Harvest Time: Tips for a Better Bounty
Did you know morning is the best time to pick your produce, or that plants like to be harvested before its fruits are past peak? Chris Bond offers harvest tips on the 10 most popular garden plants so you can get the yield you were hoping for.
You’ve studied seed catalogs, painstakingly prepared your planting areas, lovingly spaced out your seeds or seedlings, and tended to them all season long. Your payoff should be a bountiful harvest! Many times, however, harvesting can be anticlimactic if it is not done at the right time or the right way.
Timing the Harvest
Harvesting your vegetables at the right time makes all the difference between an okay harvest and a great one. The time of day matters just as much as the time of year.
Days to Maturity — Seed packets will tell you an average number of days between sowing and harvesting and it is different with each crop. It is also not an exact science as your particular ground and environmental conditions as well as the care taken and pest pressures will dictate the actual timing. Don’t rely on the number of days as exact, but rather as a guideline. A crop that says 90 days to maturity might be ready in 85, or not until 102, for example. Nonetheless, you can probably mark your calendars with a 10-day to two-week window around the expected harvest time of each crop.
Time of Day — Almost every single type of vegetable will taste better if picked in the early morning. Overnight, plants regain moisture lost during the previous day and starches convert to sugars. Produce will never taste fresher, juicier, or sweeter than when it is first picked in the morning. Late evening harvesting is the second-best time of day if a morning plucking is not possible. Avoid the warmest parts of the day for best results.
After Picking — Keep your harvest out of the sun and into cool or cold water if it can’t go into the refrigerator right away (except for those vegetables that do better on the counter like tomatoes).
Harvest Tools and Methods
Vegetables should be harvested gently so as to not disturb the rest of the plant and interfere with its ability to produce more. If a vegetable does not come off with a twist of the wrist, then a clean cut is best (if the vegetable is ripe for picking).
Keep pruning tools sharp and clean — Sanitize them frequently to avoid the chance of transferring diseases unknowingly. Clean cuts heal faster than rough ones.
Harvest frequently — Your plants will reward you if you pick from them often and don’t wait until everything on them is past-peak.
- What to Do at the End of the Summer Gardening Season
- Preparing Your Plants for Harvest
- 10 Helpful Post-Harvest Hints
Specific Harvest Tips
Obviously not all vegetables are the same and their times to be harvested and indicators that they are peaking vary wildly. There are often similarities in harvest methods and times for plants in the same family, though not always (there’s always an exception!). For some of the more commonly grown crops, use these tips as a guide for when your plants are ready to be harvested.
Beets — Beets are harvestable at different times. Not only can you get two or more crops per year, but they are harvestable at different stages of growth depending on what the intent of growing them is. If there is no concern for harvesting the greens, then let them get woody and let the beet grow until it is at least three inches (8cm) across before digging up. If intending to eat the greens as well, harvest the beets when they are no more than two inches (5cm) in diameter. They can be harvested as small as one inch (2.5cm) if smaller ones are desired.
Cabbage — Harvest heads when they are firm and before they start to split. Heads can be from 4-10 inches in diameter (10-25cm). Twist off carefully to break it free of its roots. Plan on harvesting as early as two months after sowing, to as long as three months.
Carrots — Carrot types have a range of sizes and colors. They typically start getting harvested once you can see they are at least one-half to three-quarters of an inch (1.25-2cm) in diameter, but can stay in until they are as wide as 1.5 inches in diameter (4cm). Like beets, there can be more than one harvest per year as mulched-in carrots can stay in the ground over winter. Each crop will take up to 80 or so days to reach maturity from seed.
Collards and Kale — Leaves can be harvested almost as soon as they appear. Do not cut or harvest all the leaves at once so the plant can continue to grow and provide harvestable leaves throughout the season. Take older leaves at the bottom of the plant first and before the midrib gets wide. Harvesting after a frost improves the flavor.
Cucumber — Cucumbers can be harvested anytime they are 2 inches (5cm) or longer, and firm, but before the skin turns yellow, tough, and bitter. Slicing types are usually best picked starting at six inches (15cm) long and pickling at two inches. Harvesting with a knife or pruners should be done often to encourage continual production, even as often as daily when needed. Harvesting usually begins about two months after seeding. Vines should not be disturbed when harvesting as it can impede future production.
Garlic — Once at least one-third of the tops of garlic have died back in the summer, it is time to start harvesting garlic. Pull or dig out the entire plant and brush off the excess soil. Don’t wash them, but lay them out or hang them in a warm, but shady area for a few weeks. Once the neck is dry and the outside skin starts to flake, then the tops can be cut off and it is ready for use.
Peppers — Pick or cut off bell peppers when about baseball size and shiny green. Cutting is preferable to avoid pulling off branches. Keep them on the vine longer if you want them to turn red, yellow, or orange. Maturity is usually 75-85 days. Hot peppers will be red or yellow when ripe, but can be eaten green. The whole plant can be pulled out just before frost and hung inside for continued harvests.
Summer Squash — Harvest when they are tender and shiny or glossy. Unless the variety requires otherwise, harvest when squashes are 1.5-2 inches (3-5cm) in diameter and six or more inches (15+cm) long. When they can be indented with a fingernail, they are ripe enough to harvest. Cut from vine or twist off if it can be done without damaging the vine. Harvest frequently or the plants could stop producing. Leaving ripe fruit on the vine also leads to harder skin and the quality and taste deteriorate. Spaghetti and banana squashes can be picked when golden colored. Summer squashes start to ripen at about 50 days.
Snap Beans — Pods can be harvested when they are almost full sized, but before the seeds inside of them start to push out the pod walls. Beans should be barely pliable and snap when bent, and harvested just above the “cap.” Unless growing a yellow bean, pick before they turn yellow. Bush beans will be harvestable in about 60 days, pole beans before 90 days, and up to 100 days for Lima beans.
Tomatoes — Because there is such a range in color and size of tomatoes, judge by firmness. Don’t let them stay on the vine too long to the point of starting to get soft, unless the point of growing them is for juice or sauce. After picking, get them into the shade as soon as practical or inside the house. Like peppers, if frost is imminent, the whole plant can be cut and brought in for an extended harvest. Most tomatoes can start getting harvested between 55 and 75 days from being planted.
Things to Keep in Mind While Harvesting
Even when you have timed everything perfectly and know when the optimal time to harvest each type of vegetable is, there are still some things to keep in mind.
Tread lightly while harvesting — Stepping on vines or even other vegetables while harvesting can cause openings and wounds which can then be infected by any number of pathogens. When walking through your crop when it is wet, you can inadvertently spread disease as you go. When possible, it is better to harvest when it is dry.
Handle the harvest gently — Many types of produce are prone to easy bruising. Once bruised, they typically lose some of their sweetness and their shelf life is reduced. Bruises also open up the opportunity for insects or diseases to set in.
Inspect your harvest — You may not have noticed the insect or disease when you were picking but you don’t want to transfer it back onto the rest of your crop. Make sure to properly dispose of it and note what it was so that you can be on the lookout for the same pest.
Harvesting your garden is the reward for all your hard work and care. By doing it right, your plants will be happier and your crisper full.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.