When to pick your vegetables

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Vegetable gardens are really beginning to produce our favorite fruits and vegetables. Earlier, cool weather promoted lots of foliage on our leafy greens and that gave us lots to harvest, eat, and share. Snap beans have been pretty good too. Now other crops producing fruits like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and okra are coming along. Vine crops also are really taking off, most likely finding their way well outside the boundaries of the official garden.

Local fairs or festivals having a “largest vegetable” category show us just how big that missed zucchini or summer squash can get! However, that isn’t the ideal size. But what is?

Simple guidelines on when fruits and vegetables should be harvested will give us the best produce for the dinner table. Produce harvested at the peak also will allow us the store them longer before using them. The big goal is to harvest and use them as soon as possible, enjoying the great flavors, good texture, and visual appeal.

We already know that the vine crops can quickly produce oversized fruits if we are not watching closely. Summer squash and cucumber may only take 3 to 5 days after being pollenated to be of a harvestable size, when adequate soil moisture is present. This puts them in the 4- to 6-inch length for squashes and 6- to 8-inch sizes for a slicing cucumber. If you are growing pickling types, watch closely as they are ready even faster.

Tomatoes grow quickly with good, even soil moisture. Pick them as soon as they are mature. If they are ready to pick and we get a rain, the skins can easily split. So, if you know it is going to rain or you intend to water, be sure to pick any fruits that are mature or will be mature in a couple of days. Varieties make a big difference on fruit size and color. By keeping the plant tags in the garden or readily available, it will help you know when to expect maturity.

Longer maturing vegetables, like Swiss chard, should be harvested on a regular basis all season long. Chard has some pretty good tolerance for cold weather and can used well in cold weather. Harvesting the outer leaves as you go will always give you young fresh leaves coming on. Okra is another crop that takes a while to develop and can get tall in the garden. Harvest those fruits while they are tender.

Snap beans are one of those vegetables that work well in succession plantings. Beans can be planted several times during the season in smaller shorter rows, allowing for a continued harvest through the summer. Those earlier plantings can then give way to other vegetables for the fall. Snap beans should be harvested when you can just begin to see the bean seed starting to show in the bean pod.

It is not too late to consider planting for the fall vegetable garden right now. Leaf lettuce, mustard greens, Spring radishes and spinach could still be planted. Don’t give up on the vegetables until the weather really takes them out. Eat fresh as long as you can, right up to the end.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.