Navigate to Storefront > My Themes
  Loading... Please wait...


Harvesting Your Garden Bounty For Peak Flavor

Oct 10th, 2011 | By Esther |

You’ve planted your garden, tended the seedlings, defended the plants from pests, and now you have a garden full of bounty. Now you need to learn how to harvest and store what you’ve grown. Each vegetable grows at its own rate and has its own harvest time. Let’s go through the basics of how to harvest and store common garden vegetables.

The best way to test for maturity is to taste test, but there are a few easy guidelines for judging when vegetables are ready for picking without eating all of them. Great flavor isn’t just a matter of color and size—it is the proper combination of soil, sun, and water that makes or breaks your garden’s performance. To assure the best flavor and texture, most vegetables are picked just prior to maturity.

Note: Some vegetables need to be harvested before first frost. Others may need freezing temperatures to complete the ripening process.

  • Frost can occur at temperatures between 32-36 degrees Fahrenheit. A light freeze is temperatures between 28-31 degrees, a moderate freeze is between 24-28 degrees, and severe freeze is below 24 degrees.
  • Some root crops may be left in the ground through winter, if covered with “heavy” mulch—one to two feet of hay or other organic material.
  • Some vegetables need to be cured before winter storage. To do this, expose them to warm, dry air so that the skins harden and protect the cores from rotting.

Use the following guidelines set forth to judge if your garden is harvest-ready.


  • Asparagus – Asparagus is best harvested young and  tender. Cut when your spears are six to eight inches tall and about as big around as your pinkie. Some like to snap them off at ground level, but I  like to use a stainless steel, straight-bladed knife. Cut on a diagonal, severing the stalks just below the soil level.
  • Snap Beans – Pick beans before the seeds begin to bulge. They will easily snap in two when ready. Be sure to check on them  daily, as it won’t take long for them to go from tender to tough.
  • Broad or Lima Beans – Pick when pods are full but before they yellow. For tender limas, harvest slightly immature; for meaty beans, wait for full maturity.
  • Beets – Greens can be harvested from beets you thin out of the rows. Harvesting the beets is truly a matter of size preference. You can begin when their shoulders protrude from soil line. Spring beets should be pulled before weather turns hot (late June to early July).  Winter beets should be harvested before first moderate freeze.
  • Broccoli – Broccoli is eaten before the flower buds  open. Check the heads frequently, especially when weather begins to warm.  This will ensure harvest before blooms open. Homegrown broccoli is smaller than store-bought varieties, so don’t look for yours to be large. Cut heads  six to eight inches below flower buds. Side heads will come on after main  head is removed.
  • Brussels Sprouts – Sprouts mature from the bottom up.  Begin harvesting when they are an inch or more in diameter. Remove them  from the stalk by twisting off or cutting from stem.
  • Cabbage – When heads feel solid to a gentle squeeze,  cut from the stalk. Cabbage must be harvested at maturity, as it continues to grow and will split open.
  • Carrots – These may be hard to judge. Carrot tops will begin to show at the soil line. This will allow you to judge when the  diameter is right. Most likely if the diameter looks good, the length will be fine. Pull one to judge and harvest accordingly. Carrots may be left in the ground once mature, as it is said that a light frost sweetens flavor.
  • Cantaloupe (Muskmelon) – The color should change to beige, and melons will slip from the vine when lifted.
  • Cauliflower – Like broccoli, homegrown cauliflower won’t be as large as store-bought varieties. Cut from the stalk when the  heads look full and the curds of the head are still smooth.
  • Corn – About three weeks after silks appear they will turn brown and dull. Kernels should spill a milky substance when pricked.
  • Cucumbers – These will race with zucchini to harvest.  Check daily and pick while young and tender. Timing and size will be different according to variety. Cucumbers should be firm and smooth. If allowed to over-ripen, they can become pithy and bitter, even before turning yellow.
  • Eggplant – Eggplant taste best if picked slightly immature. They should be firm, smooth, and shiny. Cut them, rather than pulling them from plants.
  • Garlic – Tops will droop and start to brown when bulbs are ready to dig. Dig them; don’t pull out of the ground. Brush, rather than wash off the dirt, and allow bulbs to dry before storing. Braid the  tops before they are dried out and then hang the garlic to dry the bulbs.
  • Kale– Leaves can be gathered throughout the summer.  Leaves should be deep green. Kale’s flavor is best in cool weather.
  • Kohlrabi – The texture is best when bulbs are harvested  at two to three inches in diameter. Bulbs become tough as they grow and age. Cut off at ground level.
  • Leeks – Dig leeks when they are about an inch in diameter.
  • Head Lettuce – Cut heads when they are full and firm when gently squeezed. Hot weather will cause lettuce to bolt or go to seed instead of filling out.
  • Leaf Lettuce – Cut outer leaves when plants reach four to six inches high. Allow inner leaves to continue growing for later harvest. Leaf lettuce can be harvested like this most of the summer.
  • Onions – Onions can be dug when tops fall over and begin to brown. Allow onions to dry in the sun or braid and hang to dry like garlic.
  • Parsnips – Parsnips taste better when left in the ground until after a frost or two. They can also be allowed to “winter      over” in the ground and dug in the spring. In cold areas, apply a heavy layer of mulch as directed above.
  • Peas – Pods should look and feel full. Peas are sweeter when harvested before fully plumped and should be tasted to know if they are sweet enough.
  • Potatoes – New potatoes can be dug when tops begin to flower. Carefully dig outer edges of the rows. Full-size potatoes should be dug when tops are dried out and brown. Dig from the outside perimeter, moving in cautiously to avoid cutting potatoes.
  • Pumpkins –When pumpkins are the expected color and vines are declining, check the skin for cracking with a fingernail. If it doesn’t crack, it is ready. Picking too soon will halt coloring, so let them lay in the patch until just before first frost.
  • Radishes – Radishes mature rapidly. When shoulders show above soil line, they are ready to dig. When left too long, they will toughen and then go to seed.
  • Swiss Chard – See leaf lettuce above.
  • Spinach – This green goes to seed quickly. Harvest by cutting at the soil line before flower stalks appear.
  • Summer Squash – Pick young and check often. Skins should be tender, cutting with your fingernail.
  • Winter Squash– Color is a good indicator of maturity.  When it is the right color, cut squashes from the vine. Don’t expose to frost.
  • Tomatoes – Harvest tomatoes when they are fully colored  and slightly soft to the touch. Gently pull and twist from vine.
  • Turnips – Shoulders should be two to two and a half inches in diameter at soil line when ripe. Harvest right away, as overripe turnips become woody.
  • Watermelon – The spot on the flower end of the melon should change to a deep yellow when ripe. Some can hear a change in the sound made when thumped with a finger. It should sound hollow when ripe.  (This skill needs to be developed, so don’t rely on it too much if you are a novice.)

Happy harvesting!

©2011 Off the Grid News


Harvesting Vegetables


James C. Schmidt

One of the most important phases of vegetable gardening involves knowing when to harvest the produce. The quality of vegetables does not improve after harvest so it is important to gather the crops at the proper maturity when they are at their peak for flavor and nutrition. Garden produce picked too soon is too tender, and lacks substance and flavor. Picked too late, it is likely to be tough, fibrous or mushy, and also lacking in taste.

The time for harvesting varies with climate, the particular season, the variety, and the vegetables involved. For instance, tomatoes can be left on the vine until fully ripened or taken off when partially ripened. Other crops such as winter squash and watermelon are not ready until after they are fully developed.

The ''days to maturity'' listings on seed packets and in gardening books and seed catalogs are helpful. But many variables involving these figures are given in general terms, so the numbers should be used only as guidelines. Some suggestions for harvesting common vegetables at the time they provide the most delicious eating follow.

Check the garden frequently for ripe produce during harvest time. Vegetables continue to grow. Before long, they may be overgrown. When harvesting, avoid bruising or damaging the vegetables which causes decay.


Asparagus can be harvested the third year after planting crowns, but do not harvest for more than one month the first time. In the following years, the spears may be harvested in May and June. Harvest spears 5 to 8 inches tall by cutting them or snapping them off. Cutting may damage some spear tips that have not yet emerged from the ground. To snap a spear, bend it from the top toward the ground. Asparagus deteriorates rapidly after harvest. If it is not eaten immediately, it should be processed or refrigerated.


Harvest beets when they are 1 1/4 to 2 inches in diameter. The beet tops can also be eaten as greens. The leaves should be 4 to 6 inches long.


Cut broccoli when the buds are compact but before they turn yellow or open into flowers. Leave 5 to 6 inches of stem attached. Side shoots that develop in the axils of the leaves can also be used.


The small sprouts may be picked or cut when they are firm and about 1 inch in diameter. Pick the lower sprouts as soon as they are large enough for use. Lower leaves may be removed to allow more room for sprouts to develop.


Cut the heads when they are solid, but before they crack or split. In addition to harvesting the mature heads, you can harvest a later crop of small heads or sprouts that develop on the stumps of the cut stems. The sprouts will be 2 to 4 inches in diameter and should be picked when they are firm.


Carrots are ready for use when they are young, crisp, and 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. The sugar content is higher in mature carrots, but the younger ones are more tender. Carrots planted in the summer may be left in the ground until a killing frost. A straw mulch can be placed over the row so that the carrots can be harvested until the ground freezes solid.


Harvest before the heads become over mature.' The heads should be compact, firm, and white. To keep the head white, tie the outer leaves together over the center of the plant when the head begins to form. Cauliflower will grow 6 to 8 inches in diameter and is ready for harvest 7 to 12 days after blanching.


Use the leaves as they become 8 to 10 inches long while they are still young and tender. New leaves will continue to grow from the center of the plant.


Pick corn when the silk turns dark and starts to shrivel. The kernels should be bright, plump, and milky. This stage occurs about 20 days after the appearance of the first silk strands. To harvest, snap off the ears by hand with a quick, firm, downward push; then twist and pull. Corn is at its prime eating quality for only 72 hours before becoming over mature.


Cucumbers may be picked when they are 2 inches long or less for pickles, 4 to 6 inches for dills, and 6 to 8 inches for slicing varieties. A cucumber is at its highest quality when it is uniformly dark green, firm, and crisp. Cucumbers are past their prime if they are large, dull, puffy, and yellow. Remove old fruits from the vine so that young fruits will develop.


Harvest eggplant when the fruits are 6 to 8 inches long, glossy, and have a uniformly deep color. The fruits are over mature when they become dull, soft, and seedy. Use a knife or pruning shears to cut the fruit off the plant. Leave the green calyx attached to the fruit.


Break off the outer leaves as they become 8 to 10 inches long. New leaves will continue to grow from the center of each plant.


Harvest in late summer and fall by loosening the soil with a spading fork and pulling out the plant. Cut off the roots and all but 2 inches of the green leaves.


Leaf lettuce reaches maximum size in 50 to 60 days. Cut or pull the outer leaves (4 to 6 inches long) as you can use them. Butterhead varieties form small, loose heads that are ready in 60 to 70 days.


They develop their best flavor when they ripen in warm, dry weather. As the melon ripens, the stem separates readily from the fruit. After harvesting, the fruit can be held at room temperature for 1 to 3 days until the blossom end softens.


The okra pods should be harvested while they are immature and still tender (2 to 3 inches long). The large pods become tough and woody. The pods must be picked at least every other day if you want the plants to remain productive.


Green onions may be harvested when the tops are 6 inches high and the stem is the thickness of a pencil. Harvest dry onions in late July or early August after most of the tops have fallen down. Allow the bulbs to air dry for a day or two after digging. Then they can be stored in a dry shelter on slats or screens, or hung in small bunches. Complete drying or curing takes 2 to 3 weeks. After curing, the tops should be cut 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. Place the bulbs in dry storage with good air circulation.


Pick them when the pod is full and green and the peas are still tender and sweet. Test for maturity frequently by picking a couple of pods and examining them for firmness. Harvest the Chinese and snow peas, which are eaten pod and all, when the pods are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and the peas are about the size of BB's. The pods are usually picked 5 to 7 days after flowering.


Fruits may be harvested at any size, but they are usually picked when they are full grown and mature. They may be left on the plant to ripen fully to a red or yellow color, in which case they will be mellower and sweeter. Hot peppers, except Jalapeno (which remains green when ripe), are usually harvested at the red ripe stage.


Allow them to ripen fully on the vine, but pick them before the first heavy freeze. The fruit should have a deep)solid color and a hard rind. Cut pumpkins from the vine, leaving 3 to 4 inches of the stem attached. Pumpkins without stems do not store well. Store in a cool, dry area (50 to 55 degrees F).


For the best flavor, start thinning and eating radishes when they are the size of marbles. They will be good up to 1 inch in diameter. After that, they may become hot and pithy.


Spinach may be harvested from the time the plants have 6 to 8 leaves until the seed stalk develops. For the best quality, cut while young. Cut the entire plant off at the soil surface.



Summer squash should be harvested while still young and tender - 6 to 8 inches in length and 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Squash grown rapidly and are usually ready to pick 4 to 8 days after flowering. Harvest winter squash when the vines have died back and the fruit has a hard ring, but before a heavy frost. Cut squash from the vines carefully, leaving 2 inches of stem attached. Avoid cuts and bruises. Store in a dry location at 50 to 55 degrees F.



During hot summer weather, pick the tomatoes when they have a healthy pink color and let them ripen indoors. Tomatoes do not need to be in the sun in order to ripen. If you have green fruit on the plants in the fall when frost is approaching, pick the tomatoes and store them in a cool, dark place to ripen.


Harvest when the roots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The tops can be used for greens when they are 4 to 6 inches long. Turnips can be left in the ground after a heavy freeze and mulched with straw for harvest during the early winter.


Use a combination of the following indicators to determine when watermelons are ripe; (1) light green, and when the curled tendril near the stem begins to shrivel and dry up; (2) the surface color of the fruit turns dull; (3) the skin is rough and resists penetration by a thumbnail; and (4) the bottom of a melon where it touches the ground turns from a light green to a yellowish color. Watermelons will not continue to ripen after harvest.