How and When is the Best Time to Pick Vegetables and Fruit
How and When is the Best Time to Pick Vegetables and Fruit
September 8, 2018
How do you know when fruit and vegetables are ready to pick? Whether you are a gardener or a grocery shopper, this harvest guide will help you recognize when your summer fruit and vegetables are at the peak of flavor.
5 Tips on Picking
- Remember, bigger is not always better. Many vegetables taste best before they grow too big. For example, zucchini are best picked when they are 6 to 8 inches long. They’re still good later, but they have hit their peak ripeness and their flavor will start to deteriorate.
- Not all fruit and vegetables are harvested the same way. For example, pears are picked when they are still hard! Watermelons must be fully developed before being picked. Tomatoes can ripen on or off the vine.
- Be very gentle when you pick. For example, take care not to yank the fruit or vegetables. Stems and branches are easily broken. Use two hands to pick; hold the stem in one hand and pick with the other. If the crop is ripe but doesn’t easy pull by hand (such as eggplant), use pruning shears.
- Once a crop starts producing, check the garden every day! Picking vegetables as soon as they are ripe often encourages the plant to produce much more! Otherwise, many vegetables will bolt and flower as they “think” they’re done. Pinch or cut back herbs frequently to keep them productive (and to keep them from flowering).
- You can always preserve an overly-abundant harvest. For example, green beans can be blanched in boiling water for one minute, cooled in ice water, and frozen. Zucchini and squash can also be frozen or made into zucchini bread! See our tips on preserving your harvest.
Have more questions about specific crops? Click on the linked crops below to go straight to the plant page with growing and harvesting tips!
Vegetables and Herbs
Globes should be plump, compact, and tightly closed. Green bracts (“leaves” of the bud) are not wilted and squeak if gently squeezed.
Cut spears that are about 6 inches in length. Look for tightly closed tips and firm yet tender stalks (whether thick or thin).
Harvest as soon as the flower buds begin to appear (but before they open) for the best flavor.
Taste one and decide. Standard varieties of snap beans are ready to be harvested when they are as thick as a pencil and before the seeds bulge and become visible through the pods. Lima beans are ready when their pods take on a green color and feel full. When bean pods turn white or yellow, feed them to the pigs or the compost pile.
Look for small to medium-size roots (1-½ to 3 inches in diameter). Beets can be harvested at any time, but the larger ones will often be tougher and woody. Beets should have smooth, firm flesh, show a rich color, and have healthy green leaves (not wilted).
If you are eating beets for their greens, they can be harvested any time once their leaves are 4 to 6 inches long.
Pick when the broccoli flower heads are dark blue-green and the buds are compact—before the buds turn yellow or start flowering. Cut 6 to 7 inches below the flower heads. If the underside of the top turns yellow, the broccoli is overripe. The stalks should be firm and the greens should be green and fresh (not limp). The small, tender leaves also are nutritious.
Harvest sprouts (buds) when they reach at least 1 inch in diameter, harvesting from the bottom of the stalk first. Note that Brussels sprouts’ flavor is improved by a light frost or two. Do not strip the leaves since they are needed for growth.
Look for a firm head and crisp, richly colored leaves. Avoid a cracked head, pale color, or wilted leaves.
Young carrots are the sweetest. Carrots are mature at ½-inch to 1 inch in diameter. Look for a bright color, firm body, and smooth skin. The leaves should be crisp and green. Carrots that have splitting (due to weather that was too dry or wet) often taste bitter.
The heads should be compact, white, and firm—about 6 to 7 inches in diameter. The leaves should be bright green. If the head is soft or the leaves are yellow, the cauliflower is past its peak. To keep heads from turning yellow, fold the outer leaves over the head when it’s just 2 to 3 diameters.
Stalks should be harvested when eight-inches long. Look for a fresh aroma, firm stalks, a green and glossy hue, and healthy green leaves.
Cut before the purple blossoms form, and keep them cut back for the sweetest flavor.
Corn is a tough one to gauge. Ripe, just-picked ears have a tightly attached husk that is pliable, healthy, and green. The tassels at the top are brown. The ear inside feels plump, not skinny. If you open an ear and stab a kernel with your fingernail, a light milky liquid should ooze out; if it contains water or is dry, it’s not good. Ears that are too ripe will look creamy (versus light and milky) and may taste starchy. The kernels should be plump and arranged in tight rows that extend to the tip of an ear. Harvest early in the morning and eat within 72 hours for best flavor. If this isn’t possible, cool the ears on ice and then refrigerate them.
Note: Corn starts lose its flavor the minute it’s picked. Place ears in the refrigerator right away or learn how to freeze your corn.
Harvest when about 6 inches long or as soon as they’re big enough to use. Look for richly dark green skin and a heavy, firm body. Small cukes are the sweetest and have the softest seeds. If they get too big, cukes turn yellowish or dull in color. They will taste seedy and bitter. Store in refrigerator in plastic wrap or a plastic zipper bag or they will dry out quickly.
Harvest at 4 to 6 inches in diameter when the skin of the fruit is smooth, shiny, and unwrinkled. The color should be richly colored and the body should be heavy and firm. If you cut the eggplant open, it will have a sprinkling of white, immature seeds. Fruits with no visible seeds are immature, and hard, dark seeds are found in overripe eggplant. Avoid large-size eggplant. If the eggplant’s color is faded or they have lost their gloss, they are overripe and may taste bitter.
The wrapper or “paper” should be unbroken, tight, and dry (not disintegrate). When harvesting, the tops will turn yellow. The bulb should be firm and plumb, not shriveled or spongy. Avoid sprouts.
Harvest mature kale leaves when they are the size of your hand or a little bit bigger. As with spinach, younger leaves will be more tender.
Harvest when the white portions are about one-and-a-half inches in diameter.
Head lettuce should be about 6 inches in diameter with a firm, compact head that slightly yields when squeezed. Look for clean, crisp leaves with healthy color. With leaf lettuce, pick any time, but the leaves are much more tender and flavorful when they are less than five inches long.
Pick the pods when they are 2-½ to 4 inches long, or about 4 to 6 days old, after the flower wilts. They get very tough and stringy if allowed to stay on the plant. Keep picking and okra will keep on coming. They start at the base and move up the plant (which can get up to 6 to 8 feet tall in the South). If the pods get too big to eat, pick those off, too.
Wait for the tops of onions to fall over and turn brown before you pull them. Let the bulbs dry out for several days, then cut off the tops and rots and store in a cool, dry place. Harvest green onions when they are 6 to 8 inches tall and the bulbs are 1 to 2 inches in diameter.
Parsnips are ready for harvest after approximately 16 weeks. Leave them in the ground for at least a few frosts to maximize their flavor.
Pick when plump but before the pods wrinkle on the stem and take on a dull whitish cast. It’s best to pick a “test” pod and open it to see if the seeds have started to swell and getting round but still tender.
Pick peppers are soon as they are shiny green and baseball-sized. If you prefer yellow, orange, or red peppers, just leave them on the vine longer and they will become sweeter. (Don’t be impatient.) Hot peppers left to change color will get hotter. Also, take care when picking peppers; use pruning shears or a sharp knife so you don’t break the stems.
Potatoes should have a firm body and be heavy for size, without any black or soft spots, sprouts, wrinkles, or greenish tinge. Wait until the foliage has died down for one or two weeks and then dig up.
Butternut squash, acorn squash, and other winter squash is ready to harvest when the skin hardens. Press your fingernail through the flesh. If you have to work at it, the squash is ripe; if it’s very easy to pierce, the squash is immature. The skin should be full (non-glossy), firm, and rich in color without blemishes or cracks or soft spots. The stem should be dry and firm.
Harvest when fruits are full size and the rinds are the color desired because they will not continue to ripen off the vine. Rind should be firm and glossy. Leave squash on stems for better storing and pick before fall frost. When you harvest, cut stems with a sharp knife, leaving at least an inch of stem. Never lift a pumpkin by its stem. Keep in mind that pumpkins need to cure in the Sun for two weeks before storage. See more about storage on our pumpkin growing guide.
Pick when one inch in diameter or they will turn “hot” and woody. Look for a firm, smooth, well-shaped body. The color should be bright. The leaves should be healthy and green.
Harvest rhubarb stalks when they are at least a foot in length. Refrain from harvesting too many stalks at once, as this could damage the plant.
Look for healthy, dark green leaves that are 4 to 6 inches long. Spinach that was left too long in the ground will have oversize leaves and taste bitter.
Yellow squash and zucchini are at their best when they’re 4 to 8 inches long. Pick them young when you can puncture the skin with a fingernail. Plenty more will follow. They should feel firm, heavy for size, and show a bright and healthy skin as well as stem. Avoid dull or hard skin, an oversize body, soft spots, blemishes, and a dry stem.
If harvesting, dig when the vines turn yellow and take care to avoid broken roots and bruises. Harvest before the first frost in th North. Cure in a warm well-ventilated place for 2 to 3 weeks. Look for a firm body without a greenish tinge, soft spots or wrinkles. To avoid injuring tubers, find the use a digging fork to loosen an 18-inch wide circle around the plant and use your hands to gently dig up.
Sweet potatoes need to cure in a warm (80°F to 90°F), shady, well-ventilated place for about 10 days. Wash and set in a shady place outside before storing in a cool place (not colder than 50 degrees though).
Cut the first leaves when they’re 4 to 6 inches high. Then let the leaves grow until they’re 6 to 10 inches high before cutting again.
Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible for the most taste and complex flavor. The perfect red tomato for picking will be very rich in color, regardless of size. A ripe tomato will be slightly firm and plump—not hard—when gently squeezed. The skin will be smooth and glossy. The aroma will be fragrant.
If frost is predicted, you can pick tomatoes a little green to ripen indoors. Just store indoors in a dark place at room temperature. Never refrigerate tomatoes, because temperatures below 55° cause the flavor compounds to break down. Preserve tomatoes by canning or drying.
The best tasting turnips are the size of golf balls. They have a firm body, smooth skin, rich color, and crisp leaves that are very green.
Look for rich color, smooth skin, and a firm body. On the tree, the stem should part readily from the branch when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand and given a slight twist around, then up.
Look for the plump berries with a uniform black, shiny color with a hint of dullness. Avoid reddish color.
Look for the plump, firm berries with a uniform dark blue color with powdery white coating (called bloom). If picking yourself, don’t rush to pick the berries as soon as they turn blue. Wait a couple days. When they are ready, they should fall off right into your hand.
Cantaloupe and Honeydew Melons
Look for a fragrant aroma, a hollow sound when thumped, and a blossom end that is slightly springy when pressed (but don’t press too often!). The color under the skin’s netting should be yellow or cream color and the netting pattern becomes more pronounced. At the stem, a crack appears that encircles the base of the stem. A ripe melon should slip right off the vine.
Look for plump, firm fruit with a glossy, uniform, dark color for the variety and a fragrant aroma.
Figs should be allowed to fully ripen on the tree. The fruit should give slightly when gently squeezed, but should not be overly squishy. The mature fruit’s color will depend on the tree’s variety. Figs grow perpendicularly out of the branch and will hang down slightly when they are ready to be harvested. Wear gloves and long sleeves while picking figs, as the tree’s sap can irritate the skin.
Look for plump, firm grapes that are tightly attached to the stems. If the green variety, the color should be green tinged with yellow; if the red variety, color should be dark red without any green; if the purple variety, color should be almost black without any green.
The best indicator of ripeness is taste. However, start with lemons that are heavy for their size and show a bright yellow color. Avoid dull or greenish color and soft spots.
At their peak, peaches have a golden color and a body that yields easily when gently squeezed. There should be no green left on the fruit. If you pick off a tree, the peaches should come off the tree with only a slight twist. The fruits found on the top and outside of the tree usually ripen first.
Harvest pears when they are mature but still hard. Most varieties do not change color when ripe, but the color should be consistent and the aroma fragrant. The stem area should yield slightly to pressure.
Plums will have the best flavor when left to ripen on the tree for as long as possible. Squeeze the fruit gently, and if it feels soft, the plum is ripe. Ripe fruits will come off the tree easily; just give them a slight twist.
The berry will be fragrant, plump, fairly firm (not mushy), and show a bright, uniform color. If you’re picking your own, don’t tug too hard on your raspberries. A ripe raspberry will leave the vine willingly.
Ripe strawberries are fully red in color and shiny. They’ll be plump, green-capped, and have a fragrant aroma.
Sometimes it can be hard to know when to harvest a watermelon because they remain firmly attached to the vine even when they’re ripe. The ripening process happens over two weeks. Watch for a symmetrical body shape, a buttery yellow underbelly, and a skin that’s neither too dull nor shiny. If you’re harvesting from the garden, the watermelon’s ready when the stem curls and turns brown and the place where the melon touches the ground turns yellow. Rap it with your knuckles and listen for a dull, hollow sound. Watermelons will keep 2 to 3 weeks unrefrigerated.
Also, learn more about how to properly store fruits and vegetables so that they last!
This page was first published in 2009 and is regularly updated.