Harvesting Your Own Groceries is part 17 of The Alabama Vegetable Gardener series.
To ensure high-quality, nutritious vegetables from your home garden and to prevent waste, proper harvesting at the right stage is essential. The time of day you harvest vegetables from your garden can influence their quality. Harvest all leafy vegetables, including herbs, in early morning while they still glisten with dew.
Harvest the following vegetables as close to preparation and mealtime as possible: asparagus, beans, all root vegetables, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, kohlrabi, leeks, okra, peas, peppers, summer squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, and southern peas.
Handle fresh vegetables carefully to avoid cutting, breaking, or bruising them. After harvesting, store them in plastic bags or covered containers in the refrigerator or a cool place to prevent water loss and wilting.
If you plan to freeze or can your garden produce, harvest just before preparing it for preservation. You will have a high-quality finished product if you start with very fresh vegetables.
Harvest these vegetables when they exhibit the following characteristics:
ASPARAGUS. When spears are 6 to 8 inches tall before the tips start to open. Break off stems above the soil line.
BEANS, SNAP. When pods are almost full size but before seeds begin to bulge, usually when seeds are the size of pin heads.
BEANS, LIMA. When pods and seeds reach full size but are still fresh and juicy. Use only the seeds because the pods are tough and fibrous.
BEETS. As greens, when leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; as greens and small beets, when beets are 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter; as beets only, when they are 11/2 to 3 inches in diameter.
BROCCOLI. When flower heads are fully developed but before individual flower buds start to open. Cut off 6 to 7 inches below flower heads but do not discard small, tender leaves because they are very nutritious.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS. When sprouts (buds) at base of plant become solid. Remove buds higher on the plant as they become firm, but do not strip the leaves from the plants since they are necessary for further growth.
CABBAGE. When head becomes solid and firm. Excessive water uptake by the plant’s roots causes splitting. To prevent splitting of mature heads, twist plants enough to break several roots.
CANTALOUPES. When base of fruit stem starts to separate from fruit. Fruit will be nearly ripe when separation starts and fully ripe when a crack appears completely around the base of the fruit stem.
CARROTS. When small and succulent, about 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. During cool, dry periods carrots may be left in the ground for later harvest.
CAULIFLOWER. When curds (aborted flower heads) are full size (6 to 8 inches) but still compact, white, and smooth. Curds exposed to sunlight become cream colored, rough in appearance, and coarse in texture.
CELERY. When plants become 12 to 15 inches tall. While young and tender, the lowest leaves (8 to 10 inches long) may be removed from a few plants and used in salads, soups, and cooked dishes.
CHARD. When 6 to 8 inches tall, to thin out plants. Thereafter, remove only outer, older leaves as they become 8 to 10 inches long. New leaves will continue to grow for a continuous harvest of young, tender chard.
CHIVES. As new leaves appear in early spring; break off at the ground level. Use young, tender leaves throughout the season.
COLLARDS. When outer leaves become 8 to 10 inches long. New growth from the center of each plant will provide a continuous harvest of young, tender leaves.
CORN, SWEET. When kernels are filled out well in the milk stage. This is about 18 to 21 days from silking. Avoid high temperatures when gathering. The cool of the morning is a desirable time.
CUCUMBERS. For sweet pickles, when fruits are 1. to 2. inches long; for dills, when fruits are 3 to 4 inches long; for slicing, when fruits are near full size (generally 6 to 9 inches) but are still bright green and firm. Older fruits will be dull in color, less crisp, may have objectionable seeds, and result in lower yields.
EGGPLANTS. When fruits are near full size (approximately 4 to 6 inches in diameter) but still firm and bright in color. Older fruits become dull in color, soft, and seedy.
GARLIC. When foliage loses color and tops begin to fall over.
GOURDS. Edible varieties, when fruits are 8 to 10 inches long and are young and tender; ornamental varieties, when fruits are mature and full colored but before first fall frost.
KALE. As outer leaves become 8 to 10 inches long. New leaves will continue to grow from the center of each plant for a continuous harvest.
LEEKS. When 1 to 1 1/3 inches in diameter but before fall frosts.
LETTUCE. Leaf varieties, when outer, older leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; heading varieties, when heads are moderately firm. Outer, older leaves may be taken from plants of either leaf or head lettuce as soon as the leaves are 4 to 6inches long. New leaves will provide a continuous harvest of tender, tasty lettuce until hot weather brings on bitter flavor and seed stalks start.
MUSTARD. Outer leaves, when 6 to 8 inches long. New leaves will provide continuous harvest until flavor becomes strong and leaves become tough in texture from hot weather. Seed again in late summer for milder flavor and tender texture.
OKRA. Before pods reach the hollow and puffy stage and while easy to cut from stalk. Continue harvesting or they will quit producing.
ONIONS. For green onions, harvest when 6 to 8 inches tall. Harvest any with round, hollow seed stalks as soon as these stalks appear. For bulbs, harvest when tops fall over and begin to dry. Pull with tops on and dry them in a protected place, cutting tops 1 inch above bulb for further drying.
PARSLEY. When older leaves are 3 to 5 inches long. Continue to take outer leaves for fresh, tender parsley until heavy frosts of winter.
PEAS. When pods are fully developed but still bright green. Harvest edible podded varieties (snow, Chinese) when pods reach near full size (about 3 inches) and before seeds show appreciable enlargement. If only seeds are to be eaten, harvest when seeds are fully developed but pods are still fresh and bright green.
PEPPERS. When fruits are firm. In 2 to 3 weeks, ripe peppers will be fully colored.
POTATOES. When potatoes are full size and the skin is firm. New potatoes may be harvested at any size but generally are not dug before they are 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
PUMPKINS. When the fruits are full size, the rind is firm and glossy, and the bottom of the fruit (portion touching the soil) is cream to orange color.
RADISHES. When roots are 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
RUTABAGAS. When roots reach full size, but before heavy fall frosts. Thin early to ensure rapid, uniform growth and highest quality.
SOUTHERN PEAS. When seeds are near full size, but still bright green; as mature or dry seeds, when seeds are full size and dry. Dry seeds may be cooked, baked, or used in soups.
SPINACH. When large leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. Pull larger, whole plants or harvest older leaves and allow new growth to develop.
SQUASH. When seeds and fruit are small. Continue harvesting, or flowering ceases. Winter squash is harvested when fruits are full size the rind is firm and glossy, and the bottom of the fruit is cream to orange color. Light frost will not damage fruits of winter-type squash.
SWEET POTATOES. Late in the fall but before the first early frost. Lift to avoid cuts, bruises, and broken roots. Cure in a warm, well-ventilated place for 2 to 3 weeks.
TOMATOES. When fruits are fully colored. Pick only fully ripe tomatoes for juice or canning to ensure full flavor, good color, and maximum sugar content.
TURNIPS. When roots are 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter but before heavy fall frosts. For greens, harvest leaves 4 to 6 inches in length.
WATERMELONS. When fruits are full size, dull in color, and the bottom (portion touching the soil) turns from greenish-white to cream color.
Read the complete Alabama Vegetable Gardener.
- Part 1—Planning for the Home Garden
- Part 2—A Well-Drained Soil
- Part 3—Acid Soils Create Gardening Problems
- Part 4—Excessive Phosphorus in Garden Soils
- Part 5—Wood Ash for Lime and Potash
- Part 6—Garden Fertilizer
- Part 7—Fertilizing the Organic Garden
- Part 8—Weed Control in the Home Garden
- Part 9—Growing Tomatoes
- Part 10—Bitter Cucumbers
- Part 11—Home-Grown Seed
- Part 12—Vegetable Information
- Part 13—Control Diseases for Top-Quality Tomatoes
- Part 14—Nematodes Could Be the Reason Garden is Unproductive
- Part 15-Vegetable Garden Insects
- Part 16-Garden Problem Guide
- Part 17-Harvesting Your Own Groceries