Starting You First Vegetable Garden Part 4 – The Harvest

When to harvest vegetables

Harvesting your first summer of home grown vegetables is incredibly rewarding! Photo courtesy Harris Seeds

We hope that by late July, you’ve already started to enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of your labor! Now for the fun part — harvesting, eating and keeping up with an over abundance of at least one of the vegetables you planted.

Most vegetables taste best during a specific time in their growth cycle. So it’s good to pick them at their optimum time. And, with some vegetables like peppers, beans and eggplant, if you stop picking, they’ll stop producing!

Basic harvesting tips:

Garlic: Harvest when about 2/3’s of the tops are dried out.   Dig carefully and store in a cool, dry place, being careful to not crowd them during the drying process.

Tomatoes: they taste best if they’re allowed to ripen on the vine, so pick these when they’re fully colored.

Green Beans: they’re best if picked when they’re smooth and slender.   As soon as you start seeing or feeling bumps, it means the seeds are starting to form. The beans are still edible then, but not as tender or flavorful.

When to harvest eggplant

Pick eggplants when their skins are shiny and bright. Photo courtesy Harris Seeds.

Eggplants: These can be picked from the time they’re very small until they’re full size. Pick while the skins are still shiny for the best flavor.

Bell Peppers: bell peppers are best picked when they’re at least 3-4 inches long and are firm to the touch.   Some varieties can be picked as green peppers, but if left on the vine, depending on the variety, they might turn red, purple or yellow.   If you’re not certain, it’s fine to experiment a bit, leaving a few on the vine to mature a bit longer.

Hot peppers: These contain capsaicin oil that can burn your skin when touched, so remember to wear gloves or wash your hands immediately afterward picking.

Cucumbers: Once they’re green and firm, you can pick them any time, but younger ones are the most flavorful.

Potatoes: For immediate consumption, you can dig potatoes any time – from their “fingerling” size to a more mature size, but potatoes picked before the vine dies will not store well. Dig up once the vines have died, being careful to not stab or cut the potatoes as you dig.

when to pick zucchini

Summer squash are most tasty if picked when they’re small. Photo courtesy Harris Seeds

Summer Squash: If you’ve ever been the recipient of your neighbor’s overgrown zucchini, you know how quickly the can turn from cute little finger-sized pieces to full sized baseball bats! For optimum flavor, pick summer squash when they’re about 6-8 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. If you miss a few days and find something the size of sock filled with cotton balls, pick it anyway and shred it for use in zucchini bread and other goodies. Shredded summer squash freezes well too.

Winter Squash: These include Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, Delicata, Hubbard and several other varieties. Winter squash shouldn’t be harvested until later in the fall, but before the late frost. It’s a bit challenging to determine when winter squash are ripe, but if you look at ones in your grocery store or pictures online, you’ll get a better sense of what mature squash look like.

Broccoli: Pick while the head and florets are nice and tight, using a sharp knife to carefully remove the head from the center of the plant. New ones will form in the leaf axils.   Broccoli left on the plant too long will send up tall flower heads, which are edible but turn brown when cooked.


Mid-last summer garden tips:

  • Depending on where you are climate-wise, you can sow lettuce, spinach and other salad greens in late July / early August for a fall crop.
  • Turnips mature in 35-60 days, depending on weather conditions, and actually provide more flavor if they get a bit cold. So, a mid-summer sowing could provide a nice addition to your fall table.
  • If your tomatoes continue to send out new growth, pinch off that new growth to force the plants’ energy into ripening the fruit already on the vine.
  • Mid-summer infestations of cucumber beetles and squash bugs can easily destroy your plants, so be vigilant about checking for these on a regular basis, and use a control recommended by your local garden center.
  • picking pumpkins

    Remember to leave a few inches on stem on pumpkins. Photo courtesy Harris Seeds

    Vegetable plants need water, even once they’ve set their fruit. Remember to water deeply, not just on the soil’s surface. Water at ground level rather than above to plant to reduce the chance of powdery mildew and other diseases that are leaf-born.

  • Tomatoes need about an inch of water a week – more so if it’s particularly hot or dry. Keeping their water level consistent will help to reduce the chances of getting blossom end rot.
  • When picking pumpkins and winter squash, it’s best to use a sharp knife. Leaving a few inches of stem helps protect them from diseases or rot that can enter the tender stem area.


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