Vegetables are at their tastiest and most nutritious when they’re picked at the peak of ripeness.
"When’s that?" you wonder. Timing varies by the crop. Pick a little too soon, and the flavor isn’t as sweet or as good as it could be. Pick too late, and the texture may be getting mushy or woody. One of the tricks of veggie gardening is learning the cues that tell you when is the right time to make your move.
Here’s a harvest tip list for 25 of the most common home-garden crops:
Asparagus. Hopefully you enjoyed a bumper crop of succulent asparagus spears this spring. Now the foliage is expanded and ferny. Do not cut it. It needs time for the foliage to recharge the plants to overwinter and crop well next year.
Beans. Pick when fully elongated but before the bean seeds inside start to bulge. Keep picking as they mature fast and get stringy within days if you delay.
Beets. Pull any time the roots are 1 inch across or larger. They are most tender when young. Roots over 3 inches across start to become woody. The spinach-like leaves are edible, too.
This head of broccoli has begun to "bolt" (flower). It’s still edible but beyond prime.
© George Weigel
Broccoli. Wait for the heads to reach full size, and cut them before the florets lose their tightness; if they are starting to show yellow you've waited too long. That’s the sign that the plant is preparing to flower. Most varieties produce smaller side shoots later; these can be harvested for weeks more after the main head is cut.
Cabbage. Cut heads any time from when they start forming baby heads up to the point where they begin to split — a sign you’ve waited a bit too long.
Carrots. Harvest gradually over time, starting with baby ones early. Use thinnings for early harvest. Gauge size by pulling back a little soil to see how wide the shoulders are. Sample one to be sure. Harvest all before any hint of bitterness from summer heat.
Cauliflower. Cut heads any time from when they’re small up to full size. Do not wait until the florets start to open.
Collards/kale. Start cutting leaves from the outside of the plants any time they’re big enough to use. Harvest continually, cutting the older outer leaves while leaving behind the younger inner leaves for the next harvest.
Corn. Do the finger-nail test. Open the top of the husk and puncture a few kernels. Ripe ones will pop and spray a milky fluid. The silks will be dry, too – typically about 3 weeks after they formed. Ears will feel tight and plump. Over-ripe cobs are starchy and tough.
Cucumbers. Pick when young, green, and slender. If they start to fatten and take on a yellow or creamy color, they’ll be seedy and turning bitter. Err on the young side, and pick regularly. They mature quickly.
Eggplant. Cut or twist young fruits from the plant when they are firm and shiny. When the skin dulls they’re past their best. Like cukes, overripe fruits get bitter.
This red-leaf lettuce should have been picked already. The tall growth in the middle is a flower stalk in progress. When that happens, the leaves turn bitter.
© George Weigel
Garlic/shallots. Dig or pull when foliage has browned and flopped over. Dry well before storing.
Leeks. Pull any time from finger-sized on up. Pull soil up around the stems to get longer white shanks. Harvest before they start splitting.
Lettuce. Depends on type. Leaf lettuce can be harvested continually, starting when the leaves are big enough. Harvest the older, outer leaves. If the central stem (flower stalk) starts to elongate, harvest at once as these cause the leaves to become bitter. Romaine and head types should be allowed to grow to nearly full size before being pulled and cut off at the base. You’ll know you’ve waited too long if flower stalks appear or the heads begin to split apart.
Muskmelon (cantaloupe). The color of the skin or rind will turn a light brown, and netting on fruits will become more pronounced. The sniff test is best. You should be able to detect that sweet melon smell where the vine attaches. Fruits also slip easily off the vine when ripe.
Okra. Twist off or cut off pods when they’re young and tender. Wait too long and pods get tough and woody. Harvest continually as new young pods keep appearing.
Onions. It’s probably too late for this year, but “Spring (or green) onions” can be pulled any time in spring if you’re using just the leaves. Mature onions are ready when the leaves fall over and turn brown.
Onions are ready when the leaves fall over and turn brown.
© George Weigel
Peas. Depends on the type. Pick edible-podded peas when they’re young and tender, before the seeds inside swell. For English, pod, or shelling peas, allow the pods to mature until they’re plump and the seeds inside are noticeable. Pick before they start to wrinkle, turn brown, or begin to split open.
Peppers. The sweetest and most nutritious stage for peppers is when the fruits turn red, gold, or orange. They’re perfectly usable when firm and green, but like tomatoes, they’re not actually ripe then. Clip the fruits off the plant to avoid damage.
Potatoes. Poke around for young “new” potatoes when plants flower. Dig full-size ones when plants brown and flop.
Spinach. Start snipping any time they’re big enough to use. Continue cutting from around the outside of the plants, letting new inner leaves grow for a few more days until the next cutting. Yank plants when flower stalks appear. The taste becomes bitter at that point.
Rhubarb. You may have missed the best of the rhubarb crop for this year. If not twist off or cut off stalks for several weeks in spring, just as each leaf reaches full size. Young stalks are more tender and also can be harvested. Stop harvesting in late spring to allow the plant to recharge itself over summer. Keep watered through the summer and enjoy the dramatic flower spikes.
Tomatoes. Twist off when fruits are still firm but fully colored (although some types retain green shoulders even at full ripeness). Get them before they turn soft and begin to rot.
Watermelon. Fruit undersides will turn a creamy/yellowish color. Do the thump test: ripe fruit makes a hollow sound. The tendrils on the vines (skinny little pigtail-like growths) will go from green to brown.
Zucchini/squash. Cut off when small and young – about the size of a mid-sized cucumber. These get seedy and bitter if you let them grow to baseball-bat size (which can happen in a few days).
Be sure to check our Garden Tips section for more information.