Edible Landscaping

The Harvest Table

Pick summer squash when young for the best flavor and texture.

You've worked hard all spring to prepare the soil, plant seeds and transplants, water, weed, mulch, fertilize, and care for your plants. While you've spent lots of time caring for your vegetables, it's often a shame that many gardeners don't bring the same attention to harvesting. I've known some gardeners who toil growing the perfect crop, only to harvest at the wrong time or in the wrong way and have a crop that they don't enjoy.

Just like there's a right and wrong way to plant, weed, fertilize, and do other garden tasks, there's a right time and way to harvest

When To Harvest?

Picking your veggies at the right stage of maturity not only makes them more flavorful, but more nutritious too. Some vegetables have no flavor if picked too early and others are tough and stringy if allowed get overly ripe. While the goal is to pick your vegetables when they're young and tender, a spell of warm weather while you're away for the weekend may mean zucchini clubs and pithy beets await when you return.

Harvest potatoes when the tops start to dieback. Dig carefully so not to injure the underground tubers.

It's best to harvest daily, if possible. Young greens, such as lettuce, mesclun, kale, mustard, and Swiss chard can be picked as soon as they are large enough to eat. Vegetables such as bush beans, summer squash, cucumbers, and broccoli will keep producing after the initial harvest, providing food for weeks.

Below is a chart adapted from my Vegetable Gardening for Dummies book on the best harvest times for vegetables. I call it the Harvest Table. While the guidelines are based on picking vegetables at the mature stage, you can pick many vegetables such as beets, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, potatoes, and summer squash as "baby" vegetables as well.

The Harvest Table

Vegetable When to Harvest
Asparagus When spears are 6 to 9 inches long
Bush bean Start about 2 to 3 weeks after bloom, before seeds mature in pods
Beet When 1 to 3 inches wide
Broccoli When flower heads are tight and green
Brussels sprouts When sprouts reach 1 inch wide
Cabbage When heads are compact and firm
Carrot When tops are 1 inch wide
Cauliflower When heads are still white but not ricey (the florets are splitting apart)
Corn When silks are dry and brown; kernels should be milky when cut
Cucumber For slicing, when 6 inches long; for picklers, when at least 2 inches long
Eggplant Before color dulls; flesh should bounce back when pressed lightly
Garlic Pull up stalks when bottom leaves yellow
Kohlrabi When 2 to 3 inches wide
Leek When the stalks are at least 1 1/2 inches in diameter
Lettuce and Greens While leaves are tender
Melon When fruits slips off vine easily; while netting (raised area on skin) is even; when fruit is firm
Okra When pods are soft and 2 to 3 inches long
Parsnip When roots reach desired size. Best after a light frost
Pea While pods are still tender
Pepper When fruits reach desired size and color
Potato When vines begin to die back
Pumpkin When shells harden, before a frost
Radish When roots are up to 1 1/4 inches wide
Shallot When tops wither and turn brown
Spinach When leaves are still tender
Summer Squash When 6 to 8 inches long
Winter Squash When shells harden; before a frost
Sweet Potato When they reach adequate size; before a frost
Tomato When the right color develops per variety
Turnip When 2 to 3 inches wide
Watermelon When under side turns yellow and produces a dull sound when thumped

Here are a few more harvesting tips:

By keeping up with the harvest of veggies such as cucumbers, you'll stimulate the plant to produce more fruit.

  • The best time to harvest is in the morning or evening when it's cool. Not only is it easier on you, the moisture levels in the vegetables will be higher and the flavor better. Of course, it's best to pick right before cooking or serving for the absolute best taste. Cool off vegetables by placing them in the refrigerator after harvest to prolong their storage life.
  • Handle fruits with care. Bruised or damaged vegetables won't last as long in your refrigerator.
  • Avoid harvesting when plants are wet. Diseases, such as bean rust, can easily be spread by your clothing rubbing against plants.
  • When in doubt, have a taste. Munch on a carrot, pea, or bean. If it tastes good. pick it! Of course, some veggies, such as winter squash, need to be cooked before the flavor shines.

Other Stories on Vegetable Harvesting:

Food Garden Guide
Vegetable Harvest Time
Time for Harvest

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