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Is it Ready to Pick or Not?

I’ve gotten questions from a couple of my clients this year about whether certain of their crops were ready to harvest and how to go about it so here’s a little harvesting primer. Some veggies are easy to tell when they’re ready to harvest because they change to a characteristic color and detach easily from the plants, Tomatoes and peppers fall into this category. Others are more difficult. Cucumbers and peas are always green and never come off the vine easily. Carrots and potatoes are under the ground. And what about leafy greens and herbs?

Many veggies that are less obvious than the color changers have specific changes that tell you when they are ready to pick but others are more subtle. Some categories are listed below.

What happened, my plant is dead!
Actually, not. For some veggies they are ready to pick once the top of the plant dies.

Onions- Almost ready to pick

Onions- Almost ready to pick

Potatoes, garlic and onions, among others, fit in this category. The tops of all of these plants will start to turn yellow and look like they’re getting sick at various points during the summer but really what’s happening is the part of the plant you want to eat is ripening. In the case of potatoes you even want to let them sit in the ground for a couple of weeks after the tops die, to extend storage time.

With some veggies all that matters is that the part you want reaches a certain size. The easy ones in this category are the leafy greens and herbs.

Basil- Ready to Pick

Basil- Ready to Pick

For these veggies you are only harvesting the leaves so ripeness (which refers to the maturing of the fruit of the plant- in this context a cucumber, a tomato and pea pods are all fruits) doesn’t really apply. All that matters is that the leaves reach a reasonable size when they are picked. For leafy greens you should pick the outside leaves first because new leaves grow from the inside. Also, when you pick your greens or herbs make sure you leave at least 1/3 of the leaves so the plant survives to produce more leaves.

More subtle members of this group include peas, beans, broccoli, cucumbers and most of the root veggies.

Pea Ripeness

Pea Ripeness

For peas, wait until the development of the peas in the pod is very obvious and the pod walls are thick but still green. When the pod starts to pale and thin the peas will have lost a lot of their sweetness, but if they get to that stage, leave them on the plant until the pod is completely dry and save the seeds for planting next year. Beans are similar but it’s better to pick them when the seeds are much smaller (and some beans form non-green pods so for those, also wait for the color change).

Broccoli Heads- Too Mature

Broccoli Heads- Too Mature

I’ve noticed many people wait too long to pick their broccoli. What you harvest with broccoli is the immature flowers and you want to pick the heads before the flowers start to develop. What I think happens with broccoli is that people are expecting the monster heads you get in the supermarket. In your garden the heads will tend to be much smaller but you want to pick them when they look just like in the supermarket. If you wait too long the individual flowers will start to develop and the head will start to break up and turn into individual flowers (see below).

Among the root veggies beets, turnips, and rutabaga are relatively easy to tell when they are ripe because the roots will usually sit on top of the ground so you can see them. You can pick them whenever they reach the size you want them to be. As a general rule these veggies are sweeter and more tasty when they are on the small to medium size.

Immature Cucumber

Immature Cucumber

When cucumbers are small they are covered with small, spiny bumps and the sides will be a bit concave. As the cuke matures the bumps will spread out and the cuke will fill out. However, you want to pick before the cuke gets too big because after a certain point the cuke only gets larger because the seeds are getting bigger and the seeds are no especially tasty.

Even among the veggies that change color there are some differences. Some, like tomatoes and peppers, in addition to changing color will also come of the plant easily once they are ripe. Others, like members of the squash family will still be attached firmly to the plant and you will need to cut them off.

Overall don’t stress out about whether you’ve picked your vegetables at exactly the right point, whether it’s to early, too late or just right there’s some way you can use your harvest. So pick and enjoy.

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