In summer, the eating is easy. Step out to the garden, pick a few fresh plants and get ready for a mouthwatering dinner. But this time of year, it can also feel overwhelming to keep up with the harvest and to make good use of all the bounty our gardens are producing. This plant-by-plant guide will help you determine the best time and methods to harvest the most popular garden vegetables—and what to do to preserve your produce so none of your gardening effort goes to waste.
Harvesting Carrots: Carrots become sweeter in the fall, when soil temperatures cool down. In some climates, gardeners leave carrots in the ground through winter, but it is safest to harvest them before hard freezes become common.
Storing Carrots: After pulling or digging carrots, trim tops back to ½ inch, wash gently in cool water and pat dry. Refrigerate carrots in plastic bags, or pack them in damp sand in a sealed container and store in a cold basement, garage or root cellar. Carrots also can be blanched—quickly dunked in boiling water, then cooled in an ice bath—and frozen.
Harvesting Garlic: Garlic cloves planted in late fall or early spring grow into upright plants with a new garlic bulb at their base. When the plants are about 60 percent green, with fewer than six leaves still green and healthy, loosen the soil with a digging fork and then pull plants.
Storing Garlic: Cure freshly pulled garlic by setting it in a warm (80 degrees or warmer), well-ventilated place for at least two weeks. Trim back tops to 4 inches and clip off the roots, and then cure another week. Before storing cured garlic, trim tops to 1 inch and remove only the dirtiest outer wrappers from the bulbs. Store garlic in boxes or mesh bags in a cool place with moderate humidity, such as a cool basement.
Harvesting Green Beans: Pick crisp, tender pods that haven’t yet begun to develop tough pod strings.
Storing Green Beans: Cool down picked beans by rinsing them in cool water. Pat dry with clean kitchen towels and store in the refrigerator for up to five days. Freezing is the easiest way to preserve green beans: Cut beans to the size you like, blanch them in steam or boiling water until they are just done, cool them over ice and stash them in the freezer. If desired, include freshly picked herbs such as basil or thyme. Pickled green beans can be canned in a water-bath or steam canner, but regular canned green beans require a pressure canner. Sturdy pole beans that are just beginning to show bumps from seeds growing inside are the best green beans for canning.
Harvesting Peppers: Peppers that ripen to their mature color (red, orange or yellow) are sweeter and more nutritious than green peppers. Use a knife or pruning shears to harvest peppers with their green caps attached as soon as they show stripes of their mature colors. Allow peppers to continue ripening in the open in a warm room for a few days, until they reach their mature color.
Storing Peppers: Extra peppers can be chopped and frozen raw, or you can steam-blanch halves or quarters of large peppers, and freeze them for making stuffed peppers in winter. Many cooks also like to grill peppers before storing them in freezer bags.
Harvesting Potatoes: Small new potatoes can be gently taken from beneath plants that have become leggy and just begun to die back. Larger, storage-quality potatoes are ready to harvest when the stems and leaves become withered.
Storing Potatoes: Handle harvested potatoes gently and protect them from exposure to sun. Wash only to remove clods of soil, and cure in a cool, dark, moist place (55 to 60 degrees) for two to three weeks. Store potatoes in closed boxes or cloth-covered baskets in a cool place with moderate humidity, such as a cool basement or garage.
Harvesting Leafy Greens: Dark leafy greens including arugula, chard, collards, kale, mustard, spinach and turnip greens taste sweeter after they have been exposed to frost. Greens can be picked leaf by leaf when they are the size of your hand. By gathering three or four leaves from each plant, new leaves continue to grow from the plants’ centers.
Storing Leafy Greens: Keep washed greens in plastic bags in the refrigerator. All dark leafy greens can be blanched and frozen to give a nutritious boost to soups and casseroles.
Harvesting Onions: Soon after onions form bulbs at the soil’s surface, their necks weaken so that the tops fall over. When half of the tops are dead or have fallen over, onions are ready to pull.
Storing Onions: Gently shake off soil, and lay out onions to cure in a warm (80 degrees or warmer), shady, well-ventilated place (for example, a storage shed or parked vehicle) for a week. Trim back tops to 2 inches and clip off roots, then cure two weeks more. Trim again before storing. Store cured onions in boxes or mesh bags in a cool place with moderate humidity, such as a cool basement or garage.
Harvesting Summer Squash: All types of summer squash, including yellow squash, zucchini and patty pan squash, should be picked young, while the rinds are quite tender. Use a knife to cut squash with a cap of stem attached, and immediately wash and refrigerate.
Storing Summer Squash: Excess squash can be blanched and frozen, or you can grill sliced summer squash before freezing it. For extra flavor and color, include fresh chopped herbs and bits of carrot, pepper or other bright veggies in your packages of frozen squash. Thaw, drain and add a sauce and a topping, and you have a delicious winter casserole.
Harvesting Sweet Corn: One of the finest crops of summer, sweet corn is ripe when the ears feel hard and well-filled when squeezed, and a test ear tastes sweet and tender when sampled raw.
Storing Sweet Corn: Immediately chill sweet corn in the fridge to slow the conversion of sugars to starch. You can blanch and freeze whole ears, or save freezer space by removing the kernels from the ears first. If you cut the kernels from raw ears (and run a spoon down the cob to push out the sweet milk), and bring the mixture to a simmer before freezing it, the result will resemble creamed corn. Cooking the ears before you cut off the kernels will give you whole kernel corn for freezing.
Harvesting Tomatoes: Allow tomatoes to ripen on the vine until they’re bright red and firm to the touch. When night temperatures drop below 55 degrees, harvest all of your remaining tomatoes. Partially ripe tomatoes will continue to change color when kept at warm room temperatures. Green tomatoes are excellent pickled.
Storing Tomatoes: Never refrigerate tomatoes, as it reduces flavor and stops the ripening process. Before the first fall frost, gather green tomatoes that have turned a lighter shade of green for frying or pickling. Tomatoes can be frozen, canned or dried. Many gardeners use their tomatoes to make freezable batches of marinara sauce, infused with summer herbs and veggies.
Winter squash and pumpkins
Harvesting Winter Squash and Pumpkins: Allow winter squash and pumpkins to ripen until the rinds are hard and the vines have begun dying back. Cut ripe fruits from the vine, leaving a short stub of stem attached, and wipe with a damp cloth to remove soil.
Storing Winter Squash and Pumpkins: Cure winter squash and pumpkins in a warm, well-ventilated room for two weeks, during which time the rinds will harden even more. Store on shelves in a cool place with moderate humidity, such as a basement or garage.
Barbara Pleasant’s many writing accolades include two Quill and Trowel Awards from the Garden Writers Association.