There are few things more rewarding to a home gardener than the harvest. Growers spend a lot of time and energy on their hobby and it only makes sense that getting a reward for their labor is a highly anticipated event.
So, when harvest time draws near, there are steps growers can take to ensure they harvest correctly and maximize the reward. There are many techniques for harvesting various fruits and vegetables and, in many cases, there is more than one correct way to properly preserve the harvest.
The type of crop being grown and the geographical location of the garden will affect the time of harvest and the techniques a grower can use. However, there are some general rules of thumb that can help growers get the most out of their harvests.
When to Harvest Your Crops
The best time of day to harvest is usually in the morning, right after the dew has dissipated. If morning isn’t an option, try harvesting on a cloudy or cooler day. The idea is to harvest vegetables when they have the highest water content. Grains are an exception to this rule and should be harvested when they are dry.
Many root vegetables have a larger harvest window and some can even be left in the ground into the winter. This is best done if the root vegetables are covered with mulch before the fall frost sets in. Even in climates where heavy snow is prevalent, it is possible to continue harvesting root vegetables far into the winter months. Most herbs and greens are best harvested while the plants are young and before they go to seed.
PLANT-SPECIFIC HARVESTING GUIDELINES
Growers can follow these plant-specific harvest guidelines to maximize their garden’s production:
Asparagus: Cut asparagus spears at ground level (best at a length of 4 to 10 in.). Stop harvesting when spear stems start to thin out or after six to eight weeks.
Beans: Clip the bean pods when they are young. Pods are most tender when beans are still small (1/4 to 1/3 their full size). The larger pods of some varieties can be left on the plant to dry and be used for seed the following season.
Beets: Begin harvesting when beets are 2 or 3 in. in diameter. Spring beets should be harvested before hot weather sets in. Fall beets can be harvested before the fall freeze or mulched for winter harvest.
Broccoli: Harvest the main head before flowers open, while still in a tight cluster and green in color. Once the main head is removed, smaller heads will develop off side shoots.
Brussels Sprouts: Prepare for harvest by removing the lowest leaves from the stalk. This will increase sprout production. Starting from the bottom of the stalk, harvest the Brussels sprouts when they are firm and an adequate size. Brussels sprouts can withstand a light frost (this may even improve flavor) but all sprouts should be harvested before a heavy freeze.
Cabbage: Harvest when cabbage heads feel solid. Over-mature heads tend to split.
Cantaloupe: There are two ways to tell when to harvest: when the color of the melon turns beige or the blossom end is soft and smells sweet. Once growers identify the smell of a ripe cantaloupe, they will usually use their noses to identify the proper time to harvest.
Carrots: Harvest when the top has a diameter of 1 to 2 in. Spring carrots should be harvested before hot weather. Fall carrots can be harvested before the ground freezes or mulched for winter harvest. Many growers believe a carrot harvested in winter is sweeter and more flavorful than carrots harvested at any other time of the year.
Cauliflower: In hotter climates, the outer leaves should be tied above the head to shade it. Harvest heads before they become yellow or show blemishes.
Chard (Swiss): Leaves can be harvested continuously throughout the growing season by breaking off the outer leaves.
Cucumber: Most varieties should be harvested when they are 1.5 to 3 in. in diameter and 5- to 9-in. long. Overripe cucumbers will taste and smell sour. Pickling varieties of cucumbers will be shorter in length and smaller in diameter.
Dry Onions: Harvest when tops have fallen over. Cure onions by braiding the tops together, or placing them in a mesh bag, and hang in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for three or four weeks. Tops can be removed when onions are fully dry.
Green Onions: Harvest green onions when the tops have reached 5 in. or more.
Head Lettuce: The entire plant should be harvested when the head feels firm and before the center bolts.
Horseradish: Harvest after severe frost, which brings out flavor. Horseradish can be mulched for winter harvest.
Jalapeno Peppers: Can be harvested as soon as fruit develops. Some growers prefer younger, greener peppers while others prefer more mature, colored peppers. For long-term storage, plants can be hung to dry in a warm, dark location.
Kale: Harvest leaves and leaf stems when they reach a desirable size. Many growers feel that frost improves flavor. Some kale varieties can be left in the ground during winter months for winter harvest.
Leaf Lettuce: Outer leaves can be harvested as they get to a suitable size throughout the entire growing season.
Parsnips: Harvest in late fall after frost. Parsnips can also be mulched for winter harvest.
Peas: Harvest when pods are light green and filled with mature peas. The yellowing of the pods is a sign of over-maturity.
Potatoes: Harvest after the tops have died, which is usually after the first frost of the season. Potatoes are best harvested when the ground is dry. Carefully dig around the base of the plant to avoid bruising. Allow the surface of the potatoes to dry in a dark, well-ventilated location. Potatoes are best stored at 45 to 55°F.
Rhubarb: Leaf stalks can be harvested when they are ½ to 1 in. in diameter.
Spinach: Break off the outer leaves as the plant grows or cut down the entire plant to harvest.
Squash: Harvest squash before the first frost with a sharp knife and leave at least 1 in. of stem attached. The stem helps to avoid decay around the stem scar. Cure in a dry, well-ventilated area for 10 days at 70 to 80°F.
Sweet Corn: When the tip feels full through the husk, it is time to harvest. Another way to check if sweet corn is ready is by pressing a kernel with your fingernail. If a milky sap comes out, it is ready. Sweet corn should be used soon after harvest or the kernels can be cut from the cob and frozen for long-term storage.
Sweet Peppers: Harvest when fruits are firm and full size.
Sweet Potatoes: This vegetable should be harvested before frost and freezing temperatures. Avoid bruising when digging, as bruised sweet potatoes will rot. Cure for one week at 75 to 85°F in a well-ventilated area.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are ready when fruits are red but not soft. All remaining green tomatoes should be harvested before frost and wrapped in newspaper or placed in paper bags and kept at a temperature between 55 and 70°F. Green tomatoes harvested in this way should be checked regularly for ripening.
Turnips: Can be harvested from the time they are 1 in. in diameter. Turnips can withstand light frosts and many growers feel the frost improves the flavor.
Watermelon: To check a watermelon for ripeness, tap it hard with your thumb or finger. A ripe melon will sound hollow. A visual indicator of ripeness is the underside of the melon, which will turn from white to yellow as the fruit matures.
Tips for Storing and Preserving Your Vegetables
After harvesting your vegetables, it is important to preserve them properly. Proper preservation will extend the time growers can enjoy the fruits of their labor. As with harvesting techniques, there are many variables involved, but following a few general rules of thumb can help a gardener extend the life of produce.
Room Temperature Storage
A few vegetables—when ripe—store best at room temperature. These include peppers and tomatoes. Fruits, including ripe plums and peaches, store best at room temperature as well.
Root cellars are a great place to store many fruits and vegetables. Root vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, beets and parsnips, along with cabbage, store well in a cool, dark cellar. Remember, many root vegetables can also be kept protected in the ground during winter months by covering them with mulch before the heavy fall frost.
The refrigerator is a great place to store vegetables like lettuce, spinach, peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, fresh herbs and squash. Apples, pears, muskmelons and watermelons also benefit from refrigerator storage. The refrigerator is a good way to prolong the life of many fruits and vegetables that would otherwise need to be eaten immediately.
The freezer is another solution for many fruits and vegetables and can help preserve produce for longer periods of time. Most fruits and vegetables are preserved best if blanched before they are frozen. Remember, freezing produce will break down the cell walls and can dramatically change the texture of the fruits or vegetables. Most frozen produce is preserved for later use in cooking, baking or canning.
Canning is an easy way to preserve many different fruits and vegetables for long-term storage. Highly acidic vegetables, such as tomatoes, are perfect for canning. Other fruits and vegetables can be canned in a brine or syrup for long-term storage. The biggest advantage of canning is that the finished product can be stored unrefrigerated until the seal is broken. This means it can be stored in a cupboard or pantry for long periods of time.
Drying is an ideal way to preserve herbs for later use. Most herbs can be harvested and hung to dry in a dark location with adequate ventilation. Once dried, they can be stored in glass containers for later use. With the help of a dehydrator, many fruits and vegetables can also be preserved by drying.
Horticulturists can implement many methods to harvest and preserve their crops. The best way to figure out which method works well for you is through experimentation. Growers who practice different harvesting techniques are rewarded with more bountiful yields and longer harvest durations.
Harvesting and preserving properly is just as important as growing the plants themselves. When growers go through the steps to preserve their harvest, they will extend the enjoyment and rewards they receive from their gardens.