Guidelines for Harvesting Vegetables
Many experienced gardeners agree that the more you garden, the more there is to learn. This is especially true with growing vegetables. Seed packets and plant tags for transplants generally provide good information on how to grow vegetables. They also list the number of days before maturity. However, those projections are not always a reliable indicator of vegetable maturity and ripeness. A chilly spring can delay ripening, whereas warmer-than-normal weather might hasten ripening. Soil fertility, lack of precipitation, or too much precipitation may also affect maturity. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to judge when to harvest vegetables for best quality.
Knowing the projected number of days to maturity is a good place to start. While that’s a good target to shoot for, in the absence of any other guidance, it is up to the gardener to determine when a vegetable is at its peak of perfection. Fortunately, vegetables often provide clues as to their state of maturity. It’s just a matter of interpreting what those clues mean.
VEGETABLE HARVESTING PRINCIPLES
The following general principles are intended to give the gardener a framework for when and how to harvest vegetables:
- Harvest for peak flavor and nutrition. Many vegetables, such as beans, peas, summer squash, and turnips, are at their peak of taste and nutrition when they are tender and immature. Other vegetables, such as tomatoes, melons, and winter squash need to be allowed to completely ripen on the vine so that their flavors can become fully developed.
- Harvest for size. Size is generally a reliable indicator of maturity, but it takes a little practice to know when some vegetables are just right for picking. Because there may be some variance in vegetable varieties, always check seed packets or any information that is provided with purchased transplants for guidance on mature vegetable sizes.
- Harvest often. One of the biggest mistakes a gardener can make is neglecting to harvest vegetables regularly. Unpicked beans can go from tender to tough in no time at all. A zucchini that was just 2 inches long a couple of days ago can be an overripe 2-foot long club today. Keep in mind that the goal of the plant is to reproduce. If vegetables are allowed to grow to full maturity and are not harvested, the plant will stop producing.
- Harvest with the right tools. Some crops, such as lettuce, kale, and peas can be either pinched or gently snapped off with your fingers. Vegetables that don’t easily separate from the plant should be cut off. A dedicated pair of scissors is ideal for snipping off some vegetables, such as beans. A sharp knife or hand pruners should be used to harvest crops with tougher stems, such as eggplants and cucumbers. A garden fork is an ideal tool for harvesting potatoes and root crops.
- Harvest under the right conditions. Vegetable quality is at its highest at the time of harvest and begins to decrease rapidly thereafter. The best time of day to harvest most vegetables is in the early morning after the dew dries. This is when they are at their sweetest and juiciest. Avoid picking vegetables in the heat of the day, especially leafy vegetables, which can wilt immediately.
- Handle plants with care. Keep vining plants properly trellised so that the weight of maturing vegetables doesn’t cause the plant stems to bend or break. Avoid tugging or ripping a vegetable from the plant. This can damage the plant and provide an entry point for diseases. Also avoid working among vegetables during wet weather to inadvertently spread fungal and other diseases among plants.
- Harvest the outer (larger) leaves of leafy vegetables first. Lettuces and some other leafy vegetables sprout from the center of the plant. Unless you are harvesting the entire plant, pick the larger, outer leaves first and leave the tiny new growth in the center to continue developing.
HARVESTING GUIDELINES BY CROP
The list of vegetables below is by no means complete, but it does include crops that are commonly grown by home gardeners in central Virginia.
Arugula: Cut or pinch off individual leaves when they are about 2 to 3 inches long. Young leaves have the best flavor, but older leaves are edible until the plant starts to bolt. Once bolting starts, the leaves can develop a bitter taste.
Asparagus: Harvest the spears of this perennial vegetable when they are 6 to 8 inches tall and the tips are tightly closed. Bend the spears until they break, or cut them with a sharp knife at or just below the soil surface. Be careful not to cut adjacent spears that have not yet emerged. Harvest for about 4 to 8 weeks. Stop harvesting once the emerging spears appear thinner and the tips become loose and open. Leave some spears to develop into foliage for photosynthesis. TIP: If you have never grown asparagus before, count on a minimum of three years before asparagus plants become fully productive.
Beans (Snap): Harvest pole or bush beans when the pods are about the thickness of a pencil and the interior beans are small and underdeveloped. The pods should easily snap into two at that stage. Avoid harvesting very slender, immature pods because they haven’t had a chance to develop much flavor. Also avoid pods that bulge with the outline of the beans within. Those beans are over-ripe and will be tougher and less flavorful. Let those pods continue to mature on the vine and harvest them as dry beans (see below).
Beans (Dry): Harvest mature pole or bush beans in the autumn as the pods begin to dry out and turn yellow. Pull or snip the pods from the vine. Spread them out on a flat surface indoors for 2 to 4 weeks to finish drying. Once the pods feel completely dry and the beans inside are hard and shiny, shell out the beans and store for use later.
Beets: Pull or dig up beet roots when they are about 1½ to 2½ inches in diameter. Larger roots are edible but are not as flavorful and can be woody. Beets prefer cool growing conditions but should be pulled before the first hard freeze.
Bok Choy: Harvest once the plant reaches maturity (about 12 inches or more for the full-size variety and about 6 to 8 inches for the dwarf varieties). Bok choy may be harvested in several ways:
- Sever the entire plant from the roots at the base with a knife.
- Cut the outer leaves individually with a knife. The inner leaves will continue to grow and the plant will continue to sprout new growth.
- Cut all the stems off about 1 inch above the soil line. Within a few days, new leaves will appear, which can then be harvested a leaf at a time. If left alone, an entirely new head will develop.
Broccoli: Harvest the head when it is 3 to 6 inches in diameter and dark green with tightly closed buds. Use a sharp knife to cut the stalk about 6” below the head. Smaller heads will form as side shoots below that point. TIP: It is unlikely the broccoli grown in home gardens will produce heads as large as those grown commercially for sale in grocery stores.
Brussels Sprouts: Harvest the sprouts when they are 1 to 1½ inches in diameter, firm, and tightly closed. Start harvesting at the bottom of the stalk with the most mature sprouts and move up. Either twist off the sprout from the stalk or cut it off. Brussels sprouts develop better flavor after one or two light frosts. TIP: Harvesting is easier if you remove the leaf below the sprout first and then twist or cut off the sprout.
Cabbage: Harvest when the head is about the size of a softball or a little larger, solid, and firm to the touch. Cabbage is at its tastiest at this size. You can tell if the head is firm by simply giving it a gentle squeeze. If left on the plant too long, the mature head can continue to grow and split open, usually from excessive water uptake.
Chinese Cabbage (Also called Napa Cabbage): Harvest once the head feels firm and dense when pressed. If it feels soft and gives a bit under pressure, it’s not filled out yet. Cut the head off above the outer leaves.
Carrots: Harvest most carrot varieties when they are about an inch in diameter. Carrots tend to grow right at or slightly above the soil line, so it’s easy to check the size visually. If the soil is very loose, then pull one up by the foliage to check. If the soil is hard and dry, then gently pry the carrot out of the soil using a garden fork. TIP: Harvest spring-planted carrots as soon as they are mature. Otherwise, they may become bitter and fibrous in the summer heat. Fall-planted carrots can be safely left in raised beds over winter with a generous layer of straw on top to protect them from cold weather.
Cauliflower: As this plant reaches its projected maturity date, watch it closely. It can quickly go from perfect to past peak. Harvest it when the head is regular in shape and the “curds” that make up the head have not separated or turned yellow. Cut the stem with a sharp knife just below the head but leave some of the leaves attached to help prevent the head from drying out. If you wait too long to harvest cauliflower, the heads will start to open up and the plant will bolt.
Chard (Also called Swiss chard): Harvest once the leaves are about 6 inches long. Snip off the individual leaves from the outside of the plant, leaving the middle or heart of the plant to continue producing more leaves. Another harvesting method is to cut the entire plant about an inch above the soil. The plant will push up a fresh round of leaves providing a second harvest.
Collards: Harvest tender, 6- to 8-inch long, dark green leaves using scissors, pruners, or a knife. Older leaves can be tough and stringy. Start with the larger lower leaves and work up the stalk, leaving the smaller leaves alone to continue growing. TIP: The flavor of collards improves after a frost.
Corn: Start testing corn for ripeness when the silks begin to turn dry and brown. The silks on a ripe ear will be greenish at the top of the ear and dry and brown at the ends. Feel the tip of the ear through the husk. If it feels rounded all the way to the tip, it’s ready to harvest. If it tapers (feels thinner) at the tip, it’s not ready. You can also pull the husk away from the end and nick a kernel with your fingernail. If it’s ready to pick, the kernel will be plump and will exude a milky substance when nicked. Pick corn from the stalk early in the morning when the sugar content is at its highest. Refrigerate it in the husk until you’re ready to cook it.
Cucumbers: Cut pickling type cucumbers from the vine with a knife or pruners when the cucumbers are between 2 and 6 inches long. Harvest slicing and burpless type cucumbers when they are about 6 to 8 inches long. The skin should be dark green and look glossy. If the skin is dull or yellowish at the blossom end, the cucumber will be full of seeds and past it’s prime.
Eggplants: Cut eggplants from the plant using pruners or a sharp knife. Leave a little of the stem attached. Harvest after they have reached about half of their projected mature size. The skin should be glossy and uniform in color. If the skin is dull and the eggplant feels soft to the touch, it is overripe. The goal is to harvest them before the seeds mature.
Garlic: Harvest garlic bulbs when the tops start to dry. Lift the entire plant from the soil with a garden fork or gently pull by hand, being careful not to bruise the bulbs. Brush off the soil and place in trays with screens or slatted bottoms. Cure in a warm, shady place with good air circulation for about two to three weeks. Remove tops when dry. Mature bulbs are best stored under cool, dry conditions with good ventilation.
Kale: Harvest individual leaves once they are 6 to 8 inches long. Snap the leaves off using your fingers or use a knife or scissors to harvest the larger outer leaves at the bottom of the plant and work your way up the plant. Harvest “baby” kale leaves for salads when they are 2 or 3 inches long.
Kohlrabi: Harvest when the globes are approximately 2 inches in diameter. Although the globes can grow larger, overly mature Kohlrabi can be tough and fibrous. Sever the globe from the root with a sharp knife or pull the entire plant and cut off the leaves and roots.
Leeks: Harvest leeks when they are about 1 inch in diameter. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil around the leek and pull it from the ground.
Lettuce (Head): Heads are ready to harvest if they feel full when gently squeezed, are moderately firm, and are about 6 inches in diameter. The actual size depends on the variety of lettuce being grown. Use a knife to sever the entire head from the roots.
Lettuce (Leaf or Mesclun): Start harvesting once the leaves are large enough for salads – about 3 to 4 inches tall. Use scissors to snip off individual outer leaves as soon as they are large enough for salads. The plant will continue to produce new leaves from the inner portion of the plant. Continue harvesting until the plant sends up a central stem signaling that the plant is starting to bolt. The leaves will develop a bitter flavor at that point. An alternative harvesting method is to cut off all the leaves 1 inch above the soil, after which the plant will continue to grow and provide another harvest or two. TIP: Lettuce tastes best when picked early in the day. However, if you must pick it in the heat of the day, immediately refresh it in cold water for 30 minutes. Dry it off, wrap it loosely in paper towels or a clean dish towel to absorb moisture, place it in a plastic bag, and chill it until you are ready to use it.
Melon (Cantaloupe): Harvest cantaloupe (also called muskmelon) when the stem pulls easily (slips) from the melon with gentle thumb pressure. If the stem must be forcibly separated, then the melon is not ripe. Other indications of ripeness include scent (a sweet aroma when sniffed), touch (the melon should yield slightly at the blossom end when pressed), or color (the rind changes from green to buff or yellow. For best flavor, harvest in the morning after the dew has dried.
Melon (Honeydew): This melon is ripe when the flower end softens slightly and the rind turns completely white or yellow. Cut the melon from the vine with a knife or pruners. Unlike cantaloupes, a honeydew melon will not separate easily from the vine when mature. TIP: Whereas cantaloupes will continue to ripen after they are harvested, an unripe honeydew melon will not ripen after it has been cut from the vine. Harvest honeydew melons mid-morning after the dew has dried for sweetest flavor.
Melon (Watermelon): Harvest when the rind on the underside of the melon turns from greenish white to a cream or yellow color. Another indication of ripeness is when the melon rind on top becomes dull rather than glossy. Cut the melon from the vine with a knife or pruners leaving 2 inches of stem attached. TIP: This takes practice, but you can tell if a watermelon is ripe from the sound it makes when you rap it with your knuckles. A metallic ringing sound indicates the melon is not ripe, whereas a hollow or dull thunk sound indicates the melon is ripe.
Mustard Greens: Use scissors or a knife to harvest individual outer leaves when they are young, tender, and mild tasting. The inner leaves will continue to grow and the plant will produce more greens. Another approach is to cut the entire plant about 3 inches from the soil. The leaf stubs will re-grow. TIP: Mustard greens grown in the fall garden can tolerate a light frost, which will sweeten their flavor.
Okra: Check the growing instructions for the variety being grown. While most okra varieties should be harvested when the pods are just 2 or 3 inches long, some varieties will stay tender at a larger size. Cut the pods off with pruners or a sharp knife, leaving about ¼ inch of stem. If a pod is difficult to cut off the stem, it’s too old and should be discarded. TIP: As a general rule, an okra pod is ready for harvest about 4 to 6 days after the flower wilts. The pods need to be picked every 1 or 2 days. Otherwise, the plant will stop producing.
Onions (Green): Harvest green onions (also known as scallions) when tops are about 6 inches tall by simply pulling them out of the soil. Grasp the onion just above the soil line and pull straight up.
Onions (Bulb): Harvest bulb onions when they are about 1 to 2 inches in diameter and after two-thirds or more of the tops have dried and fallen over. Use a garden fork to gently dig up the onions. Cure them in preparation for storage by either hanging them up or spreading them out in a well-ventilated space out of direct sun for 1 to 2 weeks. They will be finished curing when the necks are thoroughly dry. At that point, cut off the tops, brush off any soil, trim the roots with scissors or pruners, and store the bulbs in a cool, dry, well-ventilated space. Tip: If you’re not sure an onion is ready for harvesting, pinch the neck. If it feels soft or pliable, it is mature. If it feels stiff, it is immature.
Parsnips: For the best tasting parsnips, harvest them after a few frosts. Cold temperatures concentrate the sugars in parsnips, making them sweeter tasting. Alternatively, leave them in the ground all winter covered with a thick layer of straw or other organic mulch. Harvest them in early spring before new top growth appears. If you harvest any later, they lose flavor and texture. Use a garden fork to loosen the soil around the roots before pulling them out of the ground. Cut off the foliage about ¼ inch above the top of the root. Store as you would carrots — either refrigerated or in a root cellar.
Peas: Snip the pods off the vine with scissors, pruners, or with a gentle tug with your fingers. It’s important to harvest daily or every other day. Overripe peas left on the vine will signal the vine to stop producing. Harvesting methods differ depending on the type of pea being grown:
- Snow Peas – Pick as soon as the thin, dark green, edible pod reaches a mature length but before the sweet, tiny peas in the pod fill out.
- Sugar Snap Peas – Harvest when both the edible pod and the sweet, tasty peas are plump and the pods snap like a bean pod.
- Shelling Peas – Also referred to as “garden” peas or “English” peas, harvest when the tough, stringy, inedible pods are still green, plump, and firm to the touch, indicating that the peas inside have filled out the pod. To make sure the peas are at their best, simply do a taste test right in the garden: Pop open a pod and taste the peas inside. Mature peas will taste sweet, juicy, and flavorful.
Peppers (Sweet): Peppers may be harvested either ripe or unripe. Always cut them off the plant using scissors, pruning shears, or a knife. You can try twisting or breaking them off from the plant, but you are likely to damage the plant if you do. Here’s an interesting dilemma with peppers: On the one hand, a green pepper does not taste as sweet as it does if allowed to fully ripen (that is, turn red, yellow, orange, or whatever color it’s meant to be at maturity). However, the plant will continue to produce as long as you keep picking the peppers when they’re green. On the other hand, if peppers are left on the vine to ripen fully, you will be rewarded with sweeter tasting fruits, but the plant will produce fewer peppers.
Peppers (hot): As with sweet peppers, hot varieties may be harvested at any stage by cutting or pruning the fruit from the stem. Bear in mind that mature (red) hot peppers are generally hotter tasting than when they are at their green stage. TIP: If you are new to growing hot peppers, protect your hands when handling them. The capsaicin oil in the peppers may cause a burning sensation if it comes in contact with your skin or mucous membranes. Wear gardening gloves as a precaution or wash your hands immediately after harvesting before touching your face or eyes.
Potatoes: Harvest an early crop of tender “new” potatoes after the plant has flowered (about six to eight weeks after seed potatoes were planted). Gently probe or dig the soil around the plant and remove one or two potatoes. Leave the rest for a larger crop later. To harvest the main crop of potatoes for storage, leave them in the ground for about two weeks after the plants have died back to allow the potato skins to thicken. Then, using a garden fork, dig straight down about 8 inches out from the center of the plant before angling the fork inward. Carefully unearth the potatoes so that you don’t pierce them with the fork or bruise them. Consume any damaged potatoes right away because they won’t store well. Store the remaining potatoes in shallow bins to cure in a dark, dry place at 55° F for about two weeks. After they are cured, store them in a root cellar or other dark place at about 40° F.
Pumpkins: Harvest when the pumpkin is a deep, uniform color, the stem has begun to dry, and the rind cannot be dented when pressed with a thumbnail. Use a sturdy knife, long-handled loppers, or pruning shears to sever pumpkins from the vine. Pumpkins store better if they are harvested with a portion of the stem still attached. So, leave about 3 inches of stem attached but don’t carry the pumpkin by the stem. If the stem breaks off, the pumpkin is not likely to cure very well. Spread pumpkins out to cure so they do not touch one another in a dry, well-ventilated place at 75° to 80° F for about 10 days. Then store in a single layer (not touching) in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place at about 50° to 55° F.
Radishes: Harvest spring radishes when they are small and mild tasting – about 1 inch in diameter. Radishes left in the ground too long develop a hot, sharp taste and become pithy in texture. To harvest, pull them out of the ground by their foliage if the soil is loose. If the soil is hard and dry, use a garden fork to lift them out of the ground.
Rhubarb: Start harvesting established plantings of this perennial plant in mid-spring when leaves are fully mature. Pull the stalk upwards with a sideways twisting motion and away from the center of the plant. Avoid cutting the stalks as the cut may damage the crown of the plant and may provide an entry point for disease. Continue to harvest stalks until about mid-summer, at which point they start to become stringy. Do not remove more than two-thirds of existing stalks at any given time. Over-harvesting can rob the plant of vigor. Rhubarb leaves are not edible. They contain oxalic acid, which renders them mildly toxic, so cut them off the stalk along with about 1 to 2 inches of the stalk just below the leaves. Eat ONLY the stalk after it is cooked. TIP: Remove and discard any frost-damaged leaves in spring. The stress of freezing can cause oxalic acid in the leaves to migrate into the stalk.
Rutabagas: Rutabagas are ready for harvest when roots are 4 or 5 inches in diameter. Cool weather helps to develop the full flavor of this vegetable, so harvest them after a couple of hard frosts but before the ground freezes. Pull or carefully dig up the roots with a garden fork. Cut off the leaves an inch above the fleshy root. Wash off any soil and dry the roots quickly. Store in a humid root cellar at temperatures just above freezing or in the refrigerator in a plastic bag.
Shallots: Using a garden fork, gently dig up mature, dry shallot bulbs when they are 1 to 1½ inches in diameter and the tops have turned brown and flop over, usually in mid- to late summer. Cut off the tops and cure the shallots in a warm, dry place for about a week. Store in mesh bags in cool, dry conditions.
Spinach: Once they are about 3” long, start harvesting leaves from the outer part of the plant. Small leaves of this size have more flavor than large, heavily puckered leaves. Also, the tender young stems are easy to pinch off from the plant with your fingers, whereas older leaves tend to be more fibrous and need to be snipped off with scissors or pruners. Continue harvesting leaves until the plant sends up a flower stalk. That’s your signal that the plant has finished growing and is bolting. The leaves will taste bitter at that point.
Squash (Summer): Harvest when small and tender for the best flavor and texture. Flavor is lost once the skin toughens and the vegetable becomes seedy. Wait until mid-morning after the dew has dried to harvest summer squashes. Cut from the vine with a knife or pruners. Harvest DAILY. Squash can go from ideal harvest size to overly mature in a matter of a day or two.
- Straightneck squash — Harvest when 6 to 8 inches long. Beyond that point, the skin can become a little tougher.
- Crookneck squash – Harvest when a little smaller than straightneck varieties because they develop a thick skin earlier than straightneck varieties.
- Scallop or pattypan squash – Harvest when 3 to 4 inches across.
- Zucchini – Harvest when about 6 to 8 inches long and 1½ to 2 inches in diameter.
Squash (Winter): Winter squash is mature when fruits are fully colored, vines are starting to shrivel and dry, and the rind is hard and resistant to scratches with fingernails. Use pruning shears to cut the matured winter squashes from the vine but leave an inch or more of the stem attached. Cure in the sun for about 10 days to completely harden the rinds. If there’s a chance of frost or rain, move the squash to a shed or garage for protection. Store the cured squash in a cool (50 to 55°F), dark and dry location. TIP: Buttercup and banana squash store longer than butternut and acorn squash.
Sweet Potatoes: Yellowed foliage is an indication that sweet potatoes are ready for harvesting. Harvest any time after they reach usable size (which depends on the variety being grown) but before the first frost. To harvest, cut back the vines with pruners. Use a garden fork to gently lift the roots from the ground. The goal is to avoid bruising the roots. Cure the roots in the sun for a day and then move them to a shady area at about 80°F for 7 to 10 days.
Tomatoes: Harvest when fully vine-ripened but still firm. Ripe tomatoes generally separate from the plant with slight upward pressure. However, if they don’t separate easily, sever them from the vine with scissors or hand pruners to avoid damaging the plant. TIP: Before a killing frost, harvest unripened tomatoes from the vines and bring them indoors to finish ripening at room temperature. After washing and drying the tomatoes, wrap each one separately in newspaper, and place them in a single layer on a flat, wide tray or in a cardboard box. Space them so that they are not touching one another.
Tomatillos: Pick off the vine once the husk enclosing the tomatillo splits open. The fruit will be bright green and will feel firm. Tomatillos are overripe when they turn yellow and will taste bitter.
Turnips: For a sweeter, milder flavor, harvest when the roots measure 2 to 3 inches in diameter, depending on the variety. Larger turnips may have a strong, unappealing flavor. Harvest before the ground freezes. Either pull up by the foliage or use a garden fork to ease them from the soil.
“Asparagus,” Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 426-401
“Beans,” VCE Publication 426-402
Growing Chinese Cabbage and Bok Choy in Home Gardens,” University of Minnesota Extension Publication 790564
“Cole Crops or Brassicas,” VCE Publication 426-403
“Notes on Harvesting and Handling Melons,” VCE Publication 2906-1308
“Melons,” Iowa State University Extension Publication PM1892
“Onions, Garlic and Shallots,” VCE Publication 426-411
“IPM Series: Potatoes,” University of Maryland Extension Publication HG55
“Potatoes, Peppers, and Eggplant,” VCE Publication 426-413
“Specialty Crop Profile: Pumpkins: VCE Publication 438-100
“Specialty Crop Profile: Rhubarb,” VCE Publication 438-110
“Growing Rutabagas in the Home Garden,” University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Circular 942
“Homegrown Summer and Winter Squash,” University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Circular 993
“Tomatoes,” VCE Publication 426-418 426-418
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (Smith, Edward C., 2009)
Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast (Wallace, Ira, 2013)
A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables (Yepsen, Roger, 1998)
Master the Art of Vegetable Gardening (Mattus, Matt, 2018)