Enjoy the fruits of your labor - Harvesting basics
In order to enjoy the fruits of all that labor you put into your garden you’ll have to harvest, but sometimes it’s hard to tell when something is ready to go. As gardeners we know our food is good even when it doesn’t look perfect, so the good news is that it’s not absolutely necessary that we have our harvesting techniques down to a science (like many of our fellow farmer friends do). So go ahead and give yourself a break, but read on for some harvesting tips.
I would argue that as gardeners we are mainly concerned with harvesting crops before it is too late…... Too late generally means the plant has started to flower, which means it is putting more energy into growing seed rather than its various parts that we like to eat. And this generally results in a bitter-tasting veggie that is starting to lose its nutritional punch. But even when it’s “too late,” it’s often not really too late. You’ll see.
On the other hand, many things actually taste a little sweeter when harvested on the early side, for example, carrots, beets, and pretty much any kind of green. We miss out on some growth potential if we harvest our crops early, but they’ll still pack plenty of nutrients! (and look cute too…?) This also comes in handy when you are thinning your rows — big or small, they are still edible.
Carrots and Beets and Greens – oh my!
Crops like the aforementioned carrots, beets, and greens are fairly straightforward. You can tell just by looking at their size if they are ready. In general, if your veggies look like something you could get at the grocery store, they are ready to go! Carrots are typically at their peak around 1” – 2” in thickness, while beets are typically at their peak around 2” – 3” in thickness. You can poke your finger in the ground to feel how big your carrots and beets or other root veggies are, and of course you can just admire those beautiful leafy greens from afar to figure out if they’re ready for pickin’.
Note that regular, timely harvest of greens (including kale, lettuces, swiss chard, etc.) usually increases the length of harvest. And if you’re not going to eat them right away, it’s best to pick greens in the early morning or evening when the sun isn’t so hot – it helps to keep the greens from wilting.
A few other common crops are harder to determine – like squash, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, cabbage, and broccoli and cauliflower. Here’s a little more info on those:
Squash – summer and winter varieties
Summer squashes are best harvested when young and tender, when their skin is easily penetrated by a fingernail. Zucchinis grow a ton in a day, so these guys require a careful eye. If you run late harvesting one it will probably taste better shredded in zucchini bread than used fresh. Or, hollow out the seeds, stuff it with a yummy filling, and bake!
Unlike with your zukes, you don’t want to watch winter squash so closely every day – at least not for awhile (unless you enjoy watching water boil). The hard skin of winter squash develops over time and is what helps it store so well, so you don’t want to rush on harvesting these gems. Mature winter squash will be hard and impervious to scratching. Once that thick skin has developed and you perform the fingernail test (press a thumbnail against the skin; your nail shouldn’t leave a visible dent) harvest your squash, leaving at least 1” of stem attached. It’s also best to harvest before a frost comes, which could decrease their storage time.
These also can grow a lot in a short amount of time and so require a watchful eye. Cucumbers are best when slightly immature. Most varieties will be 1.5”- 2.5” in diameter and 5”- 8” long, except for pickling cucumbers, which will be blocky and not as long. Immature cukes are spiky, but will become less spiky as they mature. You can easily wash off the rest of the cucumber spikes after harvesting by running your hand over the cucumber under water. If you get to a cuke too late, it will still taste pretty good pickled!
You can harvest potatoes early or late, depending on your preference or what you plan to use the potato for. New potatoes, or earlies, can be harvested soon after the plants start blooming their beautiful flowers. Early potatoes are generally smaller and don’t store well so you want to eat them right away.
Or you can wait to harvest a crop of potatoes later – after the tops have died down and when the ground is dry. These potatoes will store much better, as long as they are cured for 10-14 days in a dark, well-ventilated location at 45 F to 60 F.
Onions can be harvested at different times according to what you’ll be using them for. If using them fresh, harvest at ¼”- 1” in diameter (basically, when they look big enough to be useful for whatever you need them for). If harvesting onions for storage, wait until they are bigger, their tops have fallen over, and their necks are shriveled. A mature bulb will not be dented if you push your finger into it. To cure onions, place them in a single layer or mesh bag in a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 3-4 weeks. Remove their tops when fully dry.
Cabbage is ready to harvest when the leaves surrounding the head start to open up a bit, and when the heads are solid. If cabbage heads become over mature they may split. If your head splits, it’s still edible. It just won’t last as long and you’ll likely have to cut out the parts around the split.
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli and Cauliflower may be the trickiest plants in regards to timing their harvest. Broccoli is best harvested 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. I often get to my broccoli a little too late (oops), but I still eat it, flowers and all!
When harvesting, 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 side-shoots in the axils of leaves and you can get 4 to 6 additional cuttings of shoots per plant over several weeks.
Follow the same rule of thumb for cauliflower, but when the curds are about 1”-2” in diameter fold some of the outer leaves over the cauliflower heads. This helps prevent the head from becoming yellow and/or blemished. Once you cover the heads they should be ready for harvest in 1-2 weeks.