by Mary Beth Bennett, WVU Extension agriculture agent in Berkeley County
Most crops can be harvested several times if only the part that is ready is harvested. The quality of vegetables does not improve after harvest, so it is important to gather crops at proper maturity. At that point, vegetables are at their peak for flavor and nutrition.
However, the peak stage is not always when a vegetable is at its largest stage.
The ripe time varies with certain vegetables. Tomatoes may be left on the vine until fully ripened or taken off when partially ripened and placed on a windowsill to mature. Other crops such as winter squash and watermelon are not ready for harvest until after they are fully-developed.
Handle Plants with Care
Avoid bruising or damaging vegetables as this causes decay. Stepping on vines or breaking stems creates openings through which diseases can enter the plant. If ripe vegetables are not easily removed from the plant, cut them off with a knife.
Tramping through wet foliage helps to spread plant diseases. So, harvest vegetables when they are dry.
Check the garden frequently for ripe produce during harvest time. Vegetables continue to grow, and before long they are overgrown, especially squash.
Vegetables are harvested at different times. Here is some guidance on when to harvest produce from the garden.
Harvest when pods are almost full size but before the seeds inside begin to bulge. Tips should be pliable. Beans should be crisp and snap easily. Harvest often.
Pick when pods and seeds reach full size and before pods turn yellow. End of pod should feel spongy. Pods and seeds should be fresh, juicy. Open a few pods to check. Use only seeds. Pods are tough and fibrous.
Beets can be eaten as greens when the leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. When grown for tops and beets, harvest when beets are 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. To use only the beets, wait until they are 1½ to 3 inches in diameter.
Gather when buds are compact and before buds turn yellow or open into flowers. Cut off 6 to 7 inches below flower heads. Then small side bud clusters as flowers develop. Harvest sprouting and other types according to packet instructions.
Pick when sprouts (buds) at the base of plant are hard, compact and deep green and about 1 to 1½ inches in diameter, after frosty weather for the best flavor.
Harvest when heads are firm and before mature heads split. Size may vary with variety, fertility and spacing. If you cannot harvest it at maturity, bend it over to break part of the roots to reduce head splitting.
Carrots are ready when 1 inch in diameter. They may be left in the ground for later harvest during cool, dry periods.
It’s ready when the head is firm. It’s over-mature when soft or when leaves turn yellow. When heads are a diameter of 2 to 3 inches, take outer leaves and fold them up and over the head. Tie them with a string. This keeps the head from turning yellow. In one to three weeks, the diameter of head should be 6 to 7 inches and ready to harvest.
Harvest older, lower leaves when they reach a length of 8 to 12 inches. New leaves will grow as long as the central growing point remains, providing a continuous harvest. Whole plants may be harvested and cooked, if desired.
Kernels are plump, milky when mature. Silks are brown, dry. Check a few ears for maturity by opening the top of the ear and pressing a few kernels with your thumbnail. If the liquid exuded is milky rather than clear, the ear is ready for harvest. Harvest ranges from 18 to 21 days after the silk appears. Corn is at prime eating quality for only 72 hours before becoming over mature. Harvest early in the morning or during cool weather.
Pick when 6 to 9 inches long and still bright green and firm. Over mature fruits are dull in color or yellow and less crisp. For sweet pickles, fruits should be 1½ to 3 inches long; for dill pickles, 3 to 6 inches long; and 6 to 8 inches for slicing. Remove by turning cucumbers parallel to the vine and giving a quick snap. That prevents vine damage and results in a clean break.
Harvest when 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Skin should be shiny, dark purple. Fruits are over-mature when dull in color, soft and seedy. Leave a short stem on the fruit when you cut it from the plant. For other varieties, follow package directions.
Collards, kale, chard, mustard: Cut outer leaves when 6 to 8 inches long.
Pick when heads are moderately firm and compact and have leaves that overlap.
Harvest when the stem slips easily from the fruit with a gentle tug. Another indicator of ripeness is when the netting on the skin becomes rounded and the flesh between the netting turns from a green to a tan color.
Pods are ready when 3 to 4 inches long, about four to six days after the flower wilts. Pods stop producing if not picked, so gather them every one to two days.
Harvest when the tops fall over and begin to die. Dig bulbs and dry them for several days. Cut off tops and roots and store in a cool, dry place. Harvest green onions when they are 6 to 8 inches tall.
Edible, podded cultivars should be harvested when pods are well-rounded but before seeds are more than one-half of their full size. Harvest regular peas when the pods are well-rounded and seeds are fully-developed but still fresh and bright green. Pods are past their prime when they lose their brightness and turn light or yellowish green.
Peppers are shiny green in their prime and about the size of a baseball. They still are good after turning red or yellow. Cut instead of pull to avoid breaking branches. Most hot peppers are red or yellow when ripe. For other varieties, follow package directions.
Dig early potatoes when tubers are large enough to eat. Harvest potatoes for storage two weeks after the vines die, before heavy freezing. Avoid skinning tubers when digging, and avoid long exposure to light. Store tubers in a cool, high-humidity location with good ventilation.
Sweet potatoes should be harvested before the first frost. Lift to avoid bruises and broken roots. Cure in a warm well-ventilated place for two to three weeks.
Pull them up when they are about 1 inch in diameter. Radishes become hot and tough when left in the garden too long.
Rutabagas are mature when 4 to 6 inches in diameter. They become woody and dry if soil is too dry.
Leaves are ready when 4 to 6 inches long. Pull out larger, whole plants, or harvest older leaves to allow new growth.
Zucchini, cocozelle, crookneck, straightneck, scallop: Pick when seeds and fruits are small. Squash should be 6 to 8 inches long with skin you can puncture with a fingernail. Continue to harvest—checking daily and removing old fruit to allow new fruit to develop. If the rind is too hard to be marked by the thumbnail, it is too old.
Winter Squash, Pumpkins
Butternut, buttercup, acorn, hubbard: Harvest when fruits are full size. Rind should be firm and glossy, and bottom of fruit is cream to orange color. Leave squash on stems for better storing and pick before fall frost.
For canning or making juice, pick fruits that are fully-colored. If cracking at the top is a problem in hot weather, pick them when they are turning pink. These tomatoes will ripen in the shade indoors. Before the frost, pick green tomatoes and store in a dark place where they can ripen.
Harvest when roots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter but before the frost. When grown for greens, pick leaves when 4 to 6 inches in length.
Ripe watermelons produce a dull thud rather than a sharp, metallic sound when thumped. Other ripeness indicators are a deep yellow – rather than white—color where the melon touches the ground; brown tendrils on the stem near the fruit; and a rough, slightly ridged feel to the skin surface.
Remember: These are just general indicators. Vegetables have a wide range of different varieties, and indicators may vary depending on the varieties planted and the color of the produce when ripe. For example, a yellow tomato should be at its peak yellow color when harvested. If you plant seeds for vegetables, follow the directions on the seed packet for harvesting.