Vegetable Gardening

Harvest Vegetables at their Peak of Flavor & Nutrition

It won’t be long before gardeners are trying to keep up with the bounty of vegetables growing like crazy in containers and in gardens. The season of harvest starts innocently enough with a sweet pepper here and a head of broccoli there but before we know it, there are tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, zucchini…you know what I’m talking about.

After the time and effort spent planting, weeding and watering, harvesting is the big payoff for vegetable gardeners. Be sure to pick vegetables at their peak of flavor and nutrition. Take a basket every time you visit the garden and pick vegetables as soon as they ripen. It boosts the production of more vegetables and reduces damage caused by insects and disease.

Most vegetables should be harvested when they are relatively small. Think mammoth zucchini that are fun to talk about, but not so tasty to eat. Here are some general guidelines about harvesting some of the most commonly-gown vegetables.


Harvest green beans before the seeds inside start to bulge. If they are ready, they will snap in half easily. Plants will be more productive if beans are picked often and none are left behind.


Beets are ready to eat as soon as their shoulders are protruding from the soil but can be left to grow even larger. The longer they grow, the stronger their flavor will be. If thinning is required, eat the greens too.


Cut the head of broccoli when it is still small – usually about 4 to 5 inches across – and before the buds start to open into flowers. Some varieties grow new, smaller heads in the space where the leaves attach to the main stem (the leaf axils). I enjoy the stems of broccoli, too. I think they taste a little like kohlrabi. Peel them before eating.

Brussels Sprouts

I am not a fan of Brussels sprouts but if you are, harvest them from the bottom of the plant up. Pick them when they are at least an inch in diameter.


Cabbage is ready to harvest when the head feels firm. The cabbage I just picked a couple of days ago for lunch was small, but delicious. Harvest them before they split.


Harvest carrots when their shoulders push up out of the soil and their diameter is an inch or so. Gently pull one or two to check if they have reached their mature length. Smaller, less mature carrots are more tender. Unless the weather is extremely hot, carrots can also be left in the ground until needed. A light frost actually makes carrots taste sweeter!


Don’t forget to tie outer leaves over the heads of cauliflower as they form to prevent them from turning yellow. There are self-blanching varieties, but be ready to pitch in if the leaves aren’t doing their job. It’s time to harvest a head of cauliflower when it is firm and before it begins to separate. It will probably be about 6 inches in diameter.


Who doesn’t love fresh picked sweet corn? When the silks are brown and dry and ears feel full and solid, it is time to test the kernels. If kernels are plump and produce a milky substance when poked with a fingernail, it is time to harvest.


Know the mature size of the variety to determine when to harvest cucumbers. They can be picked early as long as they are firm – their skins will be thinner and they will have fewer seeds. Harvest cucumbers often so plants continue to produce more fruit. Cucumber left on the vine too long will start to turn yellow.


It is time to pick eggplant when they are 4 to 6 inches across. Dwarf varieties should be harvested when they are smaller. Their skin should be dark purple, firm, and shiny. Eggplant that is overripe will be dull in color.


I often harvest my kohlrabi early because I just can’t wait to eat it! For the best texture, most varieties should be picked when they are 3 inches or less in diameter. As they grow larger, the centers become pithy.


Outer leaves of cut and come again varieties can be cut as soon as they are big enough to eat. More leaves will grow to take their place. Harvest all of it before hot weather causes plants to bolt. Head lettuce and romaine lettuce should be picked when heads are full and firm.

Other Greens

Although kale has the best flavor in cool weather, outer leaves of kale can be cut all summer long. Harvest leaves of spinach once the plant has grown 6 inches tall. Swiss chard will continue to produce new growth if outer leaves are cut and the inner foliage left growing.


It is best to let melons ripen completely on the vine before harvesting. Cantaloupes or muskmelons develop a beige or yellow coloring when they are ripe. They should smell like a melon, and may form a crack on the base of their stems.

Signs that watermelons are ripe include dried, brown tendrils at the stem, the skin becomes dull and tough, and the bottom of the melon turns yellow.


Onions can be harvested as soon as they are large enough to eat as green onions. Slicing onions are ready to dig when the foliage falls over. Allow bulbs to cure in a warm, well-ventilated spot for a week or so before storing.


Garden peas taste as sweet as candy when picked at their peak. When seeds begin to swell, open a pod and taste. Pick if they are delicious. Don’t wait too long or they will turn from sweet to starchy.


Bell peppers are ready to harvest when they are green and shiny. They will still taste good, but will turn colors – yellow, orange, red, and even purple – if left on plants longer. With most varieties, the flavor will become stronger the longer they grow.

Hot peppers can be picked when they are green, but develop the most flavor and heat if left to change to yellow or red. Be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands after picking hot peppers.


New potatoes can be dug as soon as the plants flower. Take care not to damage potatoes left growing to full size.

Let potatoes continue to grow until the leaves dry and turn brown. I plant all my potatoes in planting bags so harvesting for me is as easy and turning over the bags and watching the potatoes spill out with the soil. For potatoes planted in the garden, use a pitchfork or shovel to loosen the soil. Be sure to start as far from the plant as you can to avoid cutting into those beautiful spuds.


The great thing about radishes is they are ready to pick and eat quickly after planting. When their shoulders are visible above the soil, it is time to harvest. They are at their peak when they are about an inch in diameter. Left to grow too long, they get hot and mealy.

Summer Squash

Summer squash, like zucchini, crookneck and straightneck, should be picked when they are about 6 inches long and have the best flavor. Patty pan and scallop should be harvested even smaller. Pick summer squash every day to keep plants producing more fruit.

Winter Squash

Unlike summer squash with skins easily punctured with a fingernail when ripe, the rind of winter squash resists nicking. Butternut, acorn and hubbard squash should be picked when they have reached full size. Allow winter squash to cure in a dry, warm place with good air circulation for at least a week.


It is easy to know when to pick tomatoes. When they have fully turned to the color their variety is supposed to be, are firm but slightly soft, and pull easily from stems, it is time! If frost threatens, pick as many as you can. Many will ripen on the kitchen counter. Remember to store tomatoes at room temperature. Keeping them in the refrigerator robs tomatoes of their flavor.

While you are in the garden harvesting your just rewards, keep an eye out for warning signs of insects of disease. Problems spotted early are easier to remedy. Garden (and harvest) with me!






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