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Vegetable & Fruit Harvest Guide

How and when to harvest & successfully store your crops

At the first of summer, we got started on how to plan and plant a vegetable garden. If you missed those articles you can read them here: How To Start A Vegetable Garden - How To Maintain A Vegetable Garden

Now that the growing season is winding down, we have the pleasure of harvesting what we have grown all summer long. Since during the fall months there are many different kinds of fruits and vegetables that can be harvested, and the list below certainly doesn't cover them all, I wanted to go over how to harvest and store some of the more popular vegetables and fruits that you probably grew this year.

Harvesting, like all gardening, isn't hard, but after putting a lot of your time and effort into successfully growing your crops, you want to make sure you are harvesting at the correct time for peak flavor and good storage. Not a problem ... the below guide will help you along!


Apples

Harvest season ranges from midsummer to late fall, depending upon the variety.

Most apples are ready to pick when they separate easily from the tree and the fruit comes off when you give it a gentle lift and twist. Another indicator is the color of the seeds in the core. When apples are ripe, the seeds turn dark brown.

If you're still in doubt, take a sample bite. An underripe apple will taste green or starchy, while ripe apples are sweet and juicy. Overripe apples get mealy.

To avoid pulling out the stem when you harvest, don't yank the apple to pick it; instead hold the apple in your hand, tilt it upward, and twist to separate it from the branch with a rotating motion.

Length of storage varies, ranging from only a few weeks to 6 months depending upon the variety. Store apples at near-freezing temperatures and at high humidity; a good root cellar for storage is ideal.


Asparagus




If you started your asparagus bed from crowns, you should be able to harvest lightly for a week or two in the spring of the second season, but waiting until the third season lets the plants establish healthy root systems.

The third year should bring a moderate harvest for 3 or 4 weeks and then heavy picking for 6 weeks or more every year thereafter.

Pick sparingly the first time - over about 2 weeks. Extend your harvest gradually in subsequent season, until you are harvesting for about 8 weeks. In more temperate climates this can last up to 12 weeks.

Always gauge the length of your harvest by the previous season's growth. Select only those spears that are thicker than a pencil; anything thinner should be allowed to grow into ferns.

Harvest spears in early spring when they are 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) tall and the tips are still firm and closed. Cut or snap the spears off at, or just below, ground level. If you opt to cut your asparagus be careful not to injure the plant crown.

When the emerging spears get progressively thinner, it's time to stop harvesting.

Asparagus is best when fresh, but you can refrigerate it for up to 1 week. Set asparagus upright in 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of water and refrigerate. Don't let the spear tips get wet, or they'll rot. Surplus asparagus freezes really well, so that is always another option.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Asparagus


Beans





You can harvest beans up until frost starts.

Snap Beans
Green, Yellow - come in both bush and pole varieties


Pods should be firm and crisp at harvest and about as thick as a pencil; they should snap when you break one in half. The seeds inside should be very small and underdeveloped, because beans are overmature if the seeds have begun to fill out the pods. Hold the stem with one hand and the pod with the other to avoid pulling off branches that will produce later pickings. You can carefully pinch the pods with your fingers or use a scissors. Pick all pods to keep plants productive.

Shell Beans
Romano, Lima, Southern Peas, Soybeans, Fava, etc. - come in both bush and pole varieties


Shell beans can also be grown as dried beans. Pick these varieties when the pods change color and the beans inside are fully formed but not dried out. Pods should be plump, firm, and tender. Quality declines if you leave them on the plant too long. Pick every couple of days to keep the plants productive.

With both shell and snap beans, you can keep the pods in plastic bags for 1 or 2 weeks in the refrigerator, or freeze the surplus.

Dried Beans
Great Northern, Navy, Pinto, etc.- come in both bush and pole varieties


Let the pods get as dry as possible in the garden, and pick pods of dry beans when they have turned brown and the seeds have hardened. You'll be able to hear the seeds rattling inside the pods. If the weather is too damp for the beans to dry, harvest the plants and hang them upside down indoors.

Pods when thoroughly dry will split readily, making seeds easy to remove. Shell the beans when they are completely dry, and place them in an airtight jar with a desiccant to absorb moisture; store in cool, dry spot for up to a year. Read this article for more about How To Save Seeds

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guides:

Growing Dried Beans
Growing Fresh Beans


Broccoli

Harvest while heads are a deep green, still compact, and before buds start to open into flowers. If the buds start to separate and the yellow petals inside start to show, harvest immediately. Cut the stem at a slant about 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) below the head. Removing the head on some varieties will produce sideshoots in the axils of leaves and you can get 4 to 6 cuttings of shoots per plant over several weeks. The thick stems are edible, but they should be peeled first. The leaves are tough, but usable in soups and stews.

When you bring your broccoli inside, soak the heads in a salt water mixture (1 to 2 tablespoons (15-30 ml) of salt per gallon (3.8 l) of water for 20-30 minutes before cooking or storing. This will drive out any cabbageworms hiding in the heads. Broccoli will keep for a week or so in the refrigerator if wrapped in plastic. The best way to store broccoli for longer periods is to blanch and freeze it.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Broccoli




Cabbage
Red and Green

Cabbage is ready to harvest when the head is full and firm. Cut the stalk at the base of the head with a sharp knife and discard the outer leaves. It's best to harvest them in the morning, when heads are cool.

After the center head has been removed, small heads may develop where the base leaves meet the stem. Let one of them grow and you'll often get another head weighing around 1 or 2 pounds (.5-.9 kg).

Keep heads in a cold, moist area, just about freezing and around 90% humidity.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Cabbage


Carrots

Carrots are generally ready for harvest in 2-3 months or when they are large enough to use.

Pull a few to check their size. Loosen the soil with a fork, and then gently pull them out of the ground. Watering before harvest can make pulling them out easier. Brush off excess soil and twist off the tops.

You can leave carrots in the ground until you need them because even mature carrots will retain their quality in the ground unless the weather gets extremely hot. After the first hard frost, but before the ground freezes, you'll want to harvest the rest of your carrots.

Refrigerate unbruised carrots or layer them in moist sand or sawdust and store them in a root cellar for up to 4 months. You can also can, freeze, or dry carrots.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Carrots


Cauliflower

Pick cauliflower when the heads are full, but before the curds begin to separate. Cut through the stem under the head, leaving a few "wrapper" leaves for protection. Curds bruise easily, so handle them with care.

Before preparing or storing cauliflower, soak it in a salt water mixture (1 to 2 tablespoons (15-30 ml) of salt per gallon (3.8 l) of water for 20-30 minutes before cooking or storing. This will drive out any cabbageworms hiding in the heads.

Cauliflower will keep for about a week in the refrigerator if wrapped in plastic. It does not store well in a root cellar. The best way to store cauliflower for longer periods is to blanch and freeze it.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Cauliflower


Corn (sweet)

Look for dark brown, soft silks (not brittle silks), and pick the ears when the kernels are plump and tender and when milky liquid comes out when you prick them with your fingernail. If the liquid is clear and watery, the corn isn't ripe yet; if there is no liquid, the kernels are too ripe and past prime.

Corn tastes best when picked in the later afternoon because of its higher sugar content. Harvest by twisting the ear off the plant in a downward direction. Because the sugar in the corn quickly converts to starch, eat or preserve the corn immediately after harvesting.

The sugar-enhanced or super-sweet varieties hold their sweetness and may be kept in the refrigerator a few days longer than standard cultivars. Freeze or can any surplus corn you may have.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Sweet Corn


Cucumber



Cucumbers mature very quickly. Pick them often so the plants continue to produce. Fruits may become oversized if left on the vine even a day too long.

Slicing Cucumbers

Can be harvested whenever they are big enough to use, but before they begin to turn orange or yellow. If your vines bear more than you can use at one time, pick them anyway because allowing them to ripen to the orange stage on the vine will cause the plant to stop producing.

With slicing cucumbers (as opposed to pickling cucumbers) keep fruits picked so that each plant has only 2 or 3 fruits growing at a time.

To pick, hold the stem with one hand and pull the fruit with the other. Harvest fruits when they are young and the seeds inside have not begun to harden.

Cucumbers contain mostly water, so the key to storing them after the harvest is to keep that water in, a reason many cucumbers in supermarkets are waxed. Wrap the fruits in plastic wrap or bag them and they'll keep a week or more in the refrigerator. The best storage temperature is 45 to 50° F (7.2-10° C).

Pickling Cucumbers

Gather pickling cucumbers when they are very young and the seeds are still quite soft, about 4 to 5 inches (10-12 cm) long. If possible, harvest fruits in the morning because they'll be at their firmest condition at this time of day, and refrigerate immediately. Don't wash them until you're ready to use them.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Cucumbers


Eggplant



The best eggplant fruits are so young that the seeds are barely visible when you cut them open and are about 4 to 5 inches (10-12 cm) long for standard varieties, a bit smaller for mini types.

The skin should be glossy and tight. If the skin is dull, that is sign the eggplant if overripe and the flesh will be tough and losing its flavor. Overripe eggplant also have black seeds forming inside.

Cut fruits from the plants with 1 inch (2.5 cm) of stem attached, and store them in the refrigerator.


Lettuce





Leaf Lettuce

Leaf lettuce matures about 40 days from seeding. Start harvesting as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat, about 4 to 5 inches (10-12 cm) long. You can pick the large outer leaves or slice the entire plant off about 1 inch (2.5 cm) above the soil line, prompting the plant to send out new growth, which will reach eating size in another 3 to 5 weeks. Harvest in the morning when the leaves are crisp and full of moisture. If your crop begins to bolt or is threatened by a hard frost, harvest the entire plant.

Head Lettuce

Head and romaine lettuce mature about 70 days from seeds and 20-35 days from transplants. When the heads are firm, harvest by cutting the plant to ground level. For crisp lettuce, harvest in the morning and eat that day. You can store most lettuce in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks; iceberg lettuce keeps up to 3 weeks.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Lettuce


Melons





Always allow melons to ripen on the vine.

Muskmelons (also called cantaloupe, rock melon)

Picking muskmelon when they are ripe is crucial to getting good flavor since the plants provide the fruit with much of the natural sugar during the last few days of ripening. Melons that are ripened off the vine (most store-bought melons) just don't taste as sweet.

Muskmelons are ripe when the rind is tan rather than green between the surface netting. Many will have a strong melon fragrance, and the surest sign that the fruit is ready is a crack that forms on the stem right near the point of attachment with the melon. This crack signals the "slip" stage, and in a few days the melon will slip off the vine with minimal pressure. If you have to work to separate the melon from the vine, chances are the fruit is not ripe.

Muskmelons are overripe when the outer skin softens, making it easily penetrable by birds and bees.

Watermelons

When ripe the curled tendril at the stem end dries to brown, the underside of the melon turns yellow or cream-colored, and the melon will give a deep, resonant sound then thumped. The melon's skin also becomes dull and is difficult to penetrate with your fingernail.

Most melons will ripen a little bit more for 2 or 3 days after they're picked. Store melons at room temperature until they are totally ripe, then refrigerate for several weeks. Melons can be pureed or cut into pieces and frozen.

Honeydews

The number 1 mistake home gardeners make is picking honeydews too early. Keep a record of your variety's maturity date and keep the melons on the vines at least until then, a bit longer if you've had a cool spell during the season. They will improve for a few days after picking if kept at room temperature.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Grow The Juciest Melons Ever




Bulb Onions and Garlic




Bulb Onions

You can begin to harvest onions as soon as they are big enough to use as green onions.

Bulbing onions are fully mature when the tops turn yellow and start to fall over. To speed the maturation process, knock the tops over with back of your rake, just bending them over, not snapping them. Wait a few days until the tops turn brown, then carefully lift the bulbs out of the ground with a spading fork. Gently brush off the soil, but don't wash them.

To reduce the risk of rotting in storage, cure the bulbs by letting them dry in a warm, airy place out of direct sun or rain for a week or two. When the papery outer skins are completely dry and brittle and the tops are withered looking, cut the tops off about 1 inch (2.5 cm) about the bulb and put them in mesh bags or braid the tops together. Hang braids or mesh bags of onions in a cool, dry spot to store them.

Garlic

Harvest when leaves begin to turn brown. Pull several bulbs and break them apart. If it's too early, cloves will be unsegmented and difficult to separate. Leave the remaining bulbs for a week a two, and check again. If you leave bulbs in the ground too long, the outer skins begin to deteriorate, resulting in lower quality and poor storage. A rule of thumb is to harvest when 75% of the foliage is brown.

Use a pitchfork to harvest the bulbs, and let them dry outside in the sun for a few days, then store in a cool, dry place. You can braid the dried leaves and hang the bunches or trim away the leaves and roots, and put into mesh bags and hang them in a well ventilated room.


Pea
Snow and Snap






Peas are ready to pick about 3 weeks after flowers appear. Harvest plump pods that are just beginning to look bumpy; if the pods are discolored or shriveled, the peas are past their prime.

The best time to harvest is early in the morning because the pods are crispest then and will store better and stay fresh longer.

Use scissors to cut pods from the plant, or pull them off very carefully or you may uproot the plant. Try and harvest daily to keep the plants productive.

It is always best to eat fresh peas immediately because, like corn, their sugars turn to starches very quickly. Refrigerate extra peas for up to one week in brown paper bags that are then put inside a plastic bag and seal with a twist tie. The paper bag will absorb any extra moisture so that the peas aren't actually sitting in water, and the plastic bag holds in enough moisture so the peas stay fresh. You can also freeze or can them.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guide:

Growing Peas


Pear

Pears should be harvested when they are mature, but still hard, and ripened off the tree for best eating and canning qualities. If you wait until the fruit is ripe on the tree, it will be mushy inside within a day or two.

A pear is ready for harvest when the green color lightens and the stem of the fruit parts easily from the spur when you lift up on the fruit with a slight twist.

Allow pears to soften and ripen indoors at a temperature of 65-70° F (18-21° C).

Check the neck for ripeness. To do this, apply gentle pressure to the stem end of the pear with your thumb. When it yields to the pressure, it's ready to eat (this process usually takes a few days depending upon the variety, some may take a few weeks).

For storage, keep fruit at a high humidity and near freezing. The length of storage varies with each different cultivar.


Pepper



Begin harvesting when peppers reach a usable size. Steady harvesting after that will keep plants producing new fruits.

Most peppers can be eaten when they are green and underripe, although the flavor and vitamin C content improves as they ripen on the plant.

Cut bell peppers from the plants with a sharp knife or pruning shears, leaving at least inch (1.3 cm) of stem attached. Cayennes, and some other peppers usually come off with enough stem attached when pulled from the plants. Always use a scissors or shears if you find yourself having to twist and tug to get peppers picked. You don't want to break or damage the delicate branches.

Ripening will continue after harvest if kept in a warm room; ripening stops when peppers are refrigerated. Most peppers change color when ripe. Small, thin-walled peppers, like cayennes, tend to color up quickly. Sweet bell peppers can show strips of yellow, red, or orange and will continue to ripen when harvested and stored at room temperature.

Store thick-walled peppers in plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, or wash, cut into strips, and blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, and freeze them. You can also pickle peppers if you want.

Small-thin-walled peppers start drying the moment you pick them. To dry hot peppers like cayennes, lay them in a single layer in a very warm place until they are beyond leathery but not quite crisp. Then store them in airtight jars.


Potato

As tubers become fully mature, the potato plant's stems and leaves turn brown. You don't however, have to wait for the plants to die back to start eating your potatoes. Harvest when the potatoes reach the size you want. If you plan to store them, make sure the skins are very tough, and don't peel off easily when you gently rub them with a finger at harvest time.

If your soil is loose, simply pull up the brown foliage and use your fingers to explore the soil and find more potatoes. You can also use a pitchfork to gently loosen the soil and lift the tubers out by hand.

Leave the potatoes outdoors for an hour or two to dry off on the ground. There's no need to wash or brush them before storing, although you can wipe away any clumps of soil. Keep the potatoes in complete darkness after they've dried in the open for a short time. Don't leave them in any container that light can penetrate or the potatoes will turn green.

If you plan to store your potatoes, you'll be better off if you cure them for a week or two. Put potatoes in a single layer on newspapers in the dark around 50-60° F (10-15° C) for 2 weeks to cure. After curing, store in boxes or bags at about 40° F (4.4° C).


Pumpkin, Winter Squash
Summer Squash, Zucchini





Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Harvest pumpkins and winter squash when the rind is hard enough to resist puncturing with a fingernail, or wait until the plants begin to die back. When handling any kind of pumpkin, try not to pick it up by the stem because if the stem gets broken off, this is a weak spot for decay.

Cure winter squash and pumpkins in a warm (75-80° F (24-27° C), dry, well-ventilated place for 10 to 12 days.

After curing, you may want to dip them in a weak bleach solution (10 parts water to 1 part bleach) to kill fungi and bacteria on the skin and prolong storage. Allow to drip dry and then move pumpkins and winter squash to a cool, dark, dry, and well-ventilated storage area where temperatures range between 50-55° F (10-13° C). Don't store in a damp root cellar.

Spread squash out singly or, if you have to stack them, try not to do more than 2 deep so they have plenty of air circulation and don't rot.

Summer Squash and Zucchini

Harvest summer squash when immature and still tender, and not more than 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Harvest patty pan, or scallop types when they are 3 or 4 inches (7.6-10 cm) in diameter. Keep plants harvested to prolong production of fruit.

Harvest all squash by cutting fruits with 1 inch (2.5 cm) of stem attached. Pick summer squash when they are small, harvesting every day because fruit quality deteriorates with age. Store in the refrigerator.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guides:

Growing Pumpkins
Growing Summer Squash
Growing Winter Squash


Tomato



Tomatoes are ripe when they change color. For best flavor, harvest tomatoes when firm and fully colored. Some cultivars drop their fruits when they are ripe, just pick these up and use them.

Store at room temperature, never store tomatoes in the refrigerator because cool temperatures cause them to lose flavor and textures.

For more, use our in-depth Growing Guides:

Growing Tomatoes
Growing Tomatoes & Tomato Growing Tips
How To Ripen Green Tomatoes


Conclusion

As I mentioned before, the above list doesn't cover all the crops you could have grown, but it does cover the more popular ones, and I hope your harvest this year is bountiful and tasty now that you know when to harvest and how to do it.

So take some time and enjoy the fruits of your labor, because in a few months, we'll start to plan another garden, and that is always something to look forward to because it gives us another chance to try new things and improve upon what we did this year.

Hilary Rinaldi is a certified organic grower, and a member of the National Garden Writers Association. She is a nationally published writer, and regularly speaks and writes about all gardening related topics concentrating on making gardening fun and successful for everyone. Weekend Gardener Monthly Web Magazine gives gardening advice and gardening tips all levels of gardeners.


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