For those who have a vegetable garden, there is nothing better than having a garden full of fresh zucchini or vines bursting forth with ripe, juicy tomatoes. But, its important to pick your vegetables at the optimum time to ensure that you get the longest season possible. Harvesting at the right time, and harvesting in ways that will stimulate the plants to bear more fruit, means that you can keep on enjoying them throughout the summer.
Vegetables need to be harvested every day or so. In general, most vegetables taste better when they are young and tender. In addition, too many mature fruit will make the plant stop producing, so harvesting regularly will spread out your harvest season. And, since most vegetables contain the most nutrients just after being picked, you might want to think about planning out your meals to coincide with your harvest times.
Here are some tips on when and how to harvest some popular summer vegetables.
- Beans (snap): Pick before you can see the seeds bulging. They should snap in two easily and because they can get tough quickly, check them daily.
- Corn (sweet): Harvest sweet corn when the silks are dry/brown and the kernels are plump and tender. The kernels should exude a milky substance when pricked. You can check a few ears for maturity by opening them at the top of the ear and pressing a few kernels with your thumbnail and looking for this milky juice.
- Cucumbers: Make sure to harvest them early, before the seeds become about 1/2 inch in size although seed size does vary by variety. Generally, most varieties will be 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and five to eight inches long. Over-ripe cucumbers can be bitter or stringy so make sure to check them daily. They should be firm and smooth.
- Peppers (sweet): Harvest when fruits are firm and full size. If red peppers are desired, leave on plant until they are red in color.
- Summer Squash – Always harvest when the fruit is young and tender because the smaller the squash is when you pick it, the better it will taste. Cut all fruit off and never lift squash by the stem. You want to cut it before it gets about eight inches long when the skin is still soft (when skin can be easily broken by a fingernail) and before seeds ripen. Letting it get too big will also slow down production of tender new fruit.
- Tomatoes – While each variety varies, in general, the best time to pick your tomatoes is when the fruit is evenly red and the end is still firm and not soft. Try to pull them from the vine by gently twisting them. Leave the fruit on the plant to ripen as long as possible unless you are having trouble with pests to give yourself a longer season.
Judi Gerber is a garden and agriculture writer, a horticultural therapy consultant, and a certified Master Gardener with the UC Cooperative Extension Los Angeles, Common Ground Garden Program.