When to Harvest Various Vegetables
One of the best pieces of advice I learned this year going into farming was to "learn how and when to harvest vegetables properly." It was kind of a duh statement, but one that you don't think of until you eventually are ready to harvest your first crop. What is the best way I should do this?! You think to yourself as you stand before a row of carrots, never really having to harvest them for other people. Other people is the big kicker there. You can get away with carrots that are broken in half for your family, but your customers might feel a little let down. It's yet another task you have to think through before taking on. Now this post isn't all about how to harvest, but rather when to harvest because sometimes it can be difficult to tell. When is broccoli ready? Is there a best time to harvest tomatoes? Indeed, there is! Read below for a short, comprehensive list on when to harvest the more common of the veggies for peak flavor and lasting shelf life.
Harvest as soon as flower buds begin to appear, but before they open, for peak flavor.
It depends on the variety, so the best way to determine if the bean is ready to pick is to eat one! Most snap beans are ready when they are as thick as a pencil, before the seeds bulge, and when they are no longer fuzzy. Shelling beans are ready when their pods are full and bulging. If beans have turned yellow or white, they are past their prime and should be fed to livestock or thrown on the compost pile.
Beets can be harvested at any time and, if selling, can be left in the ground until you are ready to store them. The best time to harvest is when roots are between 1.5-3 inches in diameter and have smooth, firm flesh, show rich color, and have healthy leaves that are not wilting. If beets have a long narrow root then they have "tapped" and are no longer suitable for eating.
This one is tough because broccoli has a very small harvest window! You have to keep on top of it to pick broccoli at the best time. Pick when the florets (flower heads) are dark blue-green and the buds are compact (hard and not squishy), before the buds turn yellow or the flowers open. Cut 6-8 inches below the florets on the stalk. You can leave the side shoots for further harvesting and the smal, tender leaves are edible as well.
Harvest buds (or sprouts) when are at least 1 inch thick in diameter. Harvest from the bottom of the stalk first to encourage further growth and do not think leaves as they are needed for photosynthesis and more sprouts. A light frost or two can help improve flavor, so don't worry about planting this tasty veggies early/late in the season!
You will know! When the head is fully formed and is firm and crisp, it is time to pick. Look out for cracks, pale color, or wilted leaves. It's too late!
Carrots are mature at 1/2 inch to 1 inch in diameter. The younger they are they sweeter! Look for bright color, the head popping out of the soil a bit, and smooth skin. You will find it easier to harvest them if pulling after a rain or a heavy watering beforehand. Nothing is harder than pulling a carrot out of dry soil!
Just like broccoli, the florets should be compact and firm to the touch. Heads are ready when they are at least 6 inches in diameter. Leaves should still be bright green - if the head is soft or the leaves are yellow, it is past peak flavor. To keep the heads themselves from turning yellow, fold the leaves over the head when it is 2-3 inches.
Like broccoli as well, corn has a small harvest window if you want absolute perfection. Wait for the ear to bulk up by feeling around the outside of the husk. Peel back the husk; if the kernels are dull then it's not ready. If the kernels are bright yellow and plump, with your fingernail or sharp knife, pop a kernel or two. A milky liquid should ooze out. If it is watery or dry, then it's not ready yet. Harvest in the morning and eat quickly for the best flavor. Refrigerate in the husk if unable to eat within the next couple of days.
This depends upon the variety. For slicing cucumbers, harvest when about 6 inches long. The skin should be dark green, the body should be heavy. Don't let cucumbers get much bigger than 6 inches or they become all seeds and mushy on the inside.
Once eggplants are about 4-6 inches in diameter and the skin is smooth, shiny, and unwrinkled they are ready to pick.
Most often it is said to harvest kale when it is the size of your hand. For me, I can never harvest it fast enough and it always outgrows this stage! When you are first harvesting a new kale plant, wait until it is at least as large as your hand. Younger leaves are more tender and have better flavor, so don't let them get too big or old. To harvest, simply pull off the leaves from the stalk. Always pull from the bottom and never the center - this is where new leaves will continue to grow.
Look for clean, crisp leaves with a healthy color. Lettuce can be all different sizes, but generally is ready once it is 6 inches in diameter with a firm and compact head. You can pick it in multiple ways; my favorite for a full head of lettuce is to cut with a sharp knife at the base, leaving about 2-3 inches of plant still sticking out of the ground. In about 2-3 weeks, another head will be growing from the stalk. You can pull off leaves at any time from the outside of the plant.
The tops of the onions will eventually turn brown and fall over in the late summer. You can harvest before this for "green top" onions, and simply remove the bulbs with the tops still attached when they are the desired size you want. Remove the outer skins and store in the fridge for up to one month. If you are wanting storage onions, once the tops have died, let the bulbs dry out for several days. Cut off the tops and store in a cool, dry place (root cellar or pantry).
When the pods are plump with seeds they are ready to pick. It's best to taste them as well! If the pods have wrinkled on the vine or dulled in color, they are past their prime.
Once the peppers are the size of a baseball and shiny, they are ready to pick. If you'd like orange, red, or yellow peppers simply leave them on the vine longer. Hot peppers left to color up will become hotter and more flavorful.
Wait until the foliage has died back and turned brown for at least 1 week before digging up. You'll want to harvest on a day when the soil is dry, as this will help toughen up the skins. The potatoes should be firm and the skin should not brush off easily with your fingers if you want them to store for a long period of time on the counter. If the skins brush off then these are considered "new potatoes" and should be eaten immediately, within a few days of harvesting and can be washed and stored in the fridge. If harvesting for storage potatoes, then clean off with a dry towel and store stacked in a crate for circulation in a root cellar or basement.
pumpkins and winter squash
Watch for the skin to harden and the stems to dry out! Press your fingernail into the skin of the squash or pumpkins; if you have to try fairly hard to puncture the skin then it is ready to pick. If you pierce it right away, then it is too early. The skin should be full and not glossy and not have any soft spots. If the stem is dry, then it is definitely ready!
It's time to pull when they are 1 inch in diameter, or else they may begin to turn spicy and/or woody.
For mature spinach, harvest when the leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. If you are harvesting baby leaves, they are smaller. You can either harvest by clipping the full plant and leave 2-3 inches for regrowth. Or you can pick single leaves, pinching off the stems.
It is best to pick zucchini or yellow squash when they are between 6 to 8 inches long. The skin should be easily punctured with your fingernail, unlike winter squash. You want the skin soft! They will be heavy and firm, and have bright shiny skin. The stems should be juicy as well.
The first time you harvest can be when stalks are 4 to 6 inches tall. Simply pull the stalks off from the base (leave the center stalks to allow further growth) one by one. Do not cut everything from the base - you'll lose out on a crop all year long! After the first harvest, wait for the stalks to grow to 6 to 10 inches long.
If you want the best tasting tomatoes, leave them on the vine for as long as possible. Sun ripened tomatoes taste the best! Deeply red colored tomatoes will taste amazing, no matter the size. So don't worry if you get a really tiny tomato - it's going to be tasty! If you cannot let tomatoes ripen on the vine (for instance, if you need to sell them later than you can pick them) then it is best to pick them at the "blushing" stage, when they first show signs of red/orange color starting at the bottom. Store half ripened tomatoes in a single layer away from the sun, lined on newspaper. Allow to fully color up over several days.
Tasty turnips can be hard to come by. The best tasting turnips are smaller than you'd think - about the size of a golfball! They have a firm body, smooth skin, and rich color.
I hope this little list is a great resource to you when you wander out to the garden! I know that I have checked back on it more times than one to remind myself. Do you have any special tricks or hacks to help remind you when it's best to harvest certain veggies? Share them in the comments!