People work very hard to plant and take care of a home vegetable garden. After doing all of that work, it’s a shame not to harvest vegetables at the proper time. Harvesting at the right stage is essential to getting the best quality vegetables from your garden.
Some vegetables are harvested while the fruit is still immature, including eggplants, summer squash, cucumbers, okra and snap beans. Do not leave these vegetables on the plant too long, or quality will quickly decline.
Other crops, such as tomatoes, winter squash, bulbing onions, garlic and sweet corn, are harvested when the bulb is mature or fruit is ripe. For best quality, they must be left on the plant until fully mature.
Peppers are unique in that they can be harvested in the immature, green stage (typical for bell peppers and jalapeno peppers), when fully ripe (generally red) or at any stage in between.
For the best quality, vegetables should be consumed soon after harvest. If you can’t consume them immediately, preserve the quality of most vegetables by refrigerating them as soon as possible to slow down respiration and water loss. All refrigerated vegetables should be used within five to seven days for best quality and nutritional content.
But do not refrigerate Irish potatoes, tomatoes, melons (cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew and others), garlic and onions. These vegetables should be stored at room temperature after harvesting, although tomatoes and melons can be chilled prior to serving.
Tips on harvesting homegrown summer vegetables
Snap beans should be harvested when pods are about the diameter of a pencil and beans are very small. Best harvests are in May and June. Production and quality decline once it gets hot.
Harvest sweet corn when the silks turn light brown to brown. You can peel back the shuck to see how developed the kernels are before removing the ear. The juice of the kernel should be milky when you puncture it with your thumbnail. Sweet corn should be eaten as soon as possible after harvesting for maximum sweetness.
Cucumbers are harvested immature and green. The size when ready to harvest depends on the variety you are growing (pickling cucumbers are smaller than slicing cucumbers). Old cucumbers will begin to turn yellow and become bitter. If fruit is allowed to mature (turn yellow) on the plant, the plant will stop producing new fruit.
Eggplants should be harvested immature when they are one-third to two-thirds expected full size. The skin should be very glossy or just slightly turning dull. If the skin is dull and the fruit starts to turn yellow, this indicates over maturity; the fruit will be seedy and often bitter. Harvest using pruning shears because the stem is tough.
Onions, garlic and shallots planted in the fall should be dug when the leaves are half-dead and the tops are falling over (late May to early June). That indicates the bulbs are mature. Harvest on a sunny day and allow the plants to remain in the sun for at least one day to dry. Remove the roots from the base, and cut off the stem about 1 inch above the bulb.
Peppers, both sweet and hot, can be harvested at any size or color. Nearly all peppers will turn red at maturity (some bell peppers mature yellow or orange), but may be green, purple, yellow or orange along the way.
Irish potatoes are generally harvested from late May through early June. Potatoes should be dug when at least 50 percent of the foliage has died. Cut the plant foliage near ground level. Let the potatoes remain covered in the soil three to five days before digging. This allows the skin to set and allows for longer storage.
Tomatoes can be harvested any time after green fruit begins to turn pink. If early harvesting is done (often to get the fruit out of harm’s way from birds and insects), you can ripen the fruit at room temperature and still expect excellent quality. Light is not needed for ripening, so there is no need to put them in a window. Best quality, however, is obtained when fruit fully ripen on the plant.
Okra should be harvested every two to three days. Most types should be harvested when they are young, tender and less than 3 inches long. The pod snaps easily from the plant when harvested at the proper stage.
Summer squash, including zucchini, should be harvested small and immature (one-half to two-thirds the mature size) while the skin is still tender. The more frequent the harvesting, the more fruit the plant will produce. Use a knife to remove the fruit, leaving 1 inch of stem attached.
Harvest the pods of Southern peas (purple hull, black-eyed and others) when they are well filled and have changed to a light straw, silver or purple color, depending on the cultivar, as they shell easiest at this stage. Shelled peas may be stored in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for several days prior to cooking.
Winter squash (pumpkins, Hubbard, butternut, acorn) should develop a tough skin before harvesting. The rind should be hard and cannot be punctured with a thumbnail.
Watermelons are a bit tricky and require some experience. Look for the small tendril where the watermelon stem attaches to the vine to shrivel up. The skin will go from shiny to dull. The belly of the watermelon where it lies on the ground will turn from white to creamy yellow or yellow.