Harvesting Basics: A Guide to Harvesting the Best Tasting Vegetables and Fruits from Your Garden

Those broccoli plants growing in your garden definitely look beautiful with their vibrant yellow flowers all abuzz with honeybees, but I can assure you that they probably don’t taste great.  Why is that?  When a plant flowers, also known as “bolting,” all of its energy is sent to making a seed, which will detract sweetness from leaves and stems as it sends them to the seed.  Plants will bolt when the weather gets warm or when day length increases.  This is common, for example, if cool weather crops such as spinach, are planted too late and the weather becomes warmer.  Of course, this is okay for some plants from which we eat seeds or fruits, such as peas, beans, and squash.  A general rule of thumb is to harvest plants, from which we do not eat seeds, but instead the roots, leaves, and stalks, before they bolt.  Bolting plants can be avoided by planting crops according to the cool or warm weather they prefer, respectively.  The following chart will list what to harvest when to ensure that you will eat only the tastiest vegetables and fruits from your garden!

Vegetable/Fruit When to Harvest
Beet Begin harvest when beet is 1” in diameter. Beet tops at this time make excellent tender greens. Begin main harvest when beets are 2”-3”. Harvest spring planted beets before hot weather (July). Harvest fall beets before the first moderate freeze or mulch heavily for winter harvest.
Cabbage Harvest when heads are solid. If heads become over mature they may split. To delay harvest and prevent splitting, pull upward on head until upper roots snap.
Carrot Harvest at 1”-2” thickness. Harvest spring carrots before hot weather (July). Fall planted carrots should be harvested before ground freezes, or mulch heavily for winter harvest.
Chard A green that may be harvested continuously by breaking off outer leaves. Spring planting will provide greens from early summer to first moderate freeze.
Horseradish Harvest after several severe freezes or mulch heavily for winter harvest.
Kale Harvest leaves and leaf stems when they reach suitable size. Frost improves flavor.
Lettuce, Leaf Harvest outer leaves as they attain suitable size. Timely picking increases length of harvest.
Lettuce, Head Harvest entire plant when head feels firm but before center bolts.
Onions, Bulb Harvest at ¼”-1” for fresh table use, 1”-1 ½” for boiling and pickling, and when tops have fallen over & necks are shriveled for storage and general cooking. Fingers will not dent mature bulbs. Cure onions by placing in a single layer or mesh bag in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 3-4 weeks. Remove tops when fully dry.
Onions, Green Harvest green onions when they attain sufficient size.
Parsnip Harvest in late fall after several moderate freezes or mulch heavily for winter harvest. Exposure to cold improves flavor.
Peas, Shelling Harvest in late fall after several moderate freezes or mulch heavily for winter harvest. Exposure to cold improves flavor.
Peas, Snow As opposed to garden peas, snow peas should be harvested when they attain full size and seeds begin to show. Do not allow pod to fill out.
Turnip Turnips can be harvested from the time they are 1” in diameter. They are best as a fall crop and can withstand several light freezes. Frost improves flavor. Stems become woody if left too long before harvest or if grown under poor conditions
Broccoli Harvest while heads are a deep green, still compact, and before buds start to open into flowers. If the buds start to separate and the yellow petals inside start to show, harvest immediately. Cut the stem at a slant about 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) below the head. Removing the head on some varieties will produce sideshoots in the axils of leaves and you can get 4 to 6 cuttings of shoots per plant over several weeks. The thick stems are edible, but they should be peeled first. The leaves are tough, but usable in soups and stews.
Brussels sprouts Remove lowest leaves from stalk to improve sprout size. Harvest sprouts (small heads) when they are firm in size starting from the bottom. Frost improves flavor, but harvest before first severe freeze.
Cauliflower Tie outer leaves above the head when curds are about 1”-2” in diameter. Heads will be ready for harvest in 1-2 weeks. Pick before head becomes yellow, ricey or blemished.
Potato Harvest new potatoes 2 weeks after blooming. Harvest main crop after tops have died down and when ground is dry. Dig carefully to avoid bruising and allow to surface dry. Cure for 10-14 days in a dark, well-ventilated location at 45 F to 60 F.
Beans (Bush and Pole) 
Pods should be firm and crisp at harvest and about as thick as a pencil; they should snap when you break one in half. The seeds inside should be very small and underdeveloped, because beans are overmature if the seeds have begun to fill out the pods. Hold the stem with one hand and the pod with the other to avoid pulling off branches that will produce later pickings. You can carefully pinch the pods with your fingers or use a scissors. Pick all pods to keep plants productive.
Corn, Sweet Wait to harvest sweet corn until tip feels full through husk. Silks will be dry and kernels filled out. To check for maturity, open top of ear and press a kernel with thumbnail. If it exudes a milky sap, it is ready for harvest. Use as soon as possible after harvest.
Cucumber Cucumbers are best when slightly immature, just as the spines soften and before the seeds become half-size. This will vary with variety. Most varieties will be 1 ½”-2 ½” in diameter, 5”-8” long. Pickling cucumbers will be blocky and not as long.
Eggplant Harvest when fruits are nearly full-grown but color is still bright and shiny. Overripe when color dulls and seeds turn brown.
Muskmelon, Cantaloupe There are three ways to tell when to harvest muskmelon; when stem slips easily from vine, surface netting turns beige, and blossom end is soft and smells sweet.
Okra Okra pods are ready to harvest when they are 2”-3” long and snap easily. Over-mature pods become tough and woody.
Pepper, Hot Harvest as needed. Young, green peppers are hotter than mature, colored ones. For long-term storage, pull plants late in season and hang to dry in a warm, well-ventilated place.
Pepper, Sweet Harvest when fruits are firm and full size. If red fruits are desired, leave on plant until red color develops.
Squash, Summer Best when harvested young and tender. Skin should be easily penetrated with the thumbnail.
Squash, Winter  and Pumpkin Maturity can be roughly determined by pressure from the thumbnail on the fruit skin. Mature fruit will be hard and impervious to scratching. Harvest squash before the first hard frost with a sharp knife, leaving at least 1” of stem attached. Fruit picked without the stem will soon decay around the stem scar. Cure in a dry, well-ventilated area for 10 days at 75 F to 85 F.
Tomato Harvest when fruits are uniformly red, but before end softens. Ripe fruit sinks in water. Vine-ripened tomatoes are sweetest, but tomatoes will ripen off the vine if picked green. Green tomatoes, harvested before frost, should be wrapped in newspaper and kept at 55 F to 70 F. Tomatoes stored in this manner should last 3-5 weeks. Be sure to inspect each week for ripeness.
Watermelon Best indicator for ripe fruit is by the sound. Thumping a mature melon gives a dull hollow thud while an immature melon gives a ringing metallic sound. Also, the underside of a ripe melon turns from white to yellow and the tendril at the juncture of the fruit stem and the vine usually dies when the fruit is mature.