Harvesting Vegetables – How & When to Pick

Artichokes – Cut the bud from the plant before the bud begins to open leaving 1-1/2 inch of stem. This is a fall-harvested crop, and the harvest can extend from fall through winter.

Asparagus – Harvest only large, thick stalks when they are 4 to 8 inches tall and the scales on the tips have yet to open. Thin stalks should be allowed to grow. It is a misconception that the thin stalks are young, tender shoots. They are actually a sign that the plants’ energy has been spent. Cut the stalks below the soil line with a sharp knife or a sharpened dandelion digger. It is important to keep the blade very close to the stalk being cut to avoid damaging other stalks, which have yet to emerge.’

Beans and Cowpeas  – There are many kinds of bean crops, but most fall into two categories for harvesting purposes; snap and shell. Snap beans are used fresh and should be harvested when the pods are full grown, but before the beans inside show a clear outline on the outside of the pod. The tips of the pods should be soft, the pods should snap easily and should be relatively stringless. Shell beans are used dried or frozen. They should be harvested when the outline of the beans is clearly visible on the outside of the pod, but the pods are not limp or dry. Beans picked with the shell too dry will be very hard to shell. Lima beans should not be allowed to dry in the pod as they become tough. If you are growing the beans especially to dry, they may be left on the bush until they are almost dry. Then the entire plant can be Pulled or Cut, and hung to complete drying. Completely drying beans in our area is difficult. A dehydrator may be used to finish the drying process. They should be frozen when they appear to be dry to prevent weevils from destroying the harvest.

Beets (Greens & Roots) – Early beets can be harvested when they are 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Start by Shearing the leafy tops leaving about 1-1/2 inch stub of stem on the root. This helps prevent the color bleeding during cooking or pickling. The tops can be used as greens. Pull the root gently from the ground, especially if there are adjacent beets still maturing. Late beets can be left in the ground all winter and harvested as they are needed.

Broccoli – The portion of the broccoli plant we use is actually the flowering head. Cut the flower cluster with 4 to 6 inches of stalk while the buds are still tight and no color is showing. The plant will form additional heads along the leaf axils below the original flower cluster. If these clusters are cut promptly when they reach maturity, the plant may continue to produce these smaller heads until hot weather causes the plant to bolt or decline.

Brussels Sprouts – The sprouts form along the stalk between and among the leaf axils. Harvest when they are full size and firm. Hold the sprout between your thumb and forefinger and twist it until it breaks from the stalk. The lowest sprouts will mature first, so harvest from the bottom up. It is better to harvest a little early than to let them become tough or yellowed. Remove the leaves between the sprouts as you harvest, leaving the leaves in the still developing area. As long as the weather permits, the plant can be left in the ground and the harvest can continue for several months. Light frost will not harm the plant or the sprouts but if a severe freeze threatens, Cut or Pull the entire stalk, remove the leaves, and store in a cool, dry place. The sprouts that are close to reaching maturity will continue to mature on the stalk.

Cabbage – Early cabbage should be picked before it is too mature. The heads can be cut and used as they are needed unless hot weather threatens to cause them to bolt or decline. Late cabbage is improved by a slight touch of frost. The heads can be harvested as they are needed through most winters. Light frost is not a threat. A hard freeze can be handled by covering the heads with newspapers and a cardboard box, weighted with a brick.

Carrot – Early carrots taste best if they are harvested when they are between one-half and one inch in diameter. Late carrots can be left in the ground throughout most mild winters. The tops should be removed as soon as possible. Leaving them can draw nutrients out of the root. Leave an inch of stem so the top will not dry out as quickly.

Cauliflower – Cauliflower must be prepared for harvesting before it is fully mature. When the head is about the size of an egg, the outer leaves must be tied around the head to protect it while it matures. Some people break the outer mid-rib of the leaves, allowing them to fall over the head, but the leaves should be left on as they provide food for the maturing head. As soon as the solid flower develops, it should be cut. Size is not as important as quality. The head should be firm, white, with distinct “curds”. Cauliflower deteriorates quickly if left in the garden too long. Once the heads have “riced” they will suffer a huge loss of flavor and texture.

Celery – Celery can be sheared below the ground, immediately above the roots. It can also be left in the ground and harvested as needed in mild winters if protected as for cabbage above.

Collards & Kale – Leaves should be removed from the outside of the plant as they reach almost full sized, but before they become tough and bitter. Young leaves can be harvested for salads. It is often said that a light frost improves the flavor. Collards and Kale may appear wilted immediately following a heavy overnight freeze, but they will recover within a few hours after daylight. If a heavy freeze threatens to last for several days, you may want to shear the entire plant.

Corn – Corn should be harvested when the silks are brown and dry, and while the kernels exude milk when pressed with a fingernail. Leaving corn on the stalk too long allows starches to form quickly and the corn looses its sweetness. Hold the stalk firmly. In one motion, bend the ear down and twist it around until it snaps from the stalk. Not all of the ears will mature at the same time, and corn is very shallow rooted, so preventing damage to the stalk is important.

Cucumbers – Cukes can be harvested at any size depending on use. If the cukes are to be used for pickling, they should be harvested between one and 6 inches long. Salad cukes can be allowed to grow to maturity, but they loose their peak flavor if they are allowed to grow too large and form mature seeds. Cut the cuke from the vine with about an inch of stem.

Eggplant – Eggplant is ripe when the skin is smooth, glossy, and unwrinkled. Eggplant can be harvested anytime after it is about one-third mature. Young eggplant is more tender and has smaller seeds. In addition, more fruit per plant will developed if young fruits are picked regularly. The stem of eggplant can be very woody and tough so a good pair of pruners or a very sharp knife is the best tool for cutting.

Garlic – Harvest when the leaves are fully dry and bent to the ground. Remove the tops leaving about one inch of stalk unless you intend to braid them for storage. Remove the roots leaving about one-half inch of root. The root will easily fall off once it is dried.

Leeks – Leeks can be left in the ground and pulled as needed throughout mild winters. If severe weather threatens, pull the crop. Leeks can be harvested as soon as they are the size of large scallions and can be used in the ways scallions are used.

Lettuce, Head – Head lettuce should be harvested when the heads are full sized and firm. Shear just below the base between the stem and the root.

Lettuce, Leaf – Mature leaves of leaf lettuce should be harvested from the plant by cutting them with a sharp pair of scissors or a knife leaving the rest of the leaves to mature. Harvest can continue until hot weather causes the plant to bolt.

Mustard Greens – Mustard greens can be harvested for use in a salad when they are 4 inches tall. If they are to be used for cooking, they can be harvested after they are 6 inches or longer. Mustard can be harvested by removing the outer leaves, or the entire plant can be sheared. If the shearing is not too close, the plant will produce several more crops during a season.

Okra – Okra pods are ready to pick just a few days after the flower falls off. Okra must be picked young as it toughens very quickly. The pods should be about the length of your index finger and tender to the touch. You should be able to pierce the skin just below the cap with your thumbnail. If they have toughened, no amount of cooking can save them; they are doomed for the compost pile. Clip from the plant leaving a short stem.

Onions – Onions can be harvested in many stages. Green onions should be picked before a bulb forms. Bulbing onions are ready to harvest when the stalks are beginning to fall over. If weather is warming, pull all of the onions when one-quarter of the tops have started to fall. If weather is cool, wait until half of the stalks have started to fall. It is best to leave the onions on top of the ground in a shady area for a few days to harden off and begin to dry before storage. Scallions are a bunching onion. They should be pulled as soon as they have reached eight to ten inches tall and about the size of a pencil. Mature scallions should be pulled before the first hard freeze and dried a few days before storage. Shallots can be pulled young and green and used like green or bunching onions or they can be allowed to mature to a bulb.

Parsnip – Parsnips can be pulled any time they are large enough to cook. They can be left in the ground throughout mild winters and pulled as needed.

Peas, English or Shell, Snap or Edible Pod – Shell or English peas should be harvested as soon as the pods seem well filled and before they begin to loose their color. Edible pod peas such as Snow Peas and Sugar Snaps should be harvested when the pod is full size, but the peas have not fully formed in the pod. Individual pods can be cut from the vines. You can also pinch the stems while they are tender. With a little practice, you can also harvest very quickly by holding the vine between your thumb and forefinger while cradling the pod in the palm of your hand and stretching your hand out. This pulls the pods loose one or two at a time.

Pea, Shoots & Tendrils – Beginning when the pea plants are 6″ – 8″ tall, harvest the terminal tip including the first set of leaves. After the pea plant branches out and begins to climb, you can harvest the top few inches every 3 – 4 weeks. Tendrils and flowers can also be harvested and steamed or used in stir fries. Eventually the stems will become tougher and slightly bitter; cease harvesting.

Peas, Southern or Field – This includes black-eyed peas, purple hulls, and crowder peas. They should be harvested as soon as the pea is well formed and visible in the pod, but before the pod dries out. Once the pods have started to dry out, it is best to leave them on the vines until they are fully dried, but harvest before the pods develop any moldy spots.

Peppers – Green peppers are ready to harvest when they are firm to the touch and become heavy. If left on the vine they will turn red or yellow depending on the variety. Allowing them to turn color does not harm the pepper, and it is a matter of preference, but be sure to pick them before they begin to soften. Red peppers should have a rich, even orange-red color before harvesting. Cut the stems about one-half inch long. Pepper plants are quite brittle and will break easily, be gentle.

Potato, Red or White Irish – Potatoes may be dug any time after the blossoms form. A few “new” potatoes may be dug carefully with your fingers, or the entire plant may be lifted with a fork. For large storing potatoes, it is best to allow the vines to yellow. At this stage, the skin will be thickened and tough enough not to be rubbed off. Newly dug potatoes should be allowed to cure in a dry shady spot before storing.

Pumpkins – Pumpkins are best harvested after the first frost. Cut about one inch of stem with a sharp knife or pruners. Pumpkins are usually allowed to cure for two to three weeks in the field. They can be raised on a brick to prevent rot.

Radish – Spring radishes should be pulled promptly after they attain their full size. There are many different kinds of radishes, and “full size” will differ for each. They can soon become woody if they are left in the ground too long, especially if temps are warm. Winter radishes can be left in the ground and pulled as needed.

Spinach – Spinach is usually sheared. The plant does not return after shearing. Shearing above the ground helps keep dirt off the leaves, which are notorious for requiring lots of washing. The patient gardener can harvest a few outer leaves at a time.

Squash, Summer – Summer squash should be should not be allowed to grow large. Any size from three to eight inches is best. Once the seeds have started to toughen, the tenderness of the squash quickly deteriorates. Patty Pan squash can be picked when it is one to four inches in diameter. The skin of summer squash should be tender enough to break easily when pressed with a fingernail. All squash should be removed from the plant even if it has become too large to be usable, or the plant will stop producing.

Squash, Winter – Winter squash should be left on the vine until frost threatens. They should be cut from the vine and left to harden like pumpkins. This will toughen their skin to extend storage life.

Sweet Potato – The first sweet potatoes can be dug as soon as they are large enough to cook. The only way to check is to dig a few and look. They can stay in the ground until the vines yellow then all the tubers should be dug. They should be dried in a cool dry place before storage. Sweet potatoes need to cure for at least two weeks before eating to allow their starches to turn to sugars.

Swiss Chard – Cutting may begin when the outer leaves are seven or eight inches tall. Remove the large outer leaves with a sharp knife or scissors. Leave the smaller inner leaves to mature. Swiss Chard may last throughout the summer and into the fall or winter if well watered, harvested, and fed. If it is happy, it may grow for several years from one planting.

Tomato – It is best to allow tomatoes to ripen on the vine, as this increases their Vitamin C content. If birds or other pests do not allow this, at least let them begin to turn pink before harvesting. Cut the tomato with a little stem, or cradle the tomato in your hand and twist until it releases from the vine. Tomato vines are quite tender and break easily, so be gentle.

Turnips – Spring turnips can be pulled when they are two to three inches in diameter. As soon as the weather warms, it is best to pull the entire crop as they might become woody. Winter turnips can be left in the ground and dug as required. Remove the green tops and leave a half-inch of root at the bottom. Turnips grown for greens should be sheared when they reach full size. Most turnips varieties grown for tops have worthless roots.  But the tops of turnips grown for the roots are generally good, depending on the timing of the harvest.