Fruit, Vegetable & Herb
How & When to Pick Garden Vegetables
Here’s how to tell whether harvest time has finally arrived—and what to do if it has.
You’ve been working hard this growing season, and soon it’ll be time to treat yourself … to fresh, flavorful vegetables picked from your very own garden!
How can you tell precisely when to harvest vegetables? Since your growing zone and the weather both play a role in how fast your veggies ripen, you can’t rely on a calendar to tell when they’re ready. Use these tips to know when and how to harvest vegetables, then keep them fresher, longer, by storing in your fridge or pantry as suggested—and don’t wash them until just before use (unless noted otherwise below).
Watch: Look for bright green, firm beans about a pencil-width in diameter, without visible seed bulges. (If you can see the seeds, they’re past their tender prime.) Ripe beans “snap” when broken in half.
Harvest: Pick beans daily. Use your fingers or scissors to pluck or snip beans without tearing stems.
Store: Refrigerate immediately in an airtight, moisture-free container for up to a week
Beets & Turnips
Watch: Beetroots should be no smaller than 1¾ inches in diameter—slightly larger than a ping-pong ball. Very large roots may be tough. Turnip roots should be around 2 to 4 inches.
Harvest: Loosen the soil around the root with your hands, then pull roots from the ground by their stem and greens.
Storage: Remove soil with water and a vegetable brush, and cut stems to about 1 inch long before refrigerating in a plastic bag for up to a week.
Watch: Heads should be green, firm, and tight, without flowers.
Harvest: Use a knife to cut the head from the stem on a 45-degree angle, so side shoots can continue to grow. Take at least 6 inches of stem with the head.
Store: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 5 days.
Watch: Sprouts near the bottom of the stalk should begin to ripen first. When ready, they’ll be firm, green, and about 1 to 2 inches in diameter.
Harvest: Use your fingers to twist each sprout off the stem. Take only what you intend to eat in the next day or two.
Store: Brussels sprouts taste best when fresh but can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 2 days.
Learn about growing Brussels sprouts.
Watch: Heads should be the desired color and size, and will feel firm when squeezed. Harvest cracked heads immediately.
Harvest: Cut with a knife at the plant’s base.
Store: Refrigerate whole heads in the crisper drawer for up to several weeks.
Learn about growing cabbages.
Carrots & Parsnips
Watch: Watch for tops of carrot roots to peek out from the soil beneath their greens. For the best flavor, choose small carrots at least ½ inch in diameter. Parsnips will be sweeter the longer you leave them in the ground but should be harvested before flowering.
Harvest: Loosen the soil around each carrot or parsnip with your hands, a garden fork, or a trowel, then gently pull it from the soil by the greens or lift it from underneath with your tool. Be careful not to tug too hard, or you could break the root!
Store: Wash and pat dry before refrigerating! Cut greens about ½ inch above the top, and use a vegetable brush to remove dirt under cold running water. Refrigerate in an airtight plastic bag for up to 2 months.
Learn about growing carrots.
Watch: Heads should be white, firm, compact, and about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Harvest cracked heads immediately, no matter what the size.
Harvest: Use a knife to cut the head and a few surrounding leaves plus about 1 to 2 inches of the stem.
Store: Gently brush away any dirt before refrigerating in a plastic bag for up to 1 to 2 weeks.
Learn about growing cauliflower.
Collard Greens & Kale
Watch: Collard leaves should be shorter than 10 inches and dark green—the younger, the better. Kale leaves should be harvested when they reach about the size of your hand and will taste best after a light frost. Leaves should be intact and uniformly green.
Harvest: Cut with a knife or garden snips, or use your hands to twist or snap off the oldest leaves, starting at the bottom of the plant. Encourage continued growth by taking only a few leaves at a time, keeping the top of the plant intact.
Store: Wash and dry leaves completely before refrigerating in a loose plastic bag for up to several days.
Learn about growing kale.
Watch: Look for green, firm cucumbers between 6 and 8 inches long, with uniform color and thin, tender skins. (Pickling cucumbers, however, will be smaller.) Yellow cucumbers are past their prime, and oversized cucumbers will be tough and bitter.
Harvest: Using snips or a knife, cut cucumbers just above the fruit. Harvest often—daily, if possible—to keep plants productive.
Store: Cucumbers taste best fresh but can be refrigerated, wrapped tightly in plastic, for up to 10 days.
Learn about growing cucumbers.
Watch: It’s all about the seeds! Ripe eggplants will stop growing and have glossy skins. When sliced open, you’ll find a few well-formed, light-colored, tender seeds.
Harvest: Cut the eggplant from the plant with pruning shears, leaving about 1 inch of stem attached to the fruit.
Store: Rinse in cool water and gently pat dry before placing in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Eggplants keep for several days but will then begin to shrivel and lose firmness.
Watch: About half the leaves should be turning yellow but not completely dry. Pull just one plant first to check for a good-size bulb with well-defined cloves.
Harvest: Be gentle! Loosen the soil around each clove completely before carefully removing it from the soil, using a fork or spade to lift from under the plant. Lightly brush away dirt from the cloves.
Store: Hang or place garlic in a cool, dry, shady place with good air circulation to cure for 2 weeks. When ready, bulb coverings will be dry and papery. Cutaway the tops and store bulbs in a cool, dry place, such as a covered garlic keeper with air holes or a loose paper bag. Plan to use broken bulbs with loose cloves within a week.
Learn about growing garlic.
(see Collard Greens & Kale)
Watch: Look for vibrant green leaves with stems at least 1 inch in diameter—when you pull them from the soil, the underground portion of the stem will be long and white. Harvest younger, smaller leeks to use as scallions.
Harvest: Loosen the soil around each leek with your hands or a garden fork, then pull it gently from the ground by grabbing near the base. You may need to use the fork to help “pop” it up from the ground. (Moistening the soil can make removal easier, too.)
Store: Don’t trim leeks before storing. Wrap them tightly in plastic to contain any odors in your refrigerator, where they’ll last for up to 2 weeks. Wash well to remove grit before preparing.
Lettuce & Spinach
Watch: Watch leaves for the size and shade you desire—baby leaves will be especially tender. Don’t wait too long, though, or your greens may taste bitter. Leaves should be crisp, not droopy, with intact edges.
Harvest: Collect leaves in the morning, before leaves have warmed in the sun. Snip leaves with scissors or cut with a knife about ½ inch from the plant’s base, working from the outside in. For head lettuces, loosen the soil with your hands, then cup the head to pull it from the ground.
Store: Refrigerate in a loose plastic bag for up to 10 days.
Learn about growing lettuce.
Watch: Keep an eye on skin changes. Cantaloupes will turn yellow-buff, with a pronounced netting pattern and a crack encircling the stem, and give off a musky aroma. Honeydew will turn cream-colored, and the non-stem end will yield slightly when gently pressed inward. (Take care not to bruise them with repeated checking.) Watermelons will turn dull green where exposed to the sun, the rind resting on the soil will turn yellow, and the vine tendrils and stem will begin to brown. They’ll also make a low thudding sound when rapped with your knuckles.
Harvest: Support ripe cantaloupes with your hands to slip them easily off the vine. (Overripe melons may fall off the vine on their own.) Cut honeydew melons from the vine with shears, leaving an inch of stem to prevent rotting. Twist watermelons in one direction until the stem releases the fruit.
Store: Keep uncut cantaloupes and honeydews at room temperature for up to a week, and watermelons for up to 2 or 3 weeks. Wrap cut melons tightly in plastic, or store in an airtight container, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Learn about growing melons.
Watch: Tops will turn yellow and topple over. Bulbs will be big.
Harvest: Pull plants up and out of the ground by the leaves. Shake each plant to remove excess soil.
Store: Leave onions, tops still attached, in a warm, dry place to cure. Watch as the roots shrivel and the necks become dry over the next 7 to 10 days, then clip the tops and roots with pruning shears. Brush away excess dirt while keeping the papery outer skins intact. Store whole onions in a cool, dark, dry place for up to two months.
Learn about growing onions.
(see Carrots & Parsnips)
Watch: Pods should be glossy and a little bit plump, but not oversized.
Harvest: Pluck pods from vines using your fingers. Hold the vine steady with one hand while you pull the pod with the other. Pick daily to encourage more pods to form.
Store: Peas are sweetest and most flavorful in the hours just after picking. Refrigerate in a paper bag, slipped inside a plastic bag, for up to 5 days.
Watch: Depending on the variety, peppers will be deep in color or will change color. Wait for peppers to reach the desired size and shade. They should be shiny and firm.
Harvest: Handle with care! Wear disposable gloves (plus eye protection and a mask when working with super-hot varieties), and avoid touching your face, eyes, or mouth. Snip or cut the pepper’s stem with a knife—avoid tugging or twisting. Wash your hands and harvesting tools immediately after handling to avoid burns. Harvest frequently to encourage continued growth.
Store: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 7 to 10 days—perhaps longer for some thicker-skinned peppers.
Watch: Look for the size and color you want. Most varieties start out green, then eventually begin to turn red, orange, or yellow, depending on the variety. For sweeter peppers, leave them on the plant longer.
Harvest: Cut stems with a knife or snips. Do not twist or tear peppers from the plant.
Store: Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 10 days.
Learn about growing peppers.
Watch: Wait for vines and foliage to begin to brown and die. Cut them back, then wait two to three weeks before digging up one potato to check for size. Make sure the skin is thick and stays attached to the tuber when you rub it with your fingers.
Harvest: When the soil is fairly dry, get out your shovel and dig for buried treasure! Carefully loosen soil 6 to 10 inches away from plant stems. Feel around with your hands about 4 to 6 inches beneath the surface to find the potatoes.
Store: Handle with care! Gently brush away dirt, then leave potatoes in a humid spot to cure for 2 weeks. Store at room temperature, in a dark place, for up to 2 weeks. If sprouts form, knock them away with your fingers.
Learn about growing potatoes.
(see Lettuce & Spinach)
Watch: Summer squash should be firm, vibrantly colored, and up to 6 to 8 inches long. Winter squash should be firm with skin tough enough to withstand a fingernail puncture. Its foliage will also begin to die back.
Harvest: Cut the vine with a knife about ½ to 1 inch above the top of the squash, leaving a short stub. For summer squash, keep up with production by picking every other day. Remove and compost overripe squash you may have missed.
Store: Wipe squash clean with a damp cloth or paper towel and allow to dry. Store summer squash in a loose plastic or paper bag in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Winter squash will keep several months in a cool place, like a basement, if cured for a few days first in a dry, sunny spot.
Learn about growing squash.
Watch: Look for yellowing at the ends of the vines.
Harvest: Work when soil is dry and before frost. Use a digging fork to loosen an 18-inch diameter circle of soil around the main crown of the plant. (If you wish, cut away vines first.) Then use your hands to pull up the crown and search for sweet potatoes in the soil, about 4 to 6 inches below the surface.
Store: Brush away excess soil before leaving sweet potatoes in a warm, humid place to cure and sweeten for about 10 days to 2 weeks. Make sure they aren’t touching one another. They’ll last up to 2 weeks at room temperature in the kitchen or pantry, or up to 6 months in a basement that doesn’t dip below 50°F. Never refrigerate sweet potatoes—they’ll harden and lose their flavor.
Watch: Look for tomatoes with deep, uniform color—varieties may include red, yellow, purple, black, and even striped—and firmness that yields just a bit when gently squeezed. If you’re having issues with critter or are expecting a frost, you can also harvest still-green tomatoes that have begun to show a blush of color.
Harvest: Snap tomatoes off the vine by twisting, or use snippers or knife to cut the stem near the top of the fruit.
Store: Do not refrigerate! Keep ripe tomatoes stem-side-up, in a single layer, on your kitchen counter. Eat ripe tomatoes within 2 to 3 days.
Learn about growing tomatoes.
(see Beets & Turnips)
Harvested Too Much to Eat Right Away? Preserve It!
There are several ways to preserve your home-grown produce for long-term storage. Can your vegetables in glass mason jars to maintain fresh-picked flavor for up to a year, or pickle them according to a favorite recipe—like this one for a tasty summer relish. (Uncanned pickles will keep for 4 to 6 weeks in the fridge.) Root crops like carrots and potatoes can be layered in sawdust in a large container kept in a cool, humid area.
You can also freeze many veggies picked at the peak of freshness. (Exceptions are lettuces, cabbages, cucumbers, radishes, and other crops with high water content.) Wash, chop, and blanch first, then cool and store in freezer-proof bags or containers. Onions, tomatoes, and peppers can be frozen without blanching. Mark each bag or container with the date before freezing for up to 8 to 10 months.
Another option: Dry your produce, then use them for soups, stews, and even snacking! Find more info about drying right here.
There’s a certain joy that comes with harvesting, preparing, and—of course—eating food you’ve grown yourself. Whether you add fresh-picked, crispy greens to every meal, line your pantry shelves with sweet and sour pickles in mason jars, fill your freezer with convenient pre-chopped veggies, or simply take a long-awaited bite of an irresistibly red, ripe tomato fresh off the vine, how you consume your harvest is entirely up to you!