Eating fresh veggies right from your garden is the reward for the weeks of taking care of them. Get tips on harvesting vegetables at the peak of perfection.
You’ve slaved over seeding, transplanting, feeding, watering and weeding. Maybe pruning too for some veggies. And finally after what seems to have been ages, your vegetable plants are finally producing!
But now there is more work as you realize you need to harvest all this abundance.
The trick is to keep up with the harvest and not let it go too long. You know what can happen? Finding that baseball bat sized zucchini hiding under all those big squash leaves! Trust me, they taste better small and are a bit less overwhelming.
Or finding that oversized turnip or kohlrabi and they have turned woody and fibrous and are destined for the compost heap. 😕
So let’s look at what you need to know to harvest your abundant crops when they are ready.
When to harvest
The key to having the freshest, best tasting vegetables is to pick them at the right time.
If you pick them too early, often they will not be as sweet as they can be due to the sugars not yet having formed. And they may not be big enough, although in some cases baby vegetables can taste better than their full-grown siblings.
If you pick them too late, you may end up with woody insides, tough skins or starchy vegetables as the sugars have turned to starch.
One way to get at least a rough idea of when your vegetables are ready for harvest is to check seed packets. This works if you seeded the plants yourself, but doesn’t work so well if you bought transplants at the nursery or garden centre.
However based on weather, soil conditions, how much you fertilized and watered and any pruning you did, your veggies may need more or less time to be ready for harvesting. So the days to maturity on the seed packet is just a guide.
So use the following indicators to know when the most common veggies are ready:
And it is important to keep up with the frequency of harvesting. It is easy to forget, so write it on your calendar. Otherwise you’ll end up with the stereotypical baseball bat sized zucchini!
Usually every two days is fine for most veggies. This is a time when it might pay to do your maintenance walks more frequently through the garden so that you don’t miss anything.
Of course you can also go out when you have a desire to eat a certain vegetable or need a recipe ingredient. Just be flexible enough to substitute something else if what you wanted to pick is not ready yet.
You probably want to stagger picking the various veggies, so that one day you pick beans, the next day greens and the following day beans again. Otherwise you’ll have one day where you need to pick too much and then spend time to preserve or otherwise deal with the harvest.
What do you need
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I often will simply pull, snap, or snip vegetables as I’m doing a maintenance walk through the garden. No tools required and I’ll balance the veggies in my hands until I can bring them to the kitchen. Or in the case of cherry tomatoes, they might not make it to the kitchen as they disappear into my mouth!
However if you are harvesting a whole crop of beans, tomatoes or greens, you may want to prepare and have a few things on hand to make the job go faster and avoid losing veggies or damaging them.
I prefer bringing a large wicker basket with me into the garden. Then I can literally fill it with all kinds of vegetables as I go through and find ripe, fully-grown produce. Think Red Riding Hood but hopefully you don’t have foxes in your neighbourhood!
However in order to corral veggies such as beans, peas and greens, I also like to have a bunch of plastic vegetable bags handy to put the veggies into. Or if you don’t like using plastic, consider some fabric bags.
Sometimes I’ll grab the bottom container of my salad spinner from the kitchen for leafy greens as I need the spinner anyways to wash and drain them.
For tomatoes and any other delicate soft-fleshed veggies, a clean, empty plastic container that once held tomatoes or berries works well. Or a plastic or glass storage container with or without a lid works too.
If you are picking potatoes or other large veggies such as squash, cardboard boxes work well.
Scissors, Snips, Knife
You can become quite adept at snipping off beans, peas and greens with just your fingers.
However I find sometimes that a pair of scissors or snips works better and can be faster. It’s an easy tool to throw into your collection basket before you head out into the garden. Or some people put a pair of scissors close to their vegetable garden on a post (so long the scissors can withstand rain and water from irrigation).
For broccoli and cauliflower I use a knife (borrowing one from the kitchen) to cut the head off the stalk. Also useful for cutting off the excess root off kohlrabi, beets and other root crops.
Root crops such as beets and turnips will usually just pull up easily.
However the longer root crops like parsnips and carrots may need a bit of coaxing to get them out of the ground.
You can easily break off the top leaves by trying to pull them up or even worse, breaking off a carrot in the middle because the bottom is stuck. So carefully use a shovel or garden fork to loosen the soil around these root crops. You may need to pry a bit as well to try and get underneath the long root and pop it up out of the ground.
Potatoes also need to be carefully dug up if in the ground with a spade or fork. I find a spade better as there is less chance of spearing an errant potato that is outside of the main crop.
How to harvest
Some advice is to cut the asparagus off with a knife just below the surface of the soil. But then you get the fibrous, inedible part at the bottom of the spear that you can’t eat anyways.
So it is better to simple snap off the asparagus spear where it turns from fibrous to edible.
Beans and Peas
These are best snipped off the vine/plant with scissors or snips. You can become adept at snipping them off with your fingers but if you are careless you can break off more than you wanted to.
Cut off the main stalk just before the first set of leaves. You will need to use a knife for that.
Leaving the rest of the plant is a good idea as you will get some smaller side shoots forming with mini broccoli on them. Cut them off as needed for a small meal or addition to a stirfry with other veggies.
You can snap off individual florets. Or pull up the whole plant for a full meal.
Pull up the whole plant and then cut off the root and pull off the leaves.
Pull off stalks as needed. If you need the whole plant cut off at root level and you will get new shoots coming up. You can treat celery as a perennial in mild climates or with winter protection.
Twist off the ears. Leave the husks on until ready to prepare.
These usually snap off easily.
Snip off with scissors or snips. Sometimes you can snap them off but be careful as you can damage the plant.
Usually these can be simply harvested by snipped them off or in some cases breaking them off the main stalk. For kale and chard start at the bottom (and toss any leaves that have been ravaged by slugs or snails or other crawling pests) as that will then give you a “veggie tree” that allows you to plant other veggies underneath to maximize your space.
You can of course also harvest the whole plant but then you lose future harvests. Do this at the end of the growing season for that green or if you suspect it will bolt soon because of hot weather.
Pull up the whole plant. Knock off most of the soil from the roots.
For green onions or scallions you should usually just snip off what you need with scissors. But you only get the green part obviously. For a dish where you want the white and green parts you can cut off the scallion at ground level, leaving the roots and often a new shoot will emerge if you are lucky.
Depending on how you grow them, harvesting may be easy or hard.
The easiest way to grow them is in grow bags or 5 gallon pails. Then you can literally dump out the soil and root through the soil to find all the spuds.
If you grow them traditionally in the ground, hilled up, you will likely need to do some digging. Loosen the soil with a garden fork or spade, being careful not to damage the potatoes. Then use your hands (children will have fun with this!) to find everything. Likely you will miss something in which case don’t be surprised to see a new plant growing in that spot!
As I mentioned above the rounder root vegetables like radishes, beets and turnips you can simply pull out by the bottom of their stalks. You may have to loosen slightly with your hands or a hand trowel if your soil is a bit compacted. I have found that if I mulch heavily with leaves or wood chips, the root veggies come out much easier, so that’s another advantage to using mulch of some sort.
For carrots, parsnips and diakon you may need to use a long handled fork or shovel. You need to do this carefully as you don’t want to damage the root. I find that putting the tool vertically beside the root as deep as you can and then levering it up so that it actually pushes the root out from the bottom is the best method. Brush off most of the dirt. Don’t wash it off as that can cause the root to spoil earlier if you don’t eat it that day.
Keep in mind that most root vegetables also have edible greens, so don’t lop them off and throw them away. I usually will do that in the kitchen and put the roots and greens in separate bags.
Usually squash can be twisted off the vine. For the more stubborn squashes with thicker stalks you may have to use a knife.
From my experience with my young daughter, children love the game of finding fresh vegetables in the garden and are usually willing to help you out in picking once they are old enough.
The main problem with having children helping is that they may not know what is ripe or not. So you will have to show them “this is a ripe tomato and this isn’t” and then guide them along the first few times they help you picking.
Have them pick the easy veggies that don’t require tools and can just be plucked off the plant such as tomatoes. They also will have fun pulling up small radishes and carrots.
If you bring the aforementioned basket, you can have them help put the veggies into the basket as you pick the more difficult ones. There will occasionally be accidents as your child drops a full container of cherry tomatoes! All part of the process of learning.
Problem is getting them to eat all of the veggies! That is for another post.
What to do with your harvest
Using and preserving your harvest is a separate topic in itself. I’ll just list some ideas here but will link to specific articles over time as they are written.
Freezing is the only storage method that costs you money until you eat the harvest. Every other method costs money when you preserve or use the harvest.
Blanching and Freezing
I’ve covered this in a separate post.
This works best for peas, corn (off the cob) and Brussel sprouts. Using baking sheets, you freeze the veggies individually and then transfer them to bags.
By essentially heating and cooling filled glass jars, you can vacuum seal veggies so that they will last months if not years. It can be a bit intimidating, as doing it wrong can cause spoilage. And it requires some special supplies and tools.
Removing most of the water out of veggies will allow you to store them for a long period of time without spoiling. If you really want to be cheap and environmentally conscious, you can use the heat of the sun to dry food just like our ancestors did.
Or buy a dehydrator or use your oven at a very low setting. This allows you to dry the veggies even during wet and cloudy weather.
Fermenting and Pickling
There is a whole sub-category in food preservation that uses fermentation and pickling to preserve veggies for later consumption. It’s what our ancestors did many hundreds of years ago before refrigeration and modern canning methods.
Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and onions can be stored in a cool, dry place for months. There are various ways to ensure that the crop will last the longest.
Cooking and Freezing
The other alternative is to cook a dish with the vegetables. This way you can combine veggies in a delicious way. I always have one recipe in my weekly newsletter so sign-up for it and you won’t be without simple ideas to use your veggies.
If you cook a large batch such as sauce, stew, casserole, chili, etc. you can then freeze it for later use.
You are probably wondering: what about fruit? Fruit harvesting is in some ways similar but a bit different so there is a separate post on that. Fruit tree picking also involves ladders and other specialized equipment to do properly and safely.
Do you have any other tips for harvesting vegetables? Please share in a comment below.
Wishing you all the best and happy harvesting!
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Tranquil Garden Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC