When and How to Pick Your Vegetables for Best Quality

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There aren’t many things more satisfying than going out to your garden and harvesting your produce. All the digging, watering, and weeding you’ve done in your vegetable garden suddenly become worthwhile when you’ve picked your first tomato. One of the advantages of having a garden is that you can pick your vegetables when they are at peak quality, but how do you know when to harvest them?

Ripening and harvest times vary between vegetable types. Some vegetables, like zucchini, are picked while still immature. Some crops, like butternut squash, aren’t picked until they are fully developed. Meanwhile, tomatoes can be picked when fully ripe or partially ripened and ripened indoors.

Most plants and seeds that we purchase will include information on days to maturity. This information can give you a general idea of how long it will take for your vegetables to be ready to harvest. Unfortunately, it won’t tell you when your vegetables will be ready to pick. Instead, you’ll have to take a look at your plants for different signs to see when they are ready.

Snap beans (green beans) should be picked when the pods are fully grown but before the seeds have started to get large. The beans should be crisp and snap easily. When picking, break off the stem above the cap and harvest frequently.

Cucumbers should be harvested before their skin begins to turn yellow and seeds become hard. The size of the cucumber will vary depending on the type; pickling are usually picked between 2 and 6 inches long, slicing 6-8 inches long, and burpless 1-1½ inches in diameter and up to 10 inches long. Cucumbers develop quickly, so plants may need to be checked every other day.

Peppers can be harvested at any size. Green bell peppers are typically picked when they are mature (3-4 inches long, firm, and green). If you are growing colored types of bell peppers, wait until the fruits change color. One way to tell if the fruit is mature is that it will easily break off of plants when picked. Hot peppers can also be picked at any stage but are typically picked when fully ripe. The mature color of the fruit will vary on the variety.

Summer Squash, such as straightneck, crookneck, and zucchini, should be harvested when small and tender. Pick when fruit is 2 inches or less in diameter and 6-8 inches long. When growing conditions are favorable, you may need to harvest every other day or daily.

Winter Squash, such as acorn, butternut, and pumpkins, can be harvested when the fruits have turned a deep, solid color, no longer have a glossy appearance, and the rind is hard. When harvesting, try to leave at least 2 inches of stem attached. Complete harvest before heavy frosts arrive.

Tomatoes are at their highest quality when allowed to ripen on the vine. Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored. During hot conditions (90°F), tomatoes will quickly soften, and color development is reduced. During these conditions, pick tomatoes when they begin to develop color and ripen indoors. Before the first frost of the fall, you can harvest mature green fruit and ripen indoors.  

For more information on harvesting other types of vegetables, visit the Good Growing blog at [//go.illinois.edu/goodgrowing]go.illinois.edu/goodgrowing.

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Almost all vegetables are best when harvested early in the morning. If you can’t harvest in the morning, keep produce out of direct sunlight and cool as soon as possible.

SOURCE: Ken Johnson, University of Illinois Extension, Horticulture Educator, kjohnso@illinois.edu or 217.243.7424

***Courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension***

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