It’s that glorious time of year when most of our gardens are at their peak, pumping out fresh produce as fast as we can eat it. After all the work you’ve put into planning, planting and growing your garden crops, you don’t want to stymie maximum production by harvesting too soon or too late—veggies taste best and are most nutritious when harvested at the height of their natural wonderfulness. Read on for a crop-by-crop guide to how and when to harvest your produce for the tastiest food and most productive plants ever.
Beans: Check daily—vital, as beans grow quickly; pick snap/green beans when pods are full and firm with pliable tips but seeds are tiny, usually two to four weeks after bloom; pick haricot (French filet) types when tender, young pods are about 1/8 inch.
Beets: Pick standard varieties when roots are 1-1/2 to 3 inches in diameter and about the size of a golf ball; white and golden varieties stay tender until they’re the size of a baseball; storage (winter-keeping) varieties remain tender until softball-size; beets harvested past their prime have a strong taste and tough texture.
Broccoli: Harvest when buds are tight and before florets begin opening flowers; for your first harvest, cut the central stalk at a slant 5 to 6 inches below the base of the head, which prevents rot and encourages production of new side shoots.
Cabbage: Begin harvesting anytime after heads become solid and firm; larger heads are more likely to split—split heads are still tasty but won’t store well.
Cantaloupes: Harvest when the “netting” that overlays skin becomes more pronounced and the melon separates easily from the vine.
Carrots: Harvest over a long period of time, beginning when roots are deeply colored and 1⁄2 to 1 inch in diameter and continuing until ground freezes; carefully dig carrots, don’t pull them from the ground unless they come up easily; both younger and older carrots have their virtues—texture is best in young carrots, while sugars increase in older carrots.
Cauliflower: Best when heads are 6 to 8 inches and firm with solid curds; heads are lower in quality after curds open (they resemble rice grains).
Corn: When silks begin to dry and brown, around 20 days after silk first appears, peel back husk and pierce a kernel with your thumbnail—if milky juice comes out, the corn is ready; snap off ears by pulling downward, then twisting.
Cucumbers: Check daily; to use fresh, pick cucumbers that are juicy and 6 to 9 inches long; for sweet pickles, harvest cucumbers 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches long; for dill pickles, ideal length is 3 to 4 inches.
Eggplant: Overripe eggplant is bitter; harvest young fruit when it’s firm and 4 to 8 inches long; use scissors or shears to cut stems at an angle (pulling injures it).
Honeydew-type melons: Pick when melons soften and give slightly to pressure on blossom end and tendril closest to the fruit turns brown; cut from vine.
Leeks: Pull from the ground anytime after stem is at least 1 inch in diameter; harvest small for the most delicate flavor; cut off roots and most of the top green portion before refrigerating (use green part in soup stock); many varieties overwinter in mild climates and remain harvestable into March.
Lettuce (butterheads, romaines and crispheads): Harvest when head begins to form, but before center begins to elongate, which means the plant is preparing to flower and will become bitter.
Lettuce (loose-leaf): Most lettuces can be picked when leaves are tiny or larger; pick outer leaves as needed.
Okra: Always pick young; harvest short-pod varieties at 2 to 3 inches long and long-pod types at 6 to 8 inches long; tips of tender pods will snap, but those on older pods won’t because the tip turns fibrous—check pods daily as they can go from prime to pitiful in 24 hours.
Onions: Harvest in two stages: as green scallions and as bulbs; green onions are best when tops are 6 to 8 inches tall and stems are pencil-thick; for maximum bulb size, wait until more than half the tops have fallen, then push over the remaining tops; a week later, harvest bulbs and set them in the sun for a day or two (cover at night); cure following the instructions in “How to Cure” later in this article.
Peas (garden and shell): Harvest and shell when pods are bright and fully filled; peas should be sweet, plump and tender.
Peas (snap and snow): Harvest in early morning or early evening when plump and well-colored but not as fully filled as garden peas; pick before pods fill out, while still young, tender and thin.
Peppers: Harvest anytime in the immature green stage—the more you pick, the more the plant will produce; for a fully flavored sweet pepper, wait until it changes to its mature color (hot peppers also usually take on more flavor when their color changes).
Potatoes: Potato tops die down about two weeks before they’re ready to harvest; dig at any time after or leave them in the ground longer—dig them before frost or rain sets in; dig tubers with a spading fork and allow to dry for a few hours in the sun, then cure and store following the instructions in “How to Cure” later in this article.
Summer squash (straightneck and crookneck zucchini): Don’t let squash get too big or the plant’s production will falter; harvest while skins are tender and fruits are 4 to 8 inches long.
Summer Squash (patty pan varieties): Harvest small, when fruits are 3 inches in diameter or smaller.
Tomatoes: Pick between semifirm and semisoft stages, when fruits are fully colored (whether red, orange, pink, purple or white); if temperatures are too hot or frost threatens, pick fruits a few days early and ripen indoors; tomatoes are best stored at temperatures higher than 50 degrees—never in the refrigerator.
Watermelons: Pick when fruit’s surface loses its gloss, the side touching the ground changes from white to creamy yellow, and the tendril turns brown and begins to shrivel.
Plant Now for Autumn Joy
Brussels sprouts, kale and winter squash all taste best after they’ve seen a couple of frosts. Get them in the ground now, and they’ll be ready for harvest at Halloween, Thanksgiving and beyond.
• Brussels sprouts: Sprouts sweeten after going through a couple of frosts; buds at the base mature first so pick from the bottom up; sprouts should be firm and 1 inch in diameter; to encourage larger sprouts, cut plant top back by about 4 inches four weeks before you’ll begin harvesting.
• Kale: Harvest about 40 days after planting and after a frost, which sweetens the flavor; pinch off outer leaves as needed.
• Winter squash: Fully ripe fruit’s skin should resist puncture from your thumbnail and have a hard stem and deepened skin color (spaghetti squash turns mellow golden yellow; butternut deepens to a subtle orange-tan; and a splotch of orange-yellow often appears on the underside of acorn, delicata and buttercup types); harvest after the first light frost but before a hard frost; never handle squash by the stem (fruits rot after the stem breaks); cut—don’t pull—squash from the vine, and leave 2 inches of the stem attached; wipe off any dirt but don’t get the fruits wet; cure and store following instructions in “How to Cure” later in this article.
How to Cure
Onions, potatoes and winter squash are crops that store well all winter when properly cured—which means they are left to sit in a dry, warm and sheltered area for a week or two before storing. Good locations for curing might be a box in a dry basement or garage, or simply covered on a dry porch. Use the following advice for curing these pantry must-haves.
• Onions: After harvesting bulbs, set them in the sun for a day or two (cover at night). Next, cure bulbs with tops intact for about a week in a sheltered, dry area; during this time, the outer layers form a dry skin. After that, cut tops about an inch above the bulbs, trim off roots and store onions in a well-ventilated, dry, cool (ideal is 35 to 40 degrees) and dark location for up to a year.
• Potatoes: After digging potatoes, allow them to dry for a few hours in the sun, then cure them for about two weeks at 50 to 60 degrees under shelter in a well-ventilated, high-humidity area. After they are cured, potatoes store best at 35 to 40 degrees, but keep well for several months even at 50 degrees.
• Winter squash: Cure fruits in a warm place (80 to 85 degrees is ideal) for a couple of weeks. Once cured, store in a cool, dry location at 50 to 55 degrees for up to four months.
Kris Wetherbee is a garden writer and public speaker. Visit her website.