several diseases that can spread in wet weather, so avoid harvesting beans on rainy days or early in the morning when the plants are covered in dew.
How to harvest beets
Most beet varieties are ready to pull about two months from planting. For baby beets, harvest earlier, when the roots are one to one and a half inches across. Letting beets stay in the ground too long yields tough, woody roots. Beets also have tasty, nutritious greens which can be eaten in salads, steamed, or stir-fried for a yummy side-dish.
How and when to harvest carrots
Carrots may be harvested young, at about a half inch diameter, for baby roots, or allowed to grow to full-size for storage. Not sure if they’re ready to harvest? Pull a few roots from the garden for a quick taste test. If they’re crisp and sweet, they’re ready to eat. Carrot tops are notorious for breaking off when pulled. To prevent this, loosen the earth first with a garden fork. You’ll find they slip easily from the soil.
When and how to harvest corn
Sweet corn is a summer treat, but that super sweet flavor turns starchy if you leave the ears on the stalks for too long. Look for cues that it’s almost time to pick your corn. The husks will be deep green and the silks turn from gold to dark brown. When I think the time is right, I’ll pick an ear of corn and pull back the husk to look at the top of the ear. The kernels should be plump. Do a quick taste test to make sure the kernels are filled with sweet milky sap. If the corn is ready, I put a pot of water on to boil and then go pick my ears. To remove the ears from the stalk, just twist and pull. My goal is to have homegrown corn go from garden to table in mere minutes!
We grow a wide range of cucumbers in many shapes and sizes. However, all of our cucumber varieties offer the best-tasting and highest quality harvest when picked immature. For round varieties like Lemon, Dragon’s Egg, or Crystal Apple, harvest when the fruits are pale green and just one and a half to three inches long. For long-fruited types, clip fruits from the plants when they have reached the size indicated in the seed catalog – but don’t be afraid to harvest them small. Cucumbers are less bitter and super crisp when picked young.
How to harvest eggplant
It can be tricky to know when to harvest eggplants and if picked over-mature, they will be bitter and seedy. There are many varieties of eggplants with different sizes, shapes, and colors, but generally, harvest when the fruits are slightly smaller than indicated in the seed catalog and the skin is glossy. Cut eggplants from the plant with a sharp pair of pruners or garden shears – there are often sharp thorns near the stem end – and place the fruits in a basket to avoid bruising.
How and when to pick lettuce
There are two ways to harvest lettuce. The first is to pick the outer leaves and allow the center of the plant to continue growing. You can use scissors, garden snips, or your fingers to snap off the outside lettuce leaves. The other technique is to carefully use a sharp knife and slice the whole mature head off at ground level. Make sure to harvest lettuce when the leaves are tender and crisp. Don’t wait too long or your lettuce will bolt and the leaves turn bitter.
How to dig onions
If you plan on storing bulbing onions, wait until the bulbs have grown to their mature size and about one-third of the leaves have fallen over. Once onions have reached that stage, carefully dig the bulbs with a garden fork and allow them to cure before storage.
How to pick peas
There’s no better way to test for ripeness than to pluck a pod from the vine for a quick taste test. Start harvesting snow peas when the pods are formed, but the peas inside the pods are still tiny. Pick snap peas when the pods are plump and crisp. For shell peas, I harvest when the pods are fat and full of tender, sweet peas. As with beans, peas need to be picked every day or two to keep production high and prevent pods from becoming tough and stringy.
How to harvest potatoes
Harvest potatoes as new potatoes or as storage potatoes. All types of potatoes can be dug as new potatoes if you harvest them when immature. Begin to dig delicious baby potatoes when the plants begin to flower. Storage potatoes, which are also called main crop potatoes, are harvested at the end of the season once frost has killed back the plants. Leave the plants in the ground for a week or two and then carefully dig them up for storage.
How to harvest salad greens
Common salad greens include Swiss chard, spinach, and arugula with most thriving in the cool weather of spring and autumn. You can harvest salad crops as baby greens or let the plants mature for full-sized leaves. Pick individual leaves, scissor harvest young greens, or pull mature plants.
Harvesting sweet peppers
Most varieties of sweet peppers will turn from green to red, yellow, orange, or even purple as they mature. Harvest peppers when they are full-sized and green, or give them a few more weeks to color up and reach maximum sweetness and flavor. When picking, clip the fruits from the plants with pruning shears to prevent damage.
With such diversity available to gardeners, it can be hard to know when homegrown tomatoes are ripe enough to pick. With cherry tomatoes, begin to harvest when they have reached peak color. Still not sure? Just pop one in your mouth and you’ll soon be able to tell when the fruits are ready. With large-fruited tomatoes, especially those with unusual colors like black or purple, I rely on the pictures in the seed catalog and a quick squeeze test to gauge firmness. A ripe tomato is slightly firm, but has some give. However, if you do pick a tomato too early, just leave it to ripen on your kitchen counter for a few more days.
How to harvest turnips
Turnips are quick to grow and offer both tasty roots and edible foliage. Begin harvesting salad types, like Hakurei, when roots are just an inch across. Continue to harvest roots often as those left in the ground too long will become woody. Because turnips are so quick to grow, sow successive crops every few weeks for a long harvest of top quality roots.
How to harvest zucchini
Zucchini, also known as summer squash, are at their tastiest and firmest when the fruits are picked immature – about 4 to 6 inches long for elongated varieties or one and a half to three inches across for Pattypan types. Slice fruits from the plants with a sharp knife or pair of pruners, and place gently in a basket or trug because the fruits damage easily.
Do you have any more tips for harvesting vegetables?