The harvest is the reward after all of your months of hard work. Red, ripe tomatoes bursting with flavor. Sweet ears of corn, just waiting for a pat of butter. Juicy, flavorful watermelon ready to be sliced and served. In order to receive the fullest benefit out of your garden, you need to be aware of when to harvest your bounty. Some of your vegetables will be ready for harvest in a little over a month after sowing; others will take the whole season. The following is vegetable harvesting criteria for judging when your garden will be ready for harvest.
Asparagus: Begin harvesting when spears are six to eight inches tall and about as thick as your small finger. If you snap them off at ground level, new spears will continue to grow. Stop harvesting about four to six weeks after the initial harvest, to allow the plants to produce foliage and food for themselves so they’ll bear well again the next year.
Beans (Snap): Pick beans before you see the seeds bulging. Beans should easily snap in two. Check the beans often because if they are not picked when ready, they can become tough.
Beets: Harvest the green tops when you thin out the rows. Beets are ready to be harvested once you see their shoulders protruding at the soil line.
Broccoli: Harvest when the individual buds are about the size of a match head.
Brussels sprouts: The sprouts mature from the bottom up. Harvest once the sprouts are an inch in diameter. Twist or cut the sprout from the stem.
Cabbage: Harvest when the head feels solid when gently squeezed.
Carrots: Harvest carrots after a light frost for added sweetness. To judge the carrots’ length, measure the diameter appearing at the soil line and compare to the specifications listed for that variety. If the diameter looks right, the length is probably good too. However, to be certain, you will need to harvest one of the carrots. Carrots can be left in the ground once mature.
Cauliflower: Harvest when the head looks full and while the curds of the head are still smooth.
Corn: About three weeks after the silks form, they will turn dry and brown. The kernels should exude a milky substance when pricked.
Cucumber: Fruits should be firm and smooth. Check frequently against maturity date of seed packet.
Eggplant: Fruits should be firm and shiny. Cut rather than pull from the plant.
Garlic: Tops will fall over and begin to brown when the bulbs are ready. Dig, don’t pull, and dry before storing.
Kale: Kale flavor is best in cooler weather, although deep green leaves with a firm, sturdy texture can be harvested throughout the season.
Kohlrabi: Harvest once the bulb has reached two to three inches in diameter.
Leeks: You can harvest leeks as small mild vegetables or as larger one-inch-diameter plants later in the fall.
Lettuce (Head): You don’t want to let your lettuce sit out in the sun once it is ready to be harvested because it can quickly go to seed. Pick the heads when they feel firm.
Lettuce (Leaf): The wonderful thing about leaf lettuce is that you can harvest throughout the growing season and sometimes even into the fall. Just pick the outer leaves when they are about four inches tall (depending on variety) and allow the inner leaves to continue to grow.
Muskmelon: When you are harvesting melons, the best way to tell if they are ripe is to smell them. They should smell “melon-y” near the stem end. The other way is when you lift the vine, the fruit will easy detach.
Onions: You can actually harvest onions throughout the growing season—when they are younger, they are milder and sweeter. If you want onions for your root cellar, wait until the tops have browned and have fallen over. Then you can dig them up and let them dry in the sun to harden.
Parsnips: There are a few vegetables that actually develop a “sweeter” taste if they are allowed to stay in the ground until after a frost. Parsnips are among these vegetables. You can even leave some in the ground over the winter and harvest them in the spring if you’ve planted enough. If you live in a particularly cold area, be sure to mulch over the parsnips for protection through the winter.
Peas: Peas are very susceptible to heat, so you want to harvest them early in the season, when the pods look full. You should pick a pod and open it, to make sure the peas are fully developed and sweet.
Potatoes: When your potato plant begins to flower, you can harvest sweet, little “new” potatoes. Keep the potatoes in the ground until the tops brown and dry out for larger, regular-size potatoes. Be careful as you harvest that you dig underneath and sift through the dirt, rather than digging in from the top.
Pumpkins: Pumpkins will turn from green to orange as they get ready to be picked. You will want to harden the skin before you store it. The skin is hard enough if you can poke it with your fingernail and it doesn’t crack. If you are expecting a hard frost, bring the pumpkins in.
Radishes: When you can see the tops of the radishes break through the soil, you can begin to harvest them.
Rutabaga: Rutabaga is another one of those vegetables that sweeten after a frost and can be left in the ground through the winter, if they are properly mulched. For a fall harvest, they are ready when they are about three inches in diameter, usually three months after you set them out.
Swiss Chard: You can harvest Swiss chard throughout the season. Just cut the outer leaves and allow the center to continue growing.
Spinach: Be sure to harvest your spinach before it begins to flower. You want to harvest the spinach leaves when they are still young and tender. Just cut the entire plant off, so the remainder is only about an inch tall. The plant will grow back.
Squash (Summer): Summer squash usually grows very quickly. Check your plants often. Pick summer squash when it is young and glossy green. If you wait until they are larger, they are dry and seedy.
Squash (Winter): The best indicator for harvesting your winter squash is its color. The squash should turn the color it’s supposed to be before harvesting. Frost will damage winter squash, so bring the squash inside before a hard frost.
Tomatoes: Watch your plants carefully and harvest the tomatoes when they have reached full color and are no longer hard. If you still have green tomatoes on the vine at the end of the growing season, you can pick them and use them for relish or fried tomatoes. Don’t wait too long to harvest your tomatoes; they can overripen on the vine.
Turnips: If you have planted turnips for greens, you can cut the outer leaves when they are a few inches tall. If you make sure the inner leaves are left untouched, you can still harvest the root in the fall. Just like rutabagas, turnips taste better after a frost. Be sure to keep them well-mulched to protect them. They should be about two inches in diameter when you harvest them.
Watermelon: When harvesting a watermelon, you can look for a couple of signs. Thump on the side and listen for a hollow sound. The white spot on the bottom, where the melon rested as it grew, will actually change to a creamy yellow when the melon is ripe. Once you pick a melon, it will not continue to ripen.