How do you know when to pick your vegetables?
The main point behind growing your own vegetables is how much better they taste fresh from your garden plot. The only failsafe to guarantee harvesting vegetables at the optimal time is to ‘taste test’. However, there are some guidelines for judging when vegetables are ripe and ready for harvest. Keep in mind that great flavor isn’t a simple matter of size or colour. Without the right combination of soil, sun and water many vegetables can vary greatly in taste and performance.
There are no precise guidelines as to when to harvest your vegetables, but here are some rules of thumb to guide you. Most vegetables are harvested just before full maturity, for maximum flavor and the most pleasant texture. The following are vegetable harvesting criteria for judging whether you vegetables are ready for picking.
When to Harvest Vegetables
- Asparagus: begin harvesting when spears are 15-20 cm tall and about as thick as your small finger.
Snap them off at ground level and new spears will continue to grow. Stop harvesting about 4-6 weeks after the initial harvest, to allow the plants to produce foliage and food for themselves
- Beans: Pick before you can see the seeds bulging. They should snap easily into two. Check daily, it doesn’t take long for beans to go from tender to tough.
- Beetroot: You can harvest and eat the green tops that you thin out of the rows. Beets are really a matter of personal preference when it comes to the right size for harvesting. They are ready any time after you see the tops of the beets protruding at the soil line
- Bok Choy: is ready to harvest as soon as it has usable leaves. The small varieties are mature at 6 inches tall and the larger types grow 2 feet tall. The baby varieties are ready in about 30 days and the larger ones are ready four to six weeks after sowing. Bok Choy is a cabbage that forms no head.
- Broccoli: We eat the unopened flower buds of broccoli, so check frequently, especially as weather warms up, to ensure you don’t let the flower heads bloom. Don’t expect your broccoli to get the size of supermarket heads. Harvest when buds are about the size of match heads.
- Brussels Sprouts: The sprouts will mature from the bottom up. You can begin harvesting once the sprouts are at least 2.5cm in diameter. Harvest by twisting or cutting the sprouts from the stem.
- Cabbage: The cabbage head will feel solid when gently squeezed. Cabbage needs to be harvested when it reaches maturity or it will grow and split open.
- Carrots: Carrots can be hard to judge. The tops of the carrot will show at the soil line and you can gauge when the diameter looks right for your variety. If the diameter looks good, chances are the length is fine too. But you will need to pull one for certain. Carrots can be left in the ground once
mature. A light frost is said to improve and sweeten the carrot’s flavour.
- Cauliflower: As with broccoli, your homegrown heads will probably never reach supermarket size.
Harvest when the head looks full and while the curds of the head are still smooth.
- Celeriac: Harvest celeriac when the swollen root is 7-10cm across or slightly larger. Cut stems close to the knobby root; use a garden fork to lift the roots. Celeriac will increase with flavour following a light frost, but should be harvested before the first hard freeze. Leaves can be used to flavour soups and
- Cucumber: Cucumber race to the harvest with zucchini. Check daily and harvest young. Timing and length will vary with variety. The fruits should be firm and smooth. Over ripe cucumbers can be very bitter or pithy, even before they start to turn yellow.
- Eggplant: Slightly immature fruits taste best. The fruit should be firm and shiny. Cut rather than pull from the plant
- Garlic: The garlic tops will fall over and begin to brown when bulbs are ready. Dig don’t pull and allow them to dry before storing. It’s best to simply brush off dirt, rather than washing.
- Kale: Kale leaves can be cut throughout the season. They should be deep in colour with a firm, sturdy texture. Kale flavor is best in cooler weather.
- Kohlrabi: For the best texture, harvest once the kohlrabi bulb has reached about 5-8cm in diameter.
The bulbs become tougher as they grow and age. Pull or slice at the base.
- Leeks: Harvest leeks when they are about 2-3cm in diameter.
- Lettuce (Head): Harvest once the head feels full and firm with a gentle squeeze. Hot weather will cause it to bolt or go to seed rather than filling out.
- Lettuce (Leaf): Harvest the outer leaves once the plant has reached about 10cm in height. Allow the younger inner leaves to grow. Leaf lettuce can be harvested in this fashion for most of the summer
- Melon (Bitter): Harvest bitter melon about 12 to 16 weeks after planting and 8 to 10 days after blossom drop when the fruits are 10-15cm long. The fruits will be a bit pear shaped, with light green skin, and a few streaks of yellow. If fruits stay too long on the vine they will over ripen, turn all yellow, grow too large, and become bitter.
- Melon (Cantaloupes/Muskmelons): In most cases, when cantaloupes and muskmelons are ripe, they detach themselves from the vine, leaving a dish-shaped scar on the fruit where the stem was attached. The fruit will also develop a sweet, musky aroma when ripe. This scent may be hard to detect in the cool of the morning, so if possible, wait until later in the day to harvest. The rind should be straw-coloured, but may still have some green showing.
- Onions: Onions can be dug once the tops have ripened and fallen over. Allow onions to dry before storing.
- Parsnips: Parsnips taste best if they are left in the ground until after a frost or two. They can be left in the ground over winter and harvested in the spring. In our cold climate they should be mulched for
- Peas: The pea pods should look and feel full. Peas are sweeter if harvested before plumped. Peas really
need to be tasted to determine if they are sweet enough.
- Potatoes: New potatoes can be harvested when the tops start to flower. Carefully dig at the outer edges of the row. For full sized potatoes, wait until the tops of the potato plant dry and turn brown. Start digging from the outside perimeter and move in cautiously to avoid damaging the potatoes
- Pumpkins: Once the pumpkins have turned the expected colour and the vines are starting to decline, check to make sure the skin has hardened enough that poking it with your fingernail will not crack it.
You don’t want to pick your pumpkin too soon, because it will stop turning in colour once it’s cut, but don’t leave them out if a hard frost is expected.
- Radishes: Radishes mature quickly. You will see the tops of the bulbs popping out of the soil line. If left too long they will become tough and eventually go to seed.
- Rutabaga: The bulbs should be about 8cm in diameter, generally about 3 months after setting out.
Rutabaga can be mulched, left in the ground and dug up as needed. Cold weather improves the flavour
- Swiss Chard: As with leaf lettuce. Cut the outer leaves and allow the center to continue growing.
- Squash (Summer): Pick young and check often. The skins should be tender enough to poke your fingernail through.
- Squash (Winter): Colour is a good indicator of winter squash maturity. When squash turns the colour it is supposed to be, cut from the vine. Do not let winter squash be exposed to any frost.
- Tomatoes: Harvest tomatoes when they are fully coloured and slightly soft to the touch. Gently twist and pull from the vine.
- Turnips: The turnip shoulders should be about 2-6.5cm in diameter at the soil line, when ready.
Harvest once they reach maturity. Over ripe turnips become woody.
- Watermelon: The white spot on the bottom of the melon should change to deep yellow when ripe.
Some people can hear a change in the sound made when the melon is thumped with a finger. It should make a hollow sound.
- Zucchini: About 45-55 days after you plant, you should notice your plants starting to bloom. Make sure to look under the big leaves, as it's easy for zucchini to hide. The early, small squash (about 6 inches) are the most tender and flavourful, and picking frequently can lead to a larger crop.