When To Harvest The Garden
It’s approaching the end of the growing season for gardeners, and all the hard work put into caring and growing the crops will soon pay off when harvesting the fruits and vegetables. Each plant is put into the earth with care and attention to the type of season in which they grow best, and should be harvested with the same care and attention. When to harvest is determined by the type of crop you have planted.
Fruits and vegetables are categorized into two seasons – cool (spring and fall) and warm (summer). Spring and Fall seasoned plants include hardy and semi-hardy vegetables. Knowing which plants are hardy and semi-hardy varieties are important because of how they tolerate frost. Summer plants include more delicate varieties that need warmer weather to grow. These plants cannot tolerate frost and will be killed by the colder months.
Although plants have specified weeks to maturity timeframe, the exact time when to harvest varies by the plants’ characteristics. Weather such as precipitation and temperature also determine the best time to harvest. Each fruit and vegetable need to be selected for harvest at just the right time to ensure prime ripening, optimal flavor, and ideal storage. Here are the guidelines of when to harvest the garden based on the season you planted.
Cool Season Plants:
Fruits and vegetables in the cooler season months are planted in early spring for a spring harvest and again in late summer for a fall harvest. These plants can tolerate temperatures of 25 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit for hardy vegetables and 29 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit for semi-hardy vegetables.
Common Hardy Vegetables Include:
- Broccoli: After a head begins to form, keep an eye out for tiny buds. Harvest when the buds are tightly closed. If the buds begin to swell or the flower petals turn yellow, cut off the head regardless of size. Once the head is removed, the plant will continue to grow small shoots.
- Brussels Sprouts: Harvest sprouts when tiny heads are firm and approximately one inch in diameter. Simply twist the sprout away from the main stem for removal. A trick to get the sprouts to mature at the same time is by cutting off the top of the plant six weeks prior to desired harvest time.
- Cabbage: Once the head of a cabbage form, harvest when heads are solid (test by squeezing them) or if it cracks. Cut the head from the base of the plant.
- Collards: When ready to eat, cut off the lower leaves of the plant leaving the top to continue to grow. Leaves can be eaten at any size, and can be regularly harvested as long as it has plenty of water.
- Kale: When the leaves and stems are of the gardener’s suitable size, they are ready for harvest. Since it is a frost tolerated plant, the frost improves its flavor.
- Radish: When radish is fully matured and the roots are ½ to 1 ½ inches in diameter, they are ready to be harvested. Do not leave in the ground past maturity because they will because tough and woody.
- Spinach: Spinach leaves can be harvested when they are big enough to eat. Pluck the lower leaves of the plant leaving the center to continue to grow. Leaves can be eaten at any size. If preferred, wait until the plants are filled out and pull up the plant as a whole being sure to cut off the roots. During a spring harvest, keep Spinach plants in the ground until they send out a seed stalk. For colder months, leave plants in place and they will produce all winter taking care to cover them with a frame or hay. They will then produce an early spring harvest.
- Turnip: When to harvest turnips is when their roots are one to three inches in diameter. As with kale, these plants’ flavor improves with frost.
Common Semi-hardy Vegetables Include:
- Beets: These are the easiest to harvest of the plants. Beets are ready to harvest when roots are one to two inches in diameter, and the spring-planted beets should be harvested before hot weather begins. For fall plants, harvest before the first freeze. The leaves of a beet plant can be eaten as a green (as a salad).
- Carrot: Carrots are ready to be cut when they are just under one inch in diameter, and before hot weather, if it is a spring planting. If a fall harvest, pick before the ground freezes. Use extreme caution while harvesting because bruising of the vegetable can develop into rot.
- Cauliflower: Cut the head once it reaches approximately six to eight inches in diameter, and remains small and compact. If the head starts to open, cut it off immediately regardless of size.
- Celery: Like beets, celery is easy to harvest. They are ready to be cut when they are 10 to 12 inches in height.
- Lettuce: Lettuce leaves follow the same rules as the collards leaves. When ready to harvest and eat, cut the lower leaves of the plant leaving the top to continue to grow. Leaves can be eaten at any size, and can be regularly harvested as long as it has plenty of water. Romaine lettuce should be left alone until it has formed the mid-rib and forms a head-like clump of loose leaves. If the lettuce begins to send shoot out seed stalks the leaves will be bitter, so harvest all lettuce immediately.
- Rutabaga: Rutabagas are ready to be harvested when their roots are in full size.
- Swiss Chard: Swiss chard plants follow the same rules as other leaves. When ready to eat, remove the outer leaves leaving the center to continue to grow.
Warm Season Plants:
These fruits and vegetables are planted in early spring after the last day of frost. They require warm weather of 65 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When to harvest depends on the fruit or vegetable.
Common Summer Plants Include:
- Beans: Beans can be harvested young or at full size, but waiting until full size gives a more bountiful harvest. Stems are fragile and can be easily broken, so be sure to use two hands when picking. Hold the stem with one hand while picking off the pod with the other hand. When beans begin to bear pods, pick every other day because they will rebloom and produce additional beans under ideal conditions.
- Cucumber: When to harvest cucumbers is once they have reached an ideal size to use. The more it’s harvested, the more fruit the vines will produce. To remove the cucumber from the stem, use clippers. Avoid oversized fruit as they will be more bitter and their seeds are harder to chew. Signs of an oversized fruit is yellowing on the bottom. If this occurs, cut it off the vine.
- Eggplant: This plant is one of the most difficult plants to judge when it’s ready to harvest. When it is ready to harvest it will stop growing, have a glossy skin, and have soft, white seeds when it’s sliced open. No visible seeds inside mean the fruit is immature, and hard, dark seeds mean the fruit is overripe. To remove eggplants off the stems, use pruning shears leaving a short stubbed stem attached.
- Melons: Melons are ready for harvest when they are ripe. Cantaloupes are ripe when the rind changes to yellow and the netting pattern becomes more defined. A crack encircles the base of the stem when it’s ripened. It will easily come off the stem when ready to be harvested. For honeydew, the skin will turn cream colored and will give a little when pressed (avoid excess pressing as it will give a false indication of ripeness). When ripened, cut off the stem leaving an inch of stem to avoid rot. Watermelons take two weeks to ripen. It is ripe when the rind is a dull green and the part of the rind touching the soil changes to a rich, creamy yellow. Another trick to testing ripeness is by thumbing on the skin. A low-pitched thud indicates the fruit is ripe while a high-pitched tinny sound indicates being under ripe.
- Okra: Similar to beans, okra will continue to rebloom once the pods are cut. When to harvest the pods is when they are at full size, and grow from the base of the plant. Once the pod has reached two to four inches, use pruning shears to cut them off the stems leaving a short stem attached. Use gloves when harvesting as the hair from the okra can irritate the skin.
- Peppers: Pepper varieties can be very patient once they mature, and can remain on the plant for several days past maturity. The benefit to leaving them for extra time is that bell peppers tend to sweeter when overripe while hot peppers are hotter when overripe. However, like beans and okra, peppers will reproduce more once if picked often. Peppers can be harvested when they are full size and fully colored, and should be removed using pruning shears. Leave a short stub of stem attached when removing the fruit.
- Pumpkins: Pumpkins are ready for harvest when the fruit is ripe. It is ripe when the rind is fully colored and hard, and the stem begins to shrivel and dry. When cutting from the vine (leaving at least an inch of stem), wear gloves and long sleeves to keep from itching. Do not lift a pumpkin by its stem because if the stem breaks, the pumpkin will not store well. Once harvested, leave pumpkins sitting in the sun for two weeks to harden the skin, seal the stem, and improve flavor.
- Peas: Peas can be plucked three weeks after flowers appear. A pod ready to be harvested will appear bumpy and have a bright green color. If pea pods are discolored or shriveled, they are overripe. The best time of the day to harvest plants are early in the morning. Take care to remove pods from the plant using scissors to cut the stem. Like beans, the more often they are harvested, the more the plant will produce.
- Summer Squash: These fruits are ready for harvest while still immature and tender. Sizes typically range not more than six to eight inches long and two inches in diameter. Harvest daily and cut fruits with a little of the stem still attached.
- Tomatoes: When to harvest tomatoes vary by plant. Generally, a ripe tomato is deep in color, but still slightly firm when gently squeezed. Remember – once a tomato is harvested, keep it stored at room temperature because colder temperatures (like in the fridge) can break down the tomato’s flavor.
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