Harvesting the veggies in your garden is probably the most exciting part of the process. You’ve worked all season for your beautiful veggies and you can’t wait to bring them into the kitchen! Sometimes, they don’t even make it that far. But for a new gardener, harvesting can also be a daunting process. When do you harvest? How much do you take? What is the best way to harvest without damaging the plant? If you find yourself a little intimidated by all these questions, keep reading! First, we’ll cover some general harvesting tips, and then give pointers for some specific popular crops.
General Tips for Harvesting Vegetables
- Harvest at peak maturity: “Peak maturity” means the point when vegetables are highest in flavor and nutrition. It varies by type and variety and it is not always when they are at their largest. Most veggies have a sweet spot when the flavor and texture are best before they reach their maximum size. Pay attention to the days to harvest on your seed packets. Count from when you started your seeds and mark that date on the calendar to remind yourself to start checking for ripeness. It’s also important to note that vegetables generally don’t improve after harvest, so it’s important to pick them at their peak and eat or preserve them quickly. Of course, tomatoes can ripen on a countertop in a sunny window, but a vine-ripened tomato will beat a countertop-ripened tomato any day.
- Avoid spreading plant diseases: As we well know, plants are susceptible to diseases. These diseases can be spread and worsened by harvesting while plants are wet, or by damaging leaves as we move through the garden. Try to refrain from harvesting until after your plants have dried out in the morning, and always be gentle with your plants as you’re harvesting. Stepping on vines or breaking branches can give pathogens an easy entry point.
- Minimize damage to the plant: Harvesting any vegetable will create a wound in the plant’s skin, which is a weak spot in its immune defenses, just like a cut on your skin would be. The smaller the wound you create, the more easily the plant will heal. If you can cleanly snap off whatever you’re harvesting with your hand, that’s the way to go. Snapping off tends to cause breakage along cell walls, rather than cutting through them, and can result in less damage. This tends to work well for tender plants with small stems, such as peas, kale, sometimes even okra. For tougher-stemmed plants that don’t snap so easily, it’s better to use clippers or a knife. We’ve all tried pulling a tomato or pepper off the plant only to end up with a whole branch or a big string of plant skin coming along with it. That’s bad news for the plant.
How to Harvest Greens
There are many different kinds of greens, harvested with different methods, but one tip that goes for all of them is to, harvest first thing in the morning! The plants will be at their most hydrated before the hot sun gets to them, and crunchy, juicy, well hydrated greens are more delicious and keep longer. Here’s more on how to harvest different types:
Baby greens: With most greens, you have options for when and how to harvest. Many types, such as kale, lettuce, arugula, spinach, and mustard, can be ready in as little as 30 days as baby greens. To harvest baby greens, simply cut the whole plants just above the soil when they reach the size you’d like. When harvested this way, most varieties will re-grow once or twice. This is called “cut-and-come-again” harvesting. If you go this route, just make sure to leave the growth tip, or crown, of the plant intact. That’s the point at the center of the plant where new leaves emerge. Generally, if you’ve left some stems sticking up from the ground, you’re in the clear. If you cut right along the soil line, you’ve likely damaged the growth tip and the plant won’t be able to re-grow.
Kale, collards, mustards, swiss chard and non-heading cabbages: To harvest mature leaves from larger greens like kale, collards, and swiss chard, wait until your plants reach about 12 inches in height, and then begin periodically snapping off leaves from the base of each plant. Always leave at least two mature-sized leaves at the top of the plant to make sure it has plenty of energy to keep growing. Remember, the growth tip is at the top in the center of the plant, and if that gets broken off, the plant will stop growing. Once the plants reach full size in the spring and summer, they can usually be harvested about once per week using this method. Fun fact: you probably have always seen large asian greens like bok choy and tatsoi sold as whole plants, but that’s just because they look so pretty harvested that way! Harvesting a few leaves at a time can work for these varieties too, and keep your plants growing longer in your home garden.
Lettuce: You can harvest most lettuce either as baby greens or mature heads. If harvesting full heads, go by the days to maturity indicated on the seed packet, and cut the plant at the soil line with a knife once it reaches a desirable size. Watch for signs of bolting - that is, flowering. Hot weather can trigger bolting in lettuce, and once that happens, the leaves will taste bitter. Lettuce bolts by sending up a tall flower spike in the center of the plant, so if any of your lettuce heads suddenly starts to look like a middle schooler getting their growth spurt, get those heads harvested!
Cabbage, Broccoli, and Cauliflower: These greens are all types that are grown for their “head” - meaning a tight-packed ball of leaves around the growth point in cabbage, or basically a big immature flower in broccoli and cauliflower. The regular leaves of all these plants are also edible, and you can get away with harvesting a few to eat before the heads are ready, but you want to be very sparing if you do so. These plants need a lot of energy to produce the head, and their regular leaves provide that energy. To know when the heads are ready, again, pay attention to the expected days to maturity and begin checking around that time. For cabbage, there’s some flexibility on what size to harvest at. For broccoli or cauliflower, you’re looking for a tight-packed, mostly smooth, domed top. Each of those tiny green bumps on a head of broccoli is a tiny flower bud, so if the head starts to look bumpier and more irregular, or if any of the tiny flower buds start looking like they’re beginning to open, you know it’s going past its prime - harvest right away! For both cabbage and broccoli or cauliflower, you’ll need to cut the head off at its base with a harvest knife. After harvesting, you can pull the plants out and compost them - they will not re-grow.
How to Harvest Root Vegetables
The rule of thumb for root veggies like radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets is to note the days to maturity from the seed packet, and begin checking whether they’re ready on that date. Look for the “shoulders” of the root pushing out of the ground - that’s a good sign that they’re close to ready. If you see that happening, pull a few and check. Look for rounded, filled-out roots that match the variety description. If you have very soft soil, you may be able to pull your root veggies straight out by the tops without damaging them, but if you’re not quite so lucky, using a garden fork to loosen the soil around the roots can help. Put the fork in the ground a few inches away from the roots, and rock it backwards, lifting the soil under the roots up. A few other pointers: Keep in mind that a light frost will make most root vegetables taste sweeter, but none of them will tolerate having their roots frozen, so make sure they are either harvested or protected with row cover before a hard freeze arrives. It’s also a good idea to water your root crops the day before harvesting, to make sure they have maximum juicy crunch. And, if you don’t plan to use the roots right away, cut the tops off - the green tops will keep taking sugars and moisture from the root to stay alive, shortening the shelf life of the root.
How to Harvest Potatoes
Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in mid-late summer. If you intend to store your potatoes for the winter, wait until 2-3 weeks after the plants start to turn yellow and die back. If you plan to use your potatoes right away, you can start harvesting new potatoes 2 weeks after the plants are done flowering. New potatoes are not fully mature and have very thin skin, so they will not keep very long. Use a shovel or garden fork to carefully dig and lift the soil around the potato plant, taking care not to damage any tubers. If you do hit a few with the digging tool, eat those right away! They’re likely to rot in storage. If you’re harvesting potatoes for storage, don’t wash them, just brush most of the dirt off. Too much moisture invites rot. Cure your storage potatoes somewhere dark, dry and cool for two weeks, then move them somewhere cool with high humidity and good air circulation. Note: this can be a difficult environment to achieve without a root cellar. For this reason, many home gardeners choose to just enjoy new potatoes harvested a few at a time throughout the summer, rather than attempting a larger storage crop. However you choose to enjoy your potatoes, be careful to never leave them out in the sun very long after digging them. They’ll turn green amazingly quickly, and green potatoes are bitter tasting, and can actually make you sick. Small green spots can be cut off, but never eat a really green potato!
How to Harvest Beans and Southern Peas
There are three possible stages of bean maturity: snap, shelling, and dried. Most varieties are good at one or two of those stages, though a few can be delicious at all three. Southern peas (aka cowpeas, which are not beans but are harvested and used similarly) are picked either at shelling or dry stage. The variety description will tell you what that stage(s) you’re looking for. Beans are usually easy to just snap off the plant with your hands at any stage.
Snap beans: For snap beans, aka green beans, begin checking for ripeness at the expected days to maturity, and look for beans that are long and plump, but not filled out so you can clearly see each individual seed. Some old-fashioned string beans break this rule a bit - they tend to look a little lumpy even at the ideal picking stage. Just experiment a little with picking them at different sizes to see what you like best. All snap beans will eventually get too stringy, tough, and starchy when left on the vine too long.
Shelling beans: Southern peas, and many beans that are called “drying beans” will also taste good as “shellies.” This means the beans (or peas) are left on the plant until they have completely filled out and matured, but have not dried down yet. To enjoy your beans this way, pick the pods, empty the beans out of the pods into a container, and then discard the pods, which will be too tough and stringy to eat. Shelled beans should be cooked immediately or refrigerated - they won’t keep for a long time.
Drying beans: To harvest dry beans or Southern peas, wait to pick until the pods turn yellow and become crunchy-dry. If you live in a place with a dry climate, beans will easily dry down outdoors on the plants. If you expect quite a bit of rain during the late summer or early fall after the pods are mature, it may be best to bring them inside as soon as they turn yellow, and dry them down indoors on screens or newspaper with a fan blowing on them. Use the “hammer test” to be sure your beans are totally dry - a dry bean will shatter and not squish when hit with a hammer. Dry beans will keep for months if stored in an airtight container in a dark location.
How to Harvest Sweet Corn
The cue to harvest sweet corn is when the silks on each ear start to turn brown. When you see that happening, pick an ear that appears ripe by pulling downward and twisting. Pull back the husk and puncture a kernel with your fingernail. If you see milky white juice, the corn is perfectly ripe! If the juice is clear, it’s not quite ready yet. If there’s no juice, you’ve left it on the stalk too long. The harvest window for sweet corn is just a few days, so you’ll want to check often once the ears start getting close to ready, which usually happens about 20 days after the silks first appear. Eat your sweet corn as soon as possible after harvest - it starts gradually losing its sweetness as soon as it’s picked!
How to Harvest Tomatoes
It’s usually easy to tell when tomatoes are ripe by their red color (or yellow, or pink, depending on the variety. For green-when-ripe varieties, go by size and feel - the fruit should be full-sized and have a little give when gently squeezed. Large tomatoes should be cut off the vine with clippers, but cherry tomatoes can often be picked by hand. Tomatoes taste best when left to fully ripen on the vine, but there can be good reasons to pull them just a bit early and ripen them on a windowsill - for example, if some fruits are nearly ripe and you expect a hard rain that might cause them to crack, or to save them from a marauding critter in your garden who knows when a tomato is perfectly ripe as well as you do! If your tomatoes are very soft or taste watery, you may have left them on the vine too long.
How to Harvest Peppers
Harvesting peppers is easy! Most peppers have a forgiving harvest window. Many varieties taste good green or fully ripe, so it’s mostly a matter of picking at the size and maturity you prefer. Just experiment! Usually, when a pepper starts to turn yellow or red it’s as big as it’s going to get. Always harvest with garden shears or a sharp knife - pepper stems tend to be tough and it’s easy to damage the plant trying to pull them off by hand.
How to Harvest Eggplant
Learning when to pick eggplant takes a little bit of practice - the cues are subtle. Mature eggplant will be just full-sized (check the variety description), and the skin will turn glossy. The fruit should have just a little give when gently squeezed. Cut the stem about a half inch above the cap with pruners or a knife. To check your work, cut the fruit open. A perfectly ripe eggplant will be cream colored inside, and have thin skin and nearly invisible seeds. If the skin is tough or you find hard seeds inside, you’ve left it on the plant too long. Once you pick a few eggplants and check inside, you’ll get a feel for when they’re at the right stage. Picking early and often encourages more fruit production anyway, so don’t let them languish on the plant! Some people find eggplant leaves and stems irritating to the skin, so you might want to wear gloves and long sleeves while you harvest.
Harvesting Summer Squash and Cucumbers
These are two different plants, but the principles of harvesting them are very similar! Both are crops that can go from perfectly ripe to overripe seemingly in the blink of an eye. When your squash or cucumbers start flowering, watch carefully. The fruits will grow incredibly fast. The window of harvest at the perfect size is usually about 24 hours. As for what the optimal size is, consult the variety description, and experiment a little. For most zucchini and yellow squash, the best size is around 6 to 8 inches long. For pickling cukes, it’s usually around 4-5 inches, but some slicers can stay tender up to 12 inches or more. If you find your cucumbers or squash are tough-skinned, and have large seeds or spongy flesh, you’ll know they’ve gone past their prime and you should harvest them smaller. Always clip off squash and cucumbers with clippers. It’s easy to damage the top of the fruit if you try to pull them off by hand. Both plants tend to be prickly and a bit irritating, so wearing gloves and long sleeves while harvesting is a good idea.
How to Harvest Okra
Okra is another vegetable with a very short optimal harvest window! Once you start seeing blossoms on your plants, check them every day. In hot summer weather, okra will go from being a tiny nub to a full sized fruit in just a day or two. For most okra varieties, you’re looking for pods that are 2-4 inches long - any bigger, and they’ll be stringy and tough. Some varieties, like Perkins Long Pod and Kibler Family, are exceptions that can stay tender at a larger size, so test a few at different sizes early in the season to see what’s best. Usually, you can snap okra off the plant easily with your hand. The plants can be spiny and irritating however, so wearing long sleeves and gloves is a good idea. In fact, many old-fashioned heirloom okras actually have tiny, fiberglass-like spines on the cap of each fruit, so gloves are a very good idea if you’re growing one of those kinds! The spines are easily gotten rid of by slicing off the cap, or rubbing the fruit with a soft vegetable brush under running water.
How to Harvest Melons and Watermelon
There’s a lot of angst among gardeners about melon harvesting. They take so long to mature, and then each vine produces just a few fruits - they’re like precious gems, and we hate to miss the perfect harvest time for a single one! There are several fairly reliable signs of melon ripeness to advise us, however. First, look for mature color. For smooth-skinned muskmelons like Honeydew, it’s usually creamy-yellowish. For netted melons, the skin usually turns more warm yellow while the netting turns gray-brown. For watermelons, gently lift them up and look underneath. The “ground spot” (where the melon has received no sun) will be creamy yellow. If you’re seeing mature color, check the stem. If it’s beginning to turn brown or dry out, the melon is probably ready to go. A ripe melon should easily separate, or “slip,” from the vine with a gentle pull. Use your nose too! A ripe melon will smell delicious, like it’s inviting you to eat it. Another tip: when the first melons start to get ripe, cut back watering to just enough to keep the plants from wilting - the melons will taste sweeter.
Harvesting Winter Squash and Pumpkins
The cues for harvesting winter squash and pumpkins are similar to those for melons. Pay attention to the days to maturity listed on the seed packet, and start checking for ripeness at that point. Most pumpkins and winter squash take about 50 days from fruit set (when the baby fruit first appears after the blossom is pollinated) to mature. Look for mature color, and a hard rind. The fruit should sound a bit hollow when tapped with your hand. The stem may also begin to look dried out. You can also usually rely on the fingernail test. When you press your fingernail into the skin of a mature squash, the skin should dent but not break. This is an indication of the loss of its youthful glow that means it’s harvest time. When your squash or pumpkins are ready, cut the stems with pruners, leaving about 2 inches of stem attached to the fruit. Then, leave them outdoors in the sun for one to two weeks to cure, before bringing them inside for storage. The curing period allows the stems to dry out and the rinds to harden. Frost-damaged squash and pumpkins will not store very long, so make sure to get them inside before a freeze, even if they haven’t finished curing. To store your harvest, lay your squash out in a single layer to allow airflow between the fruits, and eat any damaged ones first, to prevent rot. Another pro tip: if you’re getting close to your expected first frost and many of your squashes are not ripe, cut the growing vine ends back to where the first fruits are. This will cause the plant to focus its energy on ripening the existing fruits, rather than continuing to create leaves and set more fruit.
How to Harvest Sweet Potatoes
Most sweet potatoes are ready around 100 days after planting, in late summer to fall. If you see the leaves start to yellow late in the season, the tubers are definitely ready, but in some climates this may not happen. The main thing is to get them dug before frost, and when there is enough warm weather left to get them cured. It’ll be easiest to harvest if you cut off the vines first, so you can find the crown of each plant. Loosen the soil around each plant with a shovel or garden fork, then grab the crown and pull the tubers up. Brush the dirt off the tubers (never wash them with water before storage - it just invites rot), then leave them somewhere very warm and humid for about two weeks to cure. Most gardeners cure their sweet potatoes on a table outside in the shade. Then, store your sweet potatoes in a cool and humid environment like a root cellar. Some people like to wrap each sweet potato in newspaper to keep them separated from each other during storage and encourage good air circulation.
Written by Leah Smith