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Good Growing

Harvesting garden vegetables

close up of a person holding freshly harvested onions

We’ve made it through spring, and we’re into summer. Whether you started your first garden this year or you’re a veteran gardener, we’re coming up on the heart of harvest season. One of the (many) advantages of growing your own vegetables is that you can harvest your produce at its peak quality. Knowing when exactly you should harvest something can be difficult to determine, especially if it’s your first time growing the crop.

Most vegetables are at their best when they are allowed to ripen on the plant. However, we often harvest vegetables before they are fully mature, so bigger is not always better. Plants like zucchini should be harvested before the fruit is mature. If allowed to mature (get big), the quality is significantly reduced.

When it comes time to harvest your vegetables, make sure your plants are dry. If you harvest while plants are wet, you risk spreading any diseases that may be present in your plants. It’s also important to handle your plants with care. Try to damage your plants as little as possible. Damaged areas can provide openings for diseases to enter. If the vegetables you are trying to harvest don’t easily come off, cut them off with a knife or pruners to avoid damaging the plant.

Also, make sure you frequently check your plants once they begin to produce. If you wait too long, not only can your vegetable quality be reduced, your plants may slow or stop production.

Most plants and seeds that we purchase will include information on days to maturity. This information can give you a general idea of how long it will take for your vegetables to be ready to harvest. Unfortunately, it won’t tell you when your vegetables will be ready to pick. Instead, you’ll have to take a look at your plants for different signs to see when they are ready.

Snap beans (commonly called green beans) should be picked when the pods are fully grown but before the seeds have started to get large (you shouldn’t be able to see any bulges on the pods). The beans should be crisp and snap easily. When picking, break off the stem above the cap and harvest frequently.

Beets can be harvested when they are 1 ½ to 3 inches in diameter. For many varieties, once the roots get larger than three inches, they begin to get tough and fibrous (woody). The leaves of beets can also be eaten; they should be picked when they are 4 to 6 inches long.

Broccoli heads are actually clusters of flowers. They should be harvested when the head has fully developed but before the buds begin to yellow and loosen up. When harvesting, cut the stem 5 to 6 inches below the head. Some varieties may produce secondary side shoots that can be harvested later.

Carrots can be harvested once they reach your desired size, typically ½ to 1-inch diameter (usually 60-70 days). Carrot tops may break when pulled, so digging or loosening soil may be helpful. Carrots planted in late summer and fall can be and harvested until the ground freezes.

Sweet Corn should be harvested early in the morning while in the milk stage (the juice of the kernel will be milky when punctured). At this stage, the kernels are fully formed, but not mature. As harvest time approaches, the silks will begin to dry and brown, the tip kernels will start to fill, and the ears will become firm. Ears should be eaten or processed as soon as possible after picking for the best quality.

Cucumbers should be harvested before their skin begins to turn yellow and seeds become hard. The size of the cucumber will vary depending on the type; pickling are usually picked between 2 and 6 inches long, slicing 6-8 inches long, and burpless 1-1½ inches in diameter and up to 10 inches long. Cucumbers develop quickly, so plants may need to be checked every other day.

Garlic should be harvested when half of the leaves have turned yellow (usually around late June/early July). Bulbs should be cured in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area for several weeks. Once the garlic is cured, the stems and roots can be cut off and bulbs cleaned by removing the outermost skin.

Leaf lettuce can be picked whenever it is large enough to use. The entire plant or individual outer leaves can be picked. Harvest before hot weather causes lettuce to turn bitter and bolt

Onions can be harvested as green onions when they are 6 to 8 inches tall. Begin harvesting dry onions (bulbs) when the tops begin to fall over and die (usually late July or early August). Once the bulbs are dug, air-dry for several days in a dry, sheltered area with good air circulation to thoroughly dry and cure.

Pea harvest depends on the type. Garden (English) peas are picked when pods are firm and feel full, but before pods begin to yellow and peas become hard and starchy. Snap peas should be harvested when the pods begin to fatten, but before the seeds get large. Snow peas should be harvested when the pods have reached their full length, around 3 inches, and the peas are the size of BBs.

Peppers can be harvested at any size. Green bell peppers are typically picked when they are mature (3-4 inches long, firm, and green). If you are growing colored types of bell peppers, wait until the fruits change color (red, yellow, orange, etc.). One way to tell if the fruit is mature is that they will easily break off of plants when picked. Hot peppers can also be picked at any stage but are typically picked when fully ripe (they are also at their hottest). The mature color of the fruit will vary on the variety (red, orange, yellow, etc.).

Potatoes should be harvested after most of the vines have died. Potatoes develop 4-6 inches below ground, so a shovel or spading fork may be useful. Take care not to damage potatoes while harvesting.

Sweet Potatoes are often harvested around, but before, the first frost of the fall. Dig/lift sweet potatoes with a shovel or spading fork, taking care not to cut, bruise, or damage the roots. Cure in the warmest room of the house (above 70°F) for two weeks.

Radishes should be harvested when they are about 1 inch in diameter (about 3-4 weeks after planting). Radishes become hot and tough when left in the ground too long.

Spinach leaves can be harvested when they reach 3 to 6 inches long. The entire plant or individual outer leaves can be picked.

Summer Squash, such as straightneck, crookneck, and zucchini, should be harvested when small and tender (rind can be punctured with your thumbnail). Pick when fruit are 2 inches or less in diameter and 6-8 inches long. When growing conditions are favorable, you may need to harvest every other day or daily.

Winter Squash, such as acorn, butternut, hubbard, and pumpkins, can be harvested when the fruits have turned a deep, solid color, no longer have a glossy appearance, and the rind is hard (cannot be punctured with your thumbnail). When harvesting, try to leave at least 2 inches of stem attached. Complete harvest before heavy frosts arrive.

Tomatoes are at their highest quality when allowed to ripen on the vine. Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored (red for most, but will vary depending on variety). During hot conditions (90+°F), tomatoes will quickly soften, and color development is reduced. During these conditions, pick tomatoes when they begin to develop color and ripen indoors. Before the first frost of the fall, you can harvest mature green fruit and ripen indoors.   

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Almost all vegetables are best when harvested early in the morning. If you can’t harvest in the morning, keep produce out of direct sunlight and cool as soon as possible. Vegetable quality is typically the highest at the moment of harvest and begins to decrease afterward.


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