Picking your crops is the best part of the gardening process. This post is written to make it a bit easier to understand when and how to harvest your vegetable garden.
If you don’t know if something is ready to harvest, it probably IS!
Vegetable gardeners frequently wait too long to harvest their vegetables. Greens will re-grow no matter how many times you harvest them, herbs are the same way, and cucumbers and summer squash always get too big. The tastiest, most premium vegetables are the small ones!
How to Harvest Cold Crops
Once the leaves begin to become established, usually between 3-8 inches long depending on the plant, pinch or cut them off at their base to encourage the growth of more leaves. Always cut the largest outer leaves first. To harvest the entire plant, cut the main stalk 2-3 inches above the soil. Remember that it’s never too early to start harvesting greens. Baby greens are the best tasting, and they’ll grow back.
To harvest your greens, hold a bunch of them with one hand like you’re holding a flower bouquet. With the other hand, cut them about one half to one inch above the soil with sharp scissors (don’t pull the whole plant out of the soil). They should grow back within a couple weeks. This method can also be done with leaf lettuce. It’s called “cut-and-come-again”.
Once the head is ready, cut a few inches below the head. With broccoli, this will encourage the growth of smaller side shoots, or florets. You can wait for the small side florets or your can pull it out and plant something else after you’ve harvested the main head. Harvest broccoli and cauliflower when the heads are fully formed, but before the flower buds open. The flower buds should be tight and dark green (white on cauliflower). If the head tastes bitter, you probably waited too long into the summer to harvest.
Sometimes it is hard to know when root crops are ready. The best method is to yank one out to see! Most roots, such as carrots and beets, will start to pop up out of the soil a bit. We suggest harvesting when the diameter of the carrot or radish is about 1″, and when the beets are about 2-3″ or bigger. You can always brush away the soil around the root to see. Harvest the greens of turnips and beets – they’re delicious too.
How to Harvest Warm Crops
You can pick ripe tomatoes or green tomatoes to let them ripen indoors in the late fall. To properly pick a tomato, hold it gently with one hand and twist until it comes off the vine or use scissors to clip it from the vine. Tomatoes are ripe when they have full color and feel just a little bit soft when you gently hold them. If your tomato feels like a balloon that is about to burst, its probably over-ripe. Continually harvest tomatoes through the season. For most varieties, the more you pick them, the more the plant will produce.
Cleanly cut the stem ½ inch above the fruit once the fruit reaches a desirable size. Continually harvest these crops through the season. Peppers can be a little tricky – you’ll know your peppers are ripe when they are fully colored and their walls are very firm when you gently squeeze them. Under-ripe peppers tend to taste bitter rather than sweet (or hot).
Harvest once the fruits are large enough to use. Cleanly cut the stem ½ inch above the fruit. Do not pull the fruit off, as it can damage the vine. Continue to harvest these crops even if you aren’t going to use the fruit. If you stop harvesting, the plant will stop producing. You can harvest male flowers (those not connected to fruit) on your squash too for fried squash blossoms!
Ideally harvest herbs in the morning before the heat of the day. Up to 50% of the plant’s growth can be harvested at one time. Cut part of the plant with sharp scissors – ideally near the base of the plant. With many herbs such as basil, always cut directly above any “node”. A node is where lateral branches come out of the main stem. Cutting above the node will allow the lateral branches to continue growing – causing the plant to bush outward.