When to Harvest Garden Vegetables

My Garden Life
June 30, 2021
Table of Contents
You babied the seedlings, tended the growing plants and now it’s time to reap what you’ve sown. Here’s when and how to harvest some of your favorite homegrown vegetables:

Harvesting Peas

Sweet pea pods hanging on the plant ready to harvest

When: Harvest peas when about three weeks have gone by since flowers appeared. Pick shelling peas after you can see the individual peas swollen through the shell. Pick peas with edible pods, like sugar snaps, when the pods are two to three inches long and before the peas start to swell.
How: Hold the delicate pea vine with one hand above the pod and pull the pod off with the other hand.

Harvesting Cantaloupes

hand lifting a cantaloupe in a garden to check the melon for ripeness

When: Pick cantaloupe when the rind (skin of the melon) starts to turn from green to tan. The stem will start to lift away from where it attaches to the melon. You’ll see it beginning to detach around the base of the stem, indicating that ripeness is near. The melon will have a fruity, musky scent when ripe.
How: Gently tug on the melon near the vine. If it’s ripe the melon will easily detach from the stem. If it doesn’t slip off easily, give the melon another day or two.

Harvesting Green Beans

green beans dangling from a plant in a raised garden bed

When: Harvest green beans when 45 to 90 days have passed since planting. Filet beans are the quickest to mature and pole beans are the slowest. Pick all varieties while they are still smooth, with no evidence of the beans inside swelling.
How: Pick as peas, with one hand above the shell and the other pulling the bean away from the stem. Be careful not to knock off any flowers yet to mature. This ensures you’ll get several pickings from one planting.

Harvesting Cucumbers

two cucumbers hanging from the vine in a garden

When: Pick cucumbers when they are green and still firm. Check the size of the variety you are growing to make sure they aren’t getting too large or starting to turn white or yellow. These are signs your cucumbers are overripe.
How: For the best harvest, pick every day once your plants start producing. Remove any overripe cucumbers you might have missed.

Harvesting Radishes

a row of radishes with tops showing above the soil line in a garden

When: Harvest spring radishes when they are no more than one inch in diameter (15 to 25 days). Harvest winter storage radishes when they are about three inches in diameter (55 to 70 days).
How: Spring radishes should be easy to pull up from the soil by their green tops. The same is true for most winter radishes, though the bigger they are, the more likely you will need a garden fork.

Harvesting Carrots

hand pulling carrots from the soil at harvest time

When: Harvest carrots when the top of the root is at least a half-inch in diameter.
How: Loosen the soil around the root carefully with a garden fork then gently pull up by the tops.

Harvesting Corn

hands peeling back corn husk to check the kernals for ripeness

When: Harvest corn when the silk tassels turn brown. Silks usually brown about 20 days after they first appear. Mature ears will also be good-sized and firm. Gently open part of the husk to have a look inside. Press a kernel with the edge of your fingernail to release some juice. If the juice is milky, the corn is ready. If the juice is watery, replace the husk and give it a couple more days.
How: Grasp the ear of corn at its base and twist it while bending the ear down. It should snap free from the stalk.

Harvesting Broccoli

hands using a knife to harvest a bunch of broccoli from the garden

When: Harvest broccoli when the heads are deep green and the buds are compact (no flower buds have opened).
How: With a sharp knife, cut the stem of the largest central head six inches below the base. Allow side shoots to continue to develop into smaller heads and harvest the same way.

Harvesting Beets

freshly harvested beets lying on the soil to dry

When: Harvest beets when the top of the roots are about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Clip tender beet greens and use as you would baby spinach or kale when they are 4 to 6 inches above the ground.
How: Brush away some of the dirt at the top of the beet. Probe in the dirt with a finger to see if it is the right size to harvest. If so, pull up by the greens. Beets that are three inches in diameter or bigger will be woody and relatively tasteless.

Harvesting Cabbage

hands preparing to harvest a head of cabbage from the garden

When: Harvest cabbage when the head forms its characteristic bowling ball shape and reaches the diameter appropriate for the variety. Do check for that information on your plant tags or seed packets as there is a wide range between varieties.
How: Use a sharp knife to slice the thick stem directly below the head as soon as the cabbage reaches maturity. Cabbages left beyond that point are in danger of cracking.

Harvesting Kale/Collards/Mustard Greens/Spinach

hand harvesting baby spinach leaves from the garden

When: Pick greens such as kale, collards, mustard greens and spinach when the leaves reach about four inches (for eating raw in salad mixes) up until the plants are beginning to flower (bolt).
How: Using sharp garden scissors or shears, clip close to the soil line.

Harvesting Lettuce

hand holding a leaf of lettuce just harvested from a garden

When: Harvest lettuce when the outer leaves are big enough to use (for leaf lettuce) or when the heads have reached the appropriate size (for head lettuces like bibb and Romaine). Bring in lettuce before the plants bolt (form flowers).
How: For leaf lettuce, clip the other leaves as they grow large enough for continuous harvest. For head lettuce, clip close to the soil line so the head remains intact. You may also pull the entire head up and store it with roots intact. Some people believe this prolongs the storage time in the refrigerator. When thinning head lettuce, take every other plant, giving the remaining heads room to grow, and use the thinnings as you would leaf lettuce.

Harvesting Onions

hand holding a freshly harvested bunch of green onions

When: Harvest spring or green onions when the tops have reached anywhere from four to twelve inches. For bulb onions, after the tops have yellowed and fallen completely down.
How: For spring onions, pull the entire plant. For bulbs, in the morning on a dry day, loosen the soil around each plant gently with a garden fork, taking care not to puncture the bulbs. Pull or scoop them up. Leave the harvested bulbs to cure in the sun on a garden path until afternoon then transfer them to a well-ventilated, dry space. Spread the onions in one layer, preferably on an elevated screen, to cure further for three to six weeks.

Harvesting Garlic

a freshly harvested bunch of garlic still covered with soil

When: Harvest garlic when most of the leaves turn yellow and fall, usually early to midsummer.
How: Exactly as with onions.

Harvesting Potatoes

using a shovel to lift white potatoes from the soil at harvest time

When: Harvest potatoes after about ten weeks in the ground for new potatoes (at about the time the plants begin to flower). Wait to harvest a month or so later for full-sized potatoes, after the flowers are gone and the leaves begin to yellow.
How: For new potatoes, gently probe in the dirt with a trowel, excavating some small tubers while leaving others to mature fully. For the final harvest, pull the plant from the ground, taking the tubers from the roots. Then use a spade or garden fork to turn up the potatoes remaining in the ground. You’ll find most six to eight inches below the soil. Work slowly and carefully to avoid puncturing or cutting the potatoes and to make sure you get them all. Potatoes left to rot over the winter can spread soil-borne diseases that are difficult to eradicate.

Harvesting Tomatoes

three bright red tomatoes on the plant ready for harvest

When: Harvest tomatoes when the fruit has turned color (mostly but not always red) and is firm to the touch, neither rock hard nor mushy.
How: Using two hands, pull gently from the vine. Cherry tomatoes may be piled in containers, but place larger tomatoes in single layers rather than baskets to avoid bruising or otherwise damaging the fruits.

Harvesting Peppers

hand lifting a red pepper on the plant checking the pepper for ripeness

When: Harvest a pepper when it has formed into a recognizable fruit. You can pick and eat peppers while they are still green and not fully ripe. But the flavor becomes more complex and intense (hotter for hot peppers and sweeter for sweet peppers) if they ripen. Also, nutrients are denser as the fruits mature and turn color.
How: It’s best to use scissors to cut the pepper from the branch where the stem meets it. This way you’ll avoid damaging the fragile stems and the remaining unripe fruit.

Harvesting Eggplants

ripe eggplants hanging from the plant ready for harvest

When: Harvest eggplant when the fruit reaches its full size and is still glossy.
How: Use scissors or a sharp knife to cut at the plant’s stem. Some varieties of eggplant have thorns, so you may want to wear gloves.

Harvesting Summer Squash

hands cutting a ripe zucchini from the plant in a garden

When: Pick summer squash when the fruits are anywhere from four to six inches long. There are many hybrids of squash in a variety of shapes and sizes, so be sure to research the mature size for the type you are growing.
How: Using two hands, scissors, or a knife to pull the fruit away from the plant. When a summer squash plant is producing, pick every day to avoid overly large, and fibrous fruits. Large summer squashes are inedible and suppress the plant’s production.

Harvesting Winter Squash

Orange winter squash on the vine in a garden

When: Harvest winter squash when the fruits are well-formed, solid and turn a deep color, but before the first frost.
How: Use a sharp knife to cut the squash from the vine leaving at least two inches of stem.

Harvesting Parsnips

hand pulling a parsnip from the ground to harvest the root

When: Harvest parsnips at least 120 days after planting. If the ground stays unfrozen, they can be harvested as needed throughout the winter.
How: Using a shovel or garden fork, dig as you would carrots. Keep in mind roots are much deeper and thicker and may have to be worked longer to free the parsnip.

Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

hands holding freshly harvested sweet potatoes from the field

When: Harvest sweet potatoes any time after the first frost has passed, on a dry day.
How: Use a fork or spade to unearth the roots, being careful not to cut them as you work.

Harvesting Watermelon

ripe watermelon on the vine in a garden

When: Pick watermelons when the curly tendrils around the stem of the melon turn brown. Also, check the underside of the melon (where it rests on the ground). This area turns from white to yellow as the melon matures. It will be yellow when the melon is ready to pick. The skin of the melon will be more dull than shiny by harvest time.
How: A mature melon should easily snap from the vine. But a pruner or sharp knife can be used to cut the melon stem from the main vine.
If you’re going to enjoy the literal fruits of your labors in the vegetable garden, you must know when and how to harvest. The same is true of harvesting your home-grown herbs. Armed with a little knowledge, you’ll be able to finish out your growing season strong!

wooden trug on table filled with a variety of freshly harvested herbs

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