Harvest Tips for the Freshest Vegetables
Most vegetables reach their peak flavor when they're young and tender. Try these strategies for the freshest, tastiest home-grown vegetables.
Beans If you plant in mid- to late spring, beans continue to set through most of the summer if you keep picking them. For best flavor, pick them when they are thinner than a pencil. Test Garden Tip: For variety, harvest some immature, or baby, beans and add them to salads. They have a slightly different flavor when they're young. Get more tips on growing beans.
Broccoli Don't wait for the broccoli in your garden to get as big as the ones you see at the grocery store to pick them; home-grown plants rarely reach that size. Cut the primary crown (where the individual heads come together) when it's about 4 inches across. Test Garden Tip: Give your broccoli an extra dose of plant food and a crop of new flower heads will start to form where the leaves join the main stem. Get more tips on growing broccoli.
Carrots Carrots are fully ripe when their shoulders reach up out of the ground and the leaves turn a rich, darker green than they were during the growing season. Test Garden Tip: If you get impatient, you can harvest carrots as soon as they're large enough to eat. Plant extra so you can harvest baby carrots during the growing season while you wait for them to fully mature. Get more tips on growing carrots.
Corn If you grow newer corn hybrids, they'll hold their flavor for a week or maybe more. But regardless of the type, it's best to wait until the silks at the ear tips turn brown. Feel the ears and make sure they're full and solid. Test Garden Tip: If you're not sure, peel back the shuck and pierce a kernel with your fingernail. If the juice looks milky, your corn is ready. If the juice is clear, give the corn a little more time. Get more tips on growing corn.
Melons Watch for cantaloupes to be ripe when they bear a yellowish color on the bottom of the fruit. Look for a brown line around where the stem attaches to the fruit. For watermelons, the best indicators are that the curly tendrils closest to the fruit turn brown and dry, the fruit goes from shiny to dull, and when the bottom of the watermelon (where it sits on the soil) goes from light green to yellowish. Get more tips on growing melons.
Okra Okra matures fast—harvest the pods about four days after the flowers close. Pick the pods before they become tough; this is usually when they're about 4 inches long. Test Garden Tip: Cut off any old, over-mature pods. If you leave them on, your okra won't continue to produce as well.
Onions One good indicator that your onions are ready is when the foliage topples over. Dig the bulbs and store them in a dry place to cure for at least a week. Test Garden Tip: If your onions bloom, harvest the blooms and use them in salads for extra flavor. Get more tips on growing onions.
Peas It's best to pick them early; if they're left a couple of days too long, they'll go from sweet to starchy. Gather flat-pod snow peas when you see a hint of peas forming inside. Let snap peas plump up a bit before picking. Harvest shell peas before the pods have a chance to turn waxy. Test Garden Tip: Like beans, you can harvest peas when they're still young and immature. They're also great in salads! Get more tips on growing peas.
Sweet Peppers Peppers are more flavorful—and nutritious—if you allow them to ripen beyond the green stage. Most bell peppers will turn red, orange, yellow, chocolate-brown, or purple when fully ripe. Test Garden Tip: Like tomatoes, peppers will continue to ripen after they're harvested. Get more tips on growing peppers.
Hot Peppers Like sweet peppers, the hot varieties will have the best flavor if you let them ripen fully. They ripen best at warm temperatures -- so be patient during periods of cool weather and watch them carefully during hot spells. Test Garden Tip: Wear gloves and wash your hands after handling hot peppers; the hot oils can irritate your eyes, nose, or mouth if the oils rub on them.
Potatoes Don't worry if you can't wait for your potatoes to ripen; sneak a few spuds as they develop. Just feel around the top inch or so of the soil and gather the small, young potatoes. The tubers are fully ripe after the plants bloom and start to turn brown and die back. Test Garden Tip: Too much sun on the potato skins will cause them to become bitter and distasteful. Make sure your potatoes are mulched well and brought inside promptly after harvesting. Get more tips on growing potatoes.
Salad Greens Most salad greens are a great "cut and come again" vegetable. When they're about 4 inches tall, cut the tops of the leaves off and enjoy them in your salads. The plants will grow a new set of leaves that you can cut and harvest again. Test Garden Tip: Plant a big patch and stagger your harvesting times so you can always have a fresh supply of greens during the growing season. Get more tips on growing lettuce. Get more tips on growing spinach. Get more tips on growing kale.
Summer Squash Many gardeners let zucchini and other summer squash get big before they harvest them. But the fruits have the best flavor and texture if you pick them when they're about 4 or 5 inches long. Test Garden Tip: Look for male squash flowers—they're the ones without the little baby squash on the stem side—and shred them for a colorful addition to salads or stuff them with cheese and cut-up fresh vegetables. Get more tips on growing summer squash.
Winter Squash Let winter squash mature before harvesting -- wait until their rinds are thick enough that you can't pierce them with your thumbnail. Then store them for several months in cool, dry conditions. Test Garden Tip: Like summer squash, you can harvest winter squash when they're still young (less than 6 inches in size) and eat them when they're fresh.
Tomatoes One of the tastiest vegetables (at least in our opinions!), tomatoes are also some of the easiest to harvest. Wait for them to fully change color and the fruits to have a bit of softness before picking. If frost threatens your tomatoes as they begin to color up, harvest them and allow them to finish ripening indoors. Test Garden Tip: Harvest tomatoes on the verge of changing color for fried green tomatoes or green-tomato salsa. Get more tips on growing tomatoes.