Harvest Tips for Crop Families
As the harvest season begins in some regions and waits just around the corner in others, we wanted to compile a handy list of harvest tips divided up by crop families for those planting a garden for the first time this year. This quick intro to each crop is a good resource, but we also encourage all of you seasoned growers to reach out to your neighbors, family members and friends just starting gardens and share your advice, techniques and encouragement. We're all in this together, after all, and the more we can help one another grow, the more resilient and successful our regions will be in the face of these uncertain times.
Brassicas (Cole Crops)
Arugula, Asian Greens, Mustard Greens, Kale – Can be cut young for baby leaves. Can also be allowed to grow into mature leaves for single leaf harvest. Flowers are also edible and delicious.
Broccoli, Cauliflower – Harvest the central head with 4-6 inches of stem. Harvest broccoli in the morning, when buds are firm and tight. Harvest cauliflower when heads are compact and firm. Broccoli will produce edible side shoots that can be harvested.
Brussels sprouts – Harvest sprouts from the bottom of the stalk when they reach 1 inch in diameter or more. After a moderate frost, entire stems can be harvested, leaves and roots removed, and stored in a root cellar for up to 1 month.
Cabbage, Chinese cabbage – Harvest cabbage at desired size when heads are firm. If cabbage is left in the field too long, it can split. Cut from base with a sharp knife and remove outer leaves. Cabbage will send up new heads, thin to 3 or 4 new heads and harvest at tennis ball size. Chinese Cabbage can be cut at base with a sharp knife once it has reached a desirable size.
Kohlrabi – Harvest kohlrabi when the bulb reaches desired size. Remove leaves and roots. If kohlrabi is left to mature too long in the field, it can split.
Radishes, Turnips - Harvest radishes and turnips when roots develop to a desirable size. Harvesting throughout the bed can allow leftover plants to size up. Greens are edible and can be harvested as thinnings. Flowers are edible and spicy.
Beets – Harvest beets when roots reach a desirable size. Harvesting throughout the bed can allow left over plants to size up. Greens are edible and can be harvested as thinnings.
Spinach – Harvest spinach by selecting individual leaves at a desirable size or by cutting handfuls from the plant. Picking leaves will allow the plant to continuously produce more leaves while conditions remain cool enough for their production.
Swiss chard – Can be cut young for baby leaves. Can also be allowed to grow into mature leaves for single leaf harvest. Most often swiss chard is harvested by picking single, mature leaves.
Sweet Corn – Harvest sweet corn around 6 weeks after tassels appear on the ears. They should be beginning to turn brown. Kernels can indicate if the corn is ready. Push your fingernail into the kernel, if the liquid that comes out is creamy, the corn is ready. Twist off from the plant. Eat or preserve right away for maximum sweetness.
Beans – Harvest beans in the morning, after the dew is dried, for highest sugar content. Pick beans when they have reached a desirable size, generally when they are pencil thick and have a nice snap. If beans are left to mature too long, they may become stringy and the beans themselves will become starchy. Harvest beans frequently to allow for continuous production and quality control.
Peas – Harvest peas in the morning, after the dew is dried, for peak crispness. Once peas are flowering, check plants daily as pods mature quickly. Pick peas before they have hardened and lost their green color. Make sure when you pick peas, you brace the plants with your other hand to prevent damaging the vine. Harvest the entire pod, including the attachment point, for continuous pea production.
Artichoke – Harvest artichokes when the buds reach maturity, right before the bracts begin to spread open. Use a sharp knife to cut the bud with 3 inches of stem attached. Check maturity of buds every few days while plants are productive, generally up until first frost.
Endive, Escarole – Harvest endive and escarole when leaves are 5 to 6 inches tall. Cut from the base, just at the soil level. Leaves will sprout from the base for continual harvest.
Lettuce – Can be cut young for baby leaves or harvested as lettuce heads at desirable size. Can also be allowed to grow into mature leaves for single leaf harvest.
Cantaloupes, Melons – Harvest late in the day when the scent of ripeness is easiest to detect. Cantaloupes will go from a green hue to a tan or yellow hue when ripe, will have a deep aroma, and will easily slip from dying stems. For other melons, changing skin may not be as obvious of an indicator and detecting ripeness can be more difficult. Use a sharp knife or pair of scissors to snip ripe melons from the vine.
Cucumbers – Harvest cucumbers when plants have had an opportunity to dry from morning dew to prevent the spread of disease. Use a sharp knife to cut the entire cucumber from the vine. Harvest cucumbers every couple days to prevent them from becoming overly mature. Overly large or yellow cucumbers that have been left on the plants will be bitter and should be removed and discarded. Continuous picking encourages the plants to set more fruit.
Pumpkins, Winter Squash – Harvest on a dry day at full maturity in the fall, before frost when skins have developed to their fullest color. This will mean that the skin becomes inedible but will provide for the longest storage life. The rinds will be hard and the stem should be left at around 2-3 inches in length. Cut with a sharp knife and remove dirt and debris.
Summer Squash, Zucchini – Harvest when plants have been allowed to dry to prevent the spread of disease. Cut squash/zucchini at a desirable size, leaving an inch or two of stem on fruits. Continually cutting squash fruits will promote new fruit set. Fruit left on the plant that becomes too large will develop starchy, dry flesh. Remove over-sized fruits to promote continuous production.
Watermelon – Harvest watermelons around 80 days after planting when they begin to show signs of ripeness. These signs include a hollow sound when thumped with your thumb, deep outer coloring, die back of the tendrils where the melon attaches to the vine, and the spot where the melon touched soil will change from a light colored white to a yellow. Cut with a sharp knife or scissors at attachment point and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Eggplant – Harvest when the skin is uniformly and deeply colored, shiny, and unwrinkled. Japanese eggplant can be harvested at desirable size, most commonly when fruit are around hot dog sized or a bit larger. Fruits left to over mature will lose their luster, reduce in color, and become bitter with hardening seeds. Use a sharp knife to cut at attachment point.
Peppers – Harvest peppers at green or colored stage, depending on preference. Peppers can be snapped from stem easily with pressure. Green hot peppers will not have spicy flavor and for fullest expression, should be left to ripen. Green sweet peppers can be harvested at desired size, while sweet peppers left to ripen will be the sweetest and can be picked at full coloring for optimal flavor.
Potatoes – Harvest potatoes 2 to 3 weeks after they have stopped flowering for new potatoes. These potatoes will be small, thin skinned, and for fresh eating. For mature potatoes, wait for plants to die back and dig up a test plot to ensure that the skin has had time to thicken and firmly attach to the flesh. Once potatoes have developed thick skin, dig with a digging fork carefully as to not puncture potatoes under the decaying plants.
Tomatillo – Harvest tomatillos when the papery “lantern” or outer covering goes from green to a light brown or tan amd begins to split. Fruits will have started out small inside the paper casing but will fill it now and will have matured to either green, purple, or yellow depending on variety. Tomatillos can be plucked with fingers once a week to promote continuous production of fruits and will be overripe when fruits lose their glossy appearance.
Tomatoes – Tomatoes can be harvested green for pickling or frying, but often they should be left on the plants for the first sign of blushing indicating they are ripening. Harvest when plants are dry to prevent the spread of disease. Tomatoes can be picked when partially ripe and will ripen on the kitchen counter or in storage with other ripening tomatoes.
Chives – Harvest chives when plants have matured to 9 to 12 inches tall and have filled out into a small bush. Select individual leaves or harvest small handfuls. Plants that mature to flower produce spicy, edible blooms.
Garlic – The ideal time to harvest garlic is when the lower 1/3 to ½ of the leaves have begun to “dry down” or turn brown and papery. Leaving garlic in the ground after this point makes it more susceptible to disease, which in turn can shorten its shelf life. Harvest on a dry day by loosening the soil around the garlic plants with a garden fork, then gently pulling up the garlic by the neck. Go slowly, being careful not to pierce the heads with the fork, since punctured or bruised heads will not store well. You will need to loosen the soil more and be very gentle when harvesting softneck varieties, as the neck is much weaker and more likely to break. Hardneck varieties will produce a flower, called a garlic scape. Many people who grow hardneck varieties harvest the scape before it opens to flower. The scape is edible and delicious and removing it helps to concentrate the plant's efforts towards developing large cloves.
Leeks – Leeks, like most alliums, are edible at any stage and should be harvested when they’ve reached a desired size. This is generally when they’ve become an inch across or bigger. Pull firmly from the soil and remove the root. Store in a damp paper towel inside a plastic bag in the refrigerator for longest shelf life, up to 10 days.
Onions – Onions can be harvested young as green onions to be used fresh and are edible at any stage. Simply pull from the soil, remove, the root, and remove any out layers that have become thick and papery. For storage onions, wait until the green tops have begun to brown and have started to fall over. To hasten this process, you can push the tops over yourself. Loosen soil around plants to encourage drying and pull from the field when the tops have completely died back. Remove from field before threat of cold weather and frost.
Carrot – Carrots are edible at any stage and can be harvested at any size. To encourage carrots to size up, thinning rows of germinating seedlings can help promote carrot development. Thin when plants have reached around 4 inches tall, pulling the most underdeveloped carrots and leaving the remaining carrots around a thumb’s width apart. To harvest carrots, pull from the greens nearest the root ends firmly. In dry times or with large carrots, using a digging fork may be helpful to loosen up surrounding soil to prevent root breakage.
Celery – Wait until plants are at least 6 inches tall. In a garden setting, you can cut individual stalks throughout the season. To harvest the whole mature plant, use a sharp knife to cut at the soil level and remove leaves for extended refrigerator storage.
Cilantro, Dill – Cut small handfuls of stems and leaves together or select single stems when harvesting from a finite number of plants. Plants that are allowed to go to flower will produce delicious, edible floral displays.
Fennel – Fennel is edible at any stage and the fronds can be eaten raw in salads or blitzed into salad dressings, harvested stem by stem. For a mature fennel bulb, allow the bottom of the fennel to bulb up to tennis ball size or slightly larger. Leaving fennel to mature too long will result in stringy flesh.
Parsley – Harvest parsley stem by stem, when the leaves have developed into three segments. Leaving young leaves to develop on the interior of the plant and selecting the largest, most mature leaves will promote continuous production.
Parsnip – Harvest parsnips after a few heavy frosts in the fall but before the ground freezes in winter. If overwintering, cover with mulch and harvest as soon as the ground thaws in spring. To harvest, use a digging fork to loosen the soil surrounding the parsnips, careful not to puncture roots below the soil.