Knowing when to harvest your vegetables from the garden is tricky and challenging. If you pick too soon, you will miss out on the abundance you want, but if you wait too long, you may sacrifice taste. So how do you know? Don’t rely solely on the recommended days to maturity, because this can vary greatly with temps, rain amounts and your soil health. Size is a much better way to determine when your plants are ready for picking, even if it isn’t an exact science. We recommend using a blend of both variables as outlined below:
DAYS TO MATURITY
It is best to wait until the third season to harvest asparagus to the plant establish healthy root systems. You will see a moderate harvest for 3 or 4 weeks the third season and then heavy picking for 6 weeks after that. Only pick the spears that are thicker than a pencil in the early spring when they are 6 to 8 inches tall and the tips are still firm and closed. Cut or snap the spears off at, or just below, ground level.
Harvest your beans when the pods are about as thick as a pencil and firm and crisp. They should “snap” in half. The beans should be underdeveloped, because beans are overmature if the seeds have begun to fill out the pods. Pick them by holding the stem with one hand and the pod with the other to avoid pulling off branches that will continue to produce. Pick all pods to keep plants productive.
Broccoli should be harvested when the heads are green, compact, and the buds are just starting to open into flowers. Cut the stem at a slant about 4 to 6 inches below the head. This is a great way to cut the plants because sideshoots will sometimes grow and you can get 4-6 cuttings over a few weeks.
Cabbage is ready to harvest when the head is large, solid, and firm. To pick, cut the stalk at the base of the head with a sharp knife and discard the outer leaves. It’s best to harvest them in the morning, when heads are cool. You may get a second head if you leave the base and stem.
Carrots are more difficult to know when to harvest, as they are underground, but pull a few to check their size by loosening the soil with a fork and gently pulling. Also, wetting the ground can make them easier to pull. You can leave carrots in the ground until you need them because even mature carrots will retain their quality unless it gets extremely hot. After the first hard frost, but before the ground freezes, you’ll want to harvest the rest of your carrots.
Cauliflower can be picked when the heads are full, but before the curds start separating. Cut through the stem under the head, leaving a few “wrapper” leaves for protection. Curds bruise easily, so handle them with care.
Cucumbers can be harvested when they get big enough to use, but before they turn orange or yellow. If your vines are producing more than you can use, pick them anyway because allowing them to ripen to the orange stage on the vine will cause the plant to stop producing. To pick, hold the stem with one hand and pull the fruit with the other.
Head and romaine lettuce are mature when the heads are firm. Cut the plant at ground level in the morning and eat that day for crisper lettuce. For leaf lettuce, start harvesting as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat, about 4 to 5 inches long. You can pick the large outer leaves or slice the entire plant off about 1 inch above the soil line, prompting the plant to send out new growth, which will reach eating size in another 3 to 5 weeks.
Onions are ready as soon as they are big enough to use as green onions, but by letting the tops turn yellow and start to fold over, you will have nice bulb onions. You can speed up the maturation process by bending the tops with your rake, making sure not to snap them. Then, loosen the soil with a fork and gently pull the bulbs from the ground.
All varieties of peppers are ready for harvesting when they reach a usable size. Make sure to continue to pick mature vegetables so that the plant can continue producing. Most peppers can be eaten when they are green and underripe, although the flavor and vitamin C content improves as they ripen on the plant. To pick, use a scissors or shears to cut the stem of the peppers from the plants, leaving some of the stem attached. Never twist to get the pepper off the plant.
A potato will be fully mature when the stem and leaves turn brown. Harvest when the potatoes reach the size you want. To pick, loosen the soil and simply pull up the brown foliage and use your fingers to explore the soil and find more potatoes. Make sure the skins are very tough and don’t peel off easily when you gently rub them with a finger at harvest time.
Tomatoes are ripe when they change to the vibrant red color. For best flavor, harvest tomatoes when firm and fully colored. Some plants will drop the tomatoes when they are ripe. You can pick these up and use them.