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