When summer is in full bloom, many of the veggies you've been working hard to grow since spring are ready to be brought inside to the dinner table. Harvesting your hard-earned vegetables can be one of the most rewarding parts of gardening.
The best time to harvest vegetables depends on the type of vegetable. A leaf vegetable will need to be harvested at a different time in its growing period than a root or stem vegetable. You will get the most out of your garden by learning when to harvest your vegetables at their peak growing time.
Leaf vegetables should be harvested before they reach full maturity; you can harvest them just about any time after planting. The earlier in the growing process, the sweeter the plant's leaves will taste. To harvest, simply use a knife or scissors to remove the leaves. If harvesting loose-leaf lettuce, cut the plant close to the ground to allow re-growth of the plant in the same growing season. Cabbage can be harvested before it grows hearts in spring or early summer. If you let your cabbage grow until it forms hearts, harvest before it produces flower stalks.
Root vegetables, along with tuber and bulb vegetables, can be harvested from as soon as they are big enough to eat, up until they have reached their full maturity. Growing vegetables like carrots, turnips and beets closer together and harvesting early will give you "baby" vegetables - vegetables smaller in size, but still edible. Carrots can also be left in the ground several months after they are full grown and pulled up as your family needs them throughout the winter (as long as your region does not experience a hard frost).
For vegetables that produce seeds, the type of plant will determine when you should harvest. Summer squash and eggplant should be harvested when they are almost ripe for the best flavor and tenderness. Winter squash and pumpkins should be harvested when they have reached their full ripeness. Cucumbers should be harvested at different times depending on what you plan to use them for. Small cucumbers are perfect for sweet pickles. Medium sized cucumbers are used for dill pickles. And large cucumbers are best for slicing and eating.
Tomatoes and peppers can be harvested at different times in their growing periods. Tomatoes can be harvested when they are nearly ripe and then continue to ripen off the plant, or when they reach their full ripeness if you are intending on using them right away. Tomatoes can even remain on the vine for up to a week after they are ripe to give them a stronger flavor. Be vigilant if you choose to leave tomatoes in the garden after they are ripe - ripe tomatoes are easily damaged by wind and rain. Bell peppers can be harvested when they are green and reach a good size, or you can let them continue to grow into yellow, red, purple or brown peppers, depending on the variety you planted.
Asparagus and rhubarb should not be harvested of all the stalks they produce or they will not survive or thrive the following year. Asparagus can be harvested when the stalks reach 6 to 8 inches long, but should only be harvested once the plant is at least three years old. Harvest a three-year-old asparagus plant for four weeks; harvest older plants for up to eight weeks. Rhubarb can be harvested when the leafstalks are 12 to 15 inches with thick, crispy leaves. However, rhubarb should not be harvested the first year; two-year-old plants can be harvested for one or two weeks only; older plants can be harvested for eight weeks.
Make sure you stay on top of your vegetable garden and harvest plants as soon as they are ripe to get the best vegetables. The timing of vegetable harvesting depends on many factors. The date you planted your vegetables, your growing zone, and the weather conditions this year will all make a big difference. Avoid pulling out vegetables just because this is when you've done it in previous years. Instead, watch each individual plant for its peak harvesting conditions. Below are some of the most common vegetables grown in American gardens and what to look for when deciding if they're ready to be harvested.
|Vegetable||When to Harvest|
|Green onion||When greens are 6 inches tall|
|Cabbage||When the head is firm|
|Turnip||Harvest for leaves & roots when leaves are 4-6 inches; harvest for roots when roots are 2-3 inches wide|
|Asparagus||When stalks are 6-8 inches and tips are tightly wrapped|
|Rhubarb||When stalks are 10 inches long; stop harvest in July|
|Spinach||When outer leaves are 6-8 inches in length|
|Leaf lettuce||When the outer leaves are 4-6 inches|
|Summer squash||When fruit is 6-8 inches long|
|Winter squash||When rind is firm and develops deep, even color|
|Radish||When root is fully developed|
|Beets||When root is fully developed|
|Broccoli||When head (flower bud) is full size, before yellow flowers appear|
|Tomato||When color is fully developed|
|Pepper||When color is developed and fruit is firm|
|Cucumber||Depends on use (see above)|
|Potato||when tops die and tubers become full size|
|Onion||When shoots fall over and start to dry out|
|Eggplant||When fruit is 6 to 8 inches long and shiny|
|Watermelon||When fruit turns pale green and leaves near fruit curl and dry|
|Carrots||When full-grown (depends on variety; pull one to check). Baby carrots can be pulled up to 3 weeks early for a sweeter flavor.|
|Pumpkins||When rind is firm and area on ground turns orange|
It is best to harvest your vegetables in early morning when your crops are still cool or pick them right before you are going to use them so they do not lose flavor. Knowing when to harvest vegetables in their growth periods can make or break a good vegetable and with these tips you can be sure to have a successful harvesting season.
For tips on how to arrange your vegetable garden, watch our Vegetable Gardening How-To Video. You can also read our article Five Easy Steps to Growing Fresh Vegetables & Herbs and visit our Vegetable Library to find out where to start when you're new to vegetable gardening.