Nothing beats fresh-picked vegetables picked from the
garden, but timing is everything. Harvesting at the right stage is essential,
and proper storage will help maintain homegrown freshness.
Some crops are best harvested frequently while still
immature, while others need to mature as long as possible. Crops also vary in
their optimal storage requirements as some do best in cold, moist storage, and
others do best in dry storage:
Cold and Moist — 32 to 40
* Beet tops make excellent tender greens when roots are no more than 1 inch
in diameter. If harvesting primarily for roots, begin digging when roots are 2
to 3 inches.
* Carrots come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and even colors. Root
quality will be best while on the young side; older roots get woody. Note the
days to maturity listed on the seed packet. Fall-harvested carrots should be dug
before the first moderate freeze.
* Turnips can be harvested from the time they are 1 inch in diameter. They
are best as a fall crop and can withstand several light freezes.
* Broccoli should be harvested while the individual flower buds still are
tight and of good green-blue color. After the main central head is cut, smaller
heads will develop from side shoots.
* Brussels sprouts should be cut as the small heads develop in the leaf
axils, beginning at the bottom of the stem. Sprouts can withstand several
moderate freezes. In fact, flavor is said to improve after frost. Harvest all
sprouts prior to the first severe freeze.
* Cabbage should be harvested when heads are solid and full-sized for the
* Cauliflower usually is ready to harvest about two weeks after the heads
appear. To keep heads white, except purple types, tie outer leaves above the
head when curds are about 1 to 2 inches in diameter.
* Muskmelon should be harvested when the rind changes from green to tan or
yellow between the outer netting, and the stem slips easily from the
* Summer squash should be harvested while fruits are young and
tender-skinned, 6 to 8 inches long or 3 to 4 inches in diameter for round
* Sweet corn is best harvested when kernels are plump and tender and yield a
milky juice when pressed with your thumbnail. Kernels that are past their prime
tend to yield thick, doughy pulp, while immature kernels will yield a watery
Cool and Moist Storage — 45 to 50
* Cucumbers are best harvested while immature and before seeds have a chance
to fully develop. The timing will vary with the cultivar. Most slicing cultivars
will be 1.5 to 2.5 inches in diameter and 5 to 8 inches long. Pickling cucumbers
will be short and blocky, compared to slicers.
* Eggplants are best harvested when fruits are nearly full grown, but while
they still are immature. They get seedy rather quickly. Eggplants are not
adapted to long storage.
* Green bean pods will be most tender when the small seed inside is
one-fourth mature size and not yet visible from the outside. Past this stage,
the pods become more fibrous as the seeds mature.
* Okra should be harvested daily as young, immature pods when they are 2 to
3 inches long. The pods get woody if allowed to mature on the plant.
* Peppers, both bell and hot types, usually are green while immature and
red, or some other color, as the fruit matures. They can be harvested when
fruits are firm and full size. Picking them while green will encourage further
flowering and fruit set. If red — purple, yellow or orange for some varieties —
fruits are desired, leave on the plant until color develops.
* Potatoes can be harvested as “new” potatoes, before maturity, if they are
going to be consumed right away. If storage potatoes are desired, harvest after
the tops have yellowed or died back. Carefully dig the underground tubers and
then air dry for about a week in a shaded, well-ventilated place such as an open
barn, shed or garage. Remove excess soil from potatoes and discard those that
are diseased or damaged. Avoid exposing tubers to light. They will turn green
with even a small amount of light. Store in as cool a place as possible but
above 40 degrees. Ideal storage conditions are hard to find in late summer. Cool
basements often are the best storage available. Keep humidity high and provide
* Tomatoes harvested ripe from the garden will keep for a week, but most
refrigerators are a bit too cold. For best quality, they should be stored at 45
to 50 degrees. Green mature tomatoes can be harvested before frost and stored
between 55 and 70 degrees. For faster ripening, raise temperature to 65 to 70
degrees. Mature green tomatoes can be stored three to five weeks at 55 to 58
degrees. Wrap each tomato in newspaper and inspect frequently for
* Watermelon can be really challenging to guess when ready. I find the most
reliable cue to be what is called the grounds spot, when the underside of fruit
that was touching the ground turns from whitish to yellowish. The tendril at the
juncture of the fruit stem and the vine usually dies when the fruit is mature.
Thumping an immature melon gives a ringing, metallic sound while a mature melon
gives a dull thud.
Cool, Dry — 45 to 55
* Onions for storage should be dug when two-thirds to three-fourths of the
tops have fallen over and the necks have shriveled. Remove tops, place in
shallow boxes or mesh bags and cure in an open garage or barn for three to four
weeks. Store in mesh bags in a cool, well-ventilated location.
Warm, Dry — 55 to 60
* Pumpkins and winter squash are harvested when mature but before frost. The
rind is hard and the colors have darkened.
Warm, Moist — 55-60 degrees
* Sweet potatoes should be harvested in the fall before frost kills the
tops. Carefully dig the roots and cure for one week in a warm, well-ventilated
location, 80 to 85 degrees before storing.