In the gardener’s year, if spring is for planting, then summer is the time for harvesting. You’ve put all the work in getting the garden started early; summer is the time to enjoy the bounty.
At this stage, it’s important to pick edibles at the right time for each type. You want to harvest at the peak time for nutrition and flavor. And it’s important to ask yourself questions about what will happen in the kitchen later: Will you eat them immediately? Or will you can, preserve or freeze the produce?
There's lots of ways to share the bounty from your vegetable garden. You can share homegrown vegetables with neighbors and friends. Local food pantries will accept homegrown produce, too, and distribute it to families in your community. Check out ampleharvest.org for more information.
When to Harvest Vegetables
Timing is, after all, everything. Vegetables picked before their time may not be sweet enough, or the texture will be wrong. But when English peas and sweet corn are ready, plan to eat them right away, because the sugars quickly convert to starches and the vegetables lose flavor.
As a rule, pick veggies early and often. Beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, yellow squash and zucchini can all be picked when young and tender. Picking early and often stimulates more growth and more fruit because plants want to produce seeds. When you pick the fruit before it forms seeds, the plant puts more energy into creating more fruit.
If you wait too late to pick some vegetables, the plants will terminate, or stop producing. Vegetables harvested too late can also be tough or woody.
Peppers are an example of vegetables that taste better when they’ve matured on the vine. When bell peppers are green, they can be unpleasant and sharp. Let them mature in the sun and they will sweeten up. Corn and melons like cantaloupes are more examples of fruit that shouldn’t be picked too soon.
Some vegetables continue to ripen after they’re picked. Two popular examples are tomatoes and winter squash like pumpkins. Pick them and store in a warm, dry location.
How to Harvest Vegetables
- Pick early in the day when it’s cool.
- If your plan is to process the vegetables by canning, pickling or freezing, pick as close to the preparation time as you can so the veggies don’t lose flavor and nutrients.
- Bring a basket and a garden knife or scissors with you to the garden.
- When picking root vegetables, water the soil first so the roots will be loosened and easy to pull.
To get the most from your plants, you need to know the best time to pick and the best tools to use. Here are more tips to ensure that you enjoy your homegrown produce at its finest.
Corn is ready to eat when the silks have begun to turn brown on the end of the cob. If you are still uncertain, pull back a husk, check to see that the kernels have filled out, and break open a kernel. If it’s milky, it’s ready. For sweeter corn, pick in the morning. Twist the cob as you pull it down to break it from the stalk.
For the best flavor, pick when the fruit has a glossy skin. Cut from the plant with snips, leaving a piece of the stem attached. It's a good idea to wear gloves and long sleeves when picking eggplant; the stems can be scratchy.
Green beans are best when the pods are tender and the beans inside have not yet begun to swell. Pick often to catch them at their best, at least two to three times per week. Use small snips to avoid pulling off future flowers along with the bean.
Okra grows fast in hot weather. Pick every other day, choosing pods between 2 and 4 inches long. Use small snips, and wear long sleeves and gardening gloves to protect your arms and hands from the scratchy leaf hairs. Discard long pods that have grown too tough to eat.
Any pepper can be picked while green, but fruit that matures to red, yellow or orange will be sweeter or hotter, depending on the variety. Cut peppers, rather than pulling them, to avoid breaking branches. Wear gloves while picking hot peppers and don’t touch your eyes when handling them.
Learn more about growing peppers in your garden.
Summer Squash and Zucchini
Summer squash and zucchini are best picked young and tender, before the seeds inside become inedible. Use a sharp knife to remove the fruits from the plant. Squash grows fast in summer, so harvest at least every other day.
Before the first frost, use a digging fork to loosen the soil in a wide circle around the plant. Pull the crown, trim off the vine, then use your hands to gather the potatoes. (Be sure to check anywhere the vine seems rooted to the ground, as there may be more.) Let them cure, unwashed, in a warm spot for seven to 10 days to develop their sweetness.
Fruit should be fully colored, meaning red, orange, yellow or purple, depending on the variety, but still firm when squeezed gently. Slightly under-ripe tomatoes will continue to mature after picking. Always store tomatoes at room temperature out of direct sunlight.
Learn more about growing tomatoes in your garden.
Watermelon and Cantaloupe
When ready, melons will appear dull green and not bright, and when you gently turn over the fruit, the color next to the soil will be yellow, not white. You should hear a deep thud when you thump on it. Cut melons with shears or a knife, leaving an inch of stem.
When ripe, the tan netting of a cantaloupe becomes more noticeable against a golden background, and a crack appears around the base of the stem. These fruits should be easy to pick without any tools.
Winter Squash (Including Pumpkins)
Use a knife to cut them from the vine before frost arrives. They are ready when they are fully colored with a hard rind and a shriveling stem. If you avoid lifting them by the stems, they will last longer in storage.
Learn more about growing and storing pumpkins.
The leaves and stems of most herbs can be harvested throughout the growing season. In fact, many plants respond to frequent harvesting by generating fresh, flavorful new growth. Here are a few tips for harvesting some popular herbs.
- Basil: Begin pinching leaves once the plant becomes 6 to 8 inches tall. Keep plant pinched even if you’re not planning to use the herb, to keep it from flowering.
- Dill: Harvest as needed anytime between seedling stage and flowering.
- Oregano: Snip sprigs as needed. Harvest often to encourage new growth.
Learn more about harvesting herbs.
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