When to Harvest Vegetables and Fruit for Best Flavor

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Harvesting on the family farm.

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Ripeness Guide for Picking Vegetable and Fruit at Their Peak

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When are vegetables and fruit at the peak of flavor? Know when to harvest vegetables by recognizing the signs that tell you when vegetables are ripe (not underripe or overripe). We don’t want zucchini as big as a bat nor watermelons picked too early. We’ll explain in detail how to recognize when and what to pick for best flavor and quality. 

You’ve watered, fed and nurtured your garden. Now…when can you start enjoying the fruit of your labors?

5 Tips for Picking

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Two hands! Be 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.
  4. Harvest in the morning. Produce will stay crisp and store longer, and not become limp from midday heat. This is especially important for leafy greens like lettuce, chard and fresh herbs such as parsley and basil. It also applies to crisp fruiting vegetables like peas, and anything in the cabbage family like broccoli and radishes.  The next best time to harvest is in the evening after the heat of the late afternoon sun has begun to wane. Fruiting vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers and zucchini are less sensitive to wilting, so they can be picked later in the day as can root vegetables like carrots, but make sure to get them out of the sun and into the refrigerator quickly.
  5. 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!

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Credit: Maria Sbytova

Vegetables and Herbs

Artichokes

Globes should be plump, compact, and tightly closed. Green bracts (“leaves” of the bud) are not wilted and squeak if gently squeezed.

Asparagus

Cut spears that are about 6 inches in length. Look for tightly closed tips and firm yet tender stalks (whether thick or thin).

Basil

Harvest as soon as the flower buds begin to appear (but before they open) for the best flavor.

Beans

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.

Once beans get going, pick every other day so they keep producing. Bush beans will often produce second and third flushes of beans. Do not yank on the pods or you’ll break the stems. Use two hands to pick, holding the bean stem in one hand and picking with the other.

Green beans freeze well. Just blanch first (put in a pot of boiling water for one minute then cool in ice water) to keep the color bright and the texture crisp.

Beets

Look for small to medium-size roots (1-1/2 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.

For best flavor in hot weather, keep beets well watered and don’t leave them in the ground so long that they become pithy or woody.

Broccoli

Pick when the broccoli flower heads are large and dark blue-green with buds that are compact and tightly closed—before the buds turn yellow or start flowering. Harvest broccoli in the morning. 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.

If your broccoli has yellow flowers blooming, it will be tough and woody. Cut the plant about halfway down the stalk to encourage the continual production of side shoots. Keep plants well watered to prevent them from developing a bitter or sulphuric taste. The best tasting broccoli is produced in cool weather.

Brussels Sprouts

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. 

Cabbage

Look for a firm head and crisp, richly colored leaves. Avoid a cracked head, pale color, or wilted leaves.

Carrots

Young carrots are the sweetest.  Round carrots are best when they are 1-1/2” in diameter; pick them at this stage for best flavor. Baby carrots can be picked when they are 1/2” thick.

Look for a bright and rich 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.

If your carrot tops break off when you pull them, try loosening the soil first with a digging fork.

Cauliflower

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.

Celery

Stalks should be harvested when eight-inches long. Look for a fresh aroma, firm stalks, a green and glossy hue, and healthy green leaves.

Chives

Cut before the purple blossoms form, and keep them cut back for the sweetest flavor.

Corn

Corn is a tough one to gauge without looking inside the husk. First, look for a tightly attached husk that is pliable, healthy, and green. Then, select one ear, and peel back the ear to expose the cob and stab a kernel with your fingernail. Ther kernels should be plump and a light milky liquid should ooze out; if it contains water, looks too creamy, or is dry, it’s not good. The silks should be brown and dry. 

Corn starts lose its flavor the minute it’s picked! For best results, pick and shuck corn ears close to the time you want to eat it (or within 72 hours). To remove the ear, use one hand to hold the corn stalk and the other to pull the ear down and away from the stalk, twisting a little until it breaks off. Cool the ears on ice and then refrigerate them. Or learn how to blanch and freeze your corn.

Cucumbers

Harvest when about 6 inches long or whenever they’re big enough to use! Look for richly dark glossy green skin and a heavy, firm body and small seeds. Small cukes are the sweetest and have the softest seeds.

Don’t wait too long – bigger is not better in cukes — they’ll taste seedy and bitter. Turning yellow or dull is a sign that the fruit is overripe.

Check vines daily because once cukes get going, they are prolific; the more you pick, the more that grows. Store in refrigerator in plastic wrap or a plastic zipper bag for 7 to 10 days or they will dry out quickly.

Eggplant

Harvest at 4 to 6 inches in diameter when the skin of the fruit is glossy, 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. 

They taste most delicate and least bitter when they are still young, before the skins toughen and the seeds mature and darken inside. Avoid large-size eggplant.  If the eggplant’s color is faded or they have lost their gloss, they are overripe and may taste bitter. 

Don’t ever pull eggplant by hand; use pruning shears to harvest eggplant and leave a the stem stub. Store in the refrigerator for several days.

Garlic

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.

Kale

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. Start with the outer leaves of kale; be sure to leave seven or eight leaf crowns to regrow after harvest.

Leeks

Harvest when the white portions are 1/2-inch to one inch thick. Pick before they flower or leeks will be too tough to eat! It’s a good idea to hill up the soil around the leek’s base for a longer white section. 

Lettuce and Salad Greens

Head lettuce should be about 6 inches in diameter with a firm, compact head that slightly yields when squeezed. The heads should have started to fill in at the center but not yet elongate at the center and “bolt” (send up a flower stem), at which point they’ll taste bitter. 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. 

For mixed greens, such as arugula and mesclun salads, you can pick at any size. One popular method is the “Cut and Come Again.” When the plants are 4 to 7 inches tall, cut across the plants with scissors to harvest, leaving the bottom 1 to 2 inches of plants in the soil. The cut crowns of the plants will regrow for a few good harvests before getting bitter. So, make successive sowings every few weeks for a constant supply of tender young leaves.

Okra

Pick the pods when they are 2 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 cutting the pods every day or two, 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.

Some warm-weather gardeners will cut down okra by one-third in late summer to produce a late crop. Use pruning shears to cut the pods with a short stub of stem attached. Wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt if your skin gets irritated from okra’s stiff leaf hairs.

Onions

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

Parsnips are ready for harvest after approximately 16 weeks. Leave them in the ground for at least a few frosts to maximize their flavor. 

Peas

Pick peas when the pods are plump and rounded, 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 peas have filled the pod. PIck before the pods grow too large and tough. Pick peas in the morning at least every other day for maximum harvest and crispest texture.

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Peppers

Pick peppers are soon as they are nicely colored and full size. If you’re not sure what full size is, don’t worry too much. Peppers can be eaten at most stages and also can stay on the plant past maturity longer than other plants. Overripe bells usually get sweeter. Overripe hot peppers usually get hotter. But also remember: The more you pick, the more they produce.

Take care when picking peppers; use pruning shears or a sharp knife so you don’t break the stems. Avoid pulling peppers by hand as you’ll break off the branches. Store peppers in the fridge.

Potatoes

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. 

Winter Squashes

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.

Pumpkins

Harvest when the skin is are so hard that it can’t be pierced with a fingernail and the fruits are a deep orange. Pumpkins 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 a 2 inch stem to avoid rotting. Never lift a pumpkin by its stem. Do NOT expose to frost.

Keep in mind that pumpkins need to cure in the sunshine for 10 days (or a warm, dry room). Then store in a cool, dry place at around 50 degrees. See more about storage on our pumpkin growing guide.

Radishes

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.

Rhubarb

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.

Spinach

Look for healthy, dark green leaves that are 4 to 6 inches long.You can start harvesting outer leaves as soon as plants are established and plants have at least 5 to 6 full-size leaves, always leaving at least four to five leaves on the plant so it can regrow handily.  It will keep growing for another cutting, but you must harvest before the spinach bolts (sending up a flower stem). Spinach that was left too long in the ground will have oversize leaves and taste bitter.

Squash & Zucchini

Smaller is better when it comes to summer squash! Pick zucchini no larger than 6 or 7 inches. Pick patty pan squash at two to three inches, pick round zucchini at 3 to 4 inches, and pick longer trombetta squash at 12 to 14 inches. The longer the fruits remain on the vine, the tougher on the outside, seedier and more watery they become on the inside.

You should be able to easily 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.

Winter squash is the same as pumpkins. They should be richly colored and you should not be able to pierce their shell with your fingernail. Cure and store like pumpkins (see below).

Sweet Potatoes

If harvesting, dig when the vines turn yellow and take care to avoid broken roots and bruises. Harvest before the first frost in the North. Look for a firm body without a greenish tinge, soft spots or wrinkles. To avoid injuring tubers, 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 to bring out their flavor and also to bake well. A shaded table outdoors and out of the rain works well.

Don’t wash sweet potatoes until ready to use. Store somewhere cool and dry, but do not refrigerate or store below 50°F. Cured sweet potatoes will keep for up to 6 months when stored at around 60°F with high humidity; a basement is often ideal.

Swiss Chard

Harvest the first outer leaves when the plants are 4 to 6 inches high (well established). But leave at least 4 to 6 leaves. Then let the leaves grow until they’re 6 to 10 inches high before cutting again. The plant will keep producing leaves through the summer, and it can also overwinter in mild areas where the ground does not freeze hard.

Tomatoes

Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible for the most taste and complex flavor. The perfect tomato for picking will be very rich in color with no trace of green, regardless of size, as well as slightly firm—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 that have turned at least 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.

Tomatoes taste best when grown whereever days and nights are warm; otherwise, they can taste more bland.

Turnips

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.

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Fruit

Apples

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. Never leave apples on the counter or in a bowl after picking. They’l’l turn soft. Store in the refrigerator.

Blackberries

Look for the plump berries with a uniform black, shiny color with a hint of dullness. Avoid reddish color. Don’t wash berries until ready to use.

Blueberries

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. Don’t wash berries until ready to use.

Cantaloupe, Muskmelon, and Honeydew Melons

The perfect cantaloupe is heavy, has a fragrant aroma on the blossom end, and makes a hollow sound when thumped. The blossom end should be slightly springy when pressed (but don’t press too often or it will get bruised!). 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 without pulling but not have already fallen off.

Honeydews should have a slight yellow blush on their ivory rinds when ready. They also get slightly softer at the blossom end. Unlike muskmelons, honeydews do not slip off at the stem so must be cut from the vines.

When you harvest melons, leave about an inch of stem attached to fruit to keep it from rotting unless you plan to eat immediately. Store melons in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Cherries

Look for plump, firm fruit with a glossy, uniform, dark color for the variety and a fragrant aroma.

Figs

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.

Grapes

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.

Lemons and Oranges

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.

Peaches

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.

Pears

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

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.

Raspberries

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. Don’t wash berries until ready to use.

Strawberries

Ripe strawberries are fully red in color and shiny. They’ll be plump, green-capped, and have a fragrant aroma. Don’t wash berries until ready to use.

Watermelon

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.

The skin should have a dull green cast (not shiny) and be very hard – difficult to pierce with a fingernail.  Watch for a symmetrical body shape, an underbelly that has turned from green to buttery yellow, and the leaf on the tendril nearest the fruit to turn brown and withers. Rap it with your knuckles and listen for a dull, hollow sound. See more tips about how to tell if a watermelon is ripe

Do not harvest too early as watermelons will not ripen off the vine. If you have trouble growing tasty melons in your area, it may be that your climate is too cool.  Watermelons will keep in a cool place (such as a basement) for 2 to 3 weeks unrefrigerated. 

Also, learn more about how to properly store fruits and vegetables so that they last!

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