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Garden Harvesting & Storage

Harvesting produce at the proper time yields peak flavor, nutrition and quality. Timing is crucial as vegetable quality does not improve after harvest or during storage. Garden produce picked too soon is too tender, and lacks substance and flavor. Picked too late, it is likely to be tough, fibrous or mushy, and also lacking in taste.

The time for harvesting varies with climate, the particular season, variety, and the vegetables involved. For instance, tomatoes can be left on the vine until fully ripened or taken off when partially ripened to finish indoors – but, the sugar does not develop as well if they are picked early. Other crops, such as winter squash and watermelons, are not ready until after they are fully developed.

The “days to maturity” listings on seed packets, gardening books and seed catalogs are helpful in determining harvest time, but they are not set in stone. Check the garden frequently for ripe produce during harvest time. As vegetables continue to grow, they may become overgrown and decline in quality. Pick and discard overgrown produce to encourage new production. When harvesting, avoid bruising or damaging the vegetables – rough treatment may cause decay. To store any vegetable successfully, consider temperature, moisture, ventilation.


The conversion of sugar to starch is critical in products such as sweet corn and peas. It is necessary to cool these products immediately to minimize this change. If possible, harvest vegetables early in the morning or right before you intend to use them.


Proper humidity varies with commodities. Leafy-type vegetables require a high humidity (95 percent) whereas onions should be stored in a drier atmosphere, such as 65 to 70 percent relative humidity.


Proper air circulation will minimize wilting and tissue breakdown.


Harvest the third year after planting crowns, but do not harvest for more than one month at a time that third year. In the following years, the spears may be harvested in May and June.

Harvest spears when they reach 5 to 8 inches tall. Cutting may damage some spear tips that have not yet emerged from the ground. Snap off the spears by bending from the top toward the ground.

Asparagus deteriorates rapidly after harvest. If it is not eaten immediately, it should be processed or refrigerated.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.

Lima beans

Pick lima beans when the pods are well-filled but before they turn yellow – the pod end should feel spongy. Keep the beans in a cold and humid environment and put them to use as soon as possible. Lima beans can be shelled by pressing on the edges of the pod to pop it open.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze, bottle, or dry.

Snap beans

Harvest snap beans when the pods are firm and snap readily, but before the pod becomes bulgy. The pods should be free from scars and strings when snapped.

Keep snap beans cold (45º to 50º F.) and humid and use as soon as possible. Washing before storage helps retain moisture content.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze, bottle, or dry.


Harvest beets when they are 1 1/4 to 2 inches in diameter. The beet tops can also be eaten as greens. The leaves should be 4 to 6 inches long. Wash and refrigerate immediately.

Beets are usually bottled to preserve them, but can be stored in sand or sawdust in the cellar like carrots.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): Freeze, bottle, or common storage.


Harvest broccoli when flower heads fully develop, but before the buds open. Cut the stalks 6 to 7 inches below the flower heads. Broccoli should be stored in a cold section of the refrigerator. Harvest side shoots for later eating.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.

Brussels sprouts

Pick or cut small sprouts when they are firm -- about 1 inch across. Pick the lower sprouts first and then remove the lower leaves to allow more sprouts to develop. Brussels sprouts should be stored in a cold section of the refrigerator.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Cut when heads are solid, but before they crack or split. Smaller heads or sprouts may develop on the stumps of the cut stems to provide a second harvest. The sprouts will be 2 to 4 inches in diameter and should be picked when they are firm. Cabbage should be stored in a crisper and use within 1 to 2 weeks.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Harvest carrots when they are young, crisp, and 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter or when desired size is achieved. Smaller carrots are more tender and sweeter than larger carrots. Sugar content is higher in mature carrots, but younger carrots will be tenderer. Carrots planted in the summer may be left in the ground until a killing frost.

To store carrots in the ground, cover the ground with a mulch of straw, leaves, or grass to keep the ground from freezing. Carrots can then be dug up when needed. For convenience, use bags of leaves or a board covered with leaves as your ground cover. The bags or boards will be easier to find under the snow cover. Just lift, dig, and replace the cover.

Stems should be cut off 2"-3" from the top of the carrot. Carrots should be stored in a root cellar at 32º - 40º degrees buried in sand or sawdust for moisture. Carrots will keep in the vegetable crisper drawer in the refrigerator for several months.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): common storage, freeze, or bottle.


Cauliflower must be harvested before it becomes over mature. The heads should be compact, firm, and white. To keep the head white, tie the outer leaves together over the center of the plant as the head begins to form. Cauliflower will grow 6 to 8 inches in diameter and is ready for harvest 7 to 12 days after blanching. Chill immediately after harvest.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Use the leaves as they become 8 to 10 inches long while they are still young and tender. New leaves will continue to grow from the center of the plant.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.

Chinese cabbage

Cut the entire plant at the ground line when the heads are compact and firm. Harvest before the seed stalks form in the early summer and before freezing temperatures in the Fall.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Watch corn for signs of ripeness so it can be harvested at the earliest possible time. Corn silks will darken and dry out as the ears mature. As kernels fill out toward the top, ends become blunter instead of pointed. Pick sweet corn in the milk stage, when a milk like juice exudes from kernels if crushed with a thumbnail. Sweet corn is very susceptible to rapid sugar to starch conversion. Corn should be cooked, eaten or chilled immediately after it is harvested. For optimum flavor, RUN to the nearest pot of boiling water as soon as the corn picked.

To harvest corn, snap off the ears by hand with a quick, firm, downward push; then twist and pull. Corn is at its prime eating quality for only 72 hours before becoming over mature.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze, bottle, or dry.


Harvest bright, firm and green fruits before they get too large. Cucumbers are past their prime if they are large, dull, puffy, and yellow. Remove old fruit from the vine so that additional young fruit will develop. Yellowed cucumbers should be discarded.

A good rule of thumb for pickling - Sweet pickles: 1 1/2 to 2 inches long; Dill pickles: 3 to 4 inches long, bright green in color and less crisp. Do not try to pickle salad-type cucumbers. Store newly pickled cucumbers in the refrigerator for at least five days.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): pickle.


Harvest eggplant when the fruits are 6" to 8" long, glossy, uniformly deep colored, and not over mature (dull, soft, and seedy.) Cut fruit from plant leaving green calyx on fruit.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Pull up the garlic bulbs when the tops start to yellow and dry. Place the bulbs on screens to dry. When the bulbs are dry, trim the roots off close to the bulb, remove the loose outer sheaths, and then store under cool, dry conditions.

Leave the green leaves attached and braid them together – garlic should be hung to allow for proper air circulation.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): dry or common storage.


There are many kinds of greens: collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, Swiss chard, beet greens, dandelions and others. Break off outer leaves when they are 6 to 10 inches long and before they start to yellow. Avoid wilted or flabby leaves. Wash and chill immediately.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


The best time to harvest is when the bulbous part is 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Large, older kohlrabi is tough and woody and may have an off flavor. The young leaves can be cooked like spinach.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Muskmelons develop their best flavor when they ripen in warm, dry weather. Lift the fruit and tug very gently - the stem of ripe melons should separate easily from the fruit. After harvesting, the fruit can be held at room temperature for 1 to 3 days until the blossom end softens.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): not applicable except some preserve recipes.


Harvest the melons when the outer rind is yellowish to creamy white with a soft velvety feel. The rind should be slightly soft at the blossom end and have a faint, pleasant odor.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): not applicable except some preserve recipes.


Watermelons are ready to harvest when:

  1. The rind turns a lighter green on outside and the curled tendril near the stem begins to shrivel and dry up.
  2. The surface sheen of the fruit turns dull.
  3. The skin is rough and resists penetration by a thumbnail.
  4. The underside of the melon turns from a light green to a yellowish color.

Thump melons with the palm of your hand - a ripe melon will make a similar sound like when you thump your chest. An unripe melon sounds much like when you tap your head. An overripe melon sounds like a tap on your stomach.

Watermelons will not continue to ripen after harvest.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): not applicable except some preserve recipes.


Pull green onions when you are satisfied with the size of the tops. Green onions may be harvested when the tops are 6 inches high and the stem is the thickness of a pencil.

Leave bulb onions in the ground until the tops die. Harvest dry onions in late July or early August after most of the tops have fallen. When about a fourth to half of the onion tops have fallen, push the rest of the tops over to hasten maturity. They should develop a leaf coat under the ground. Over-wintered bulb onions are ready to harvest in June.

Allow the bulbs to air dry for a day or two after digging. Spread the onions out in a warm shady place to dry until the skins are papery and the roots are dry.

Onions store best in mesh bags or in nylon stockings in a dry, well-ventilated, cool location (as low as 32°F.) To store onions in a nylon stocking, drop the onion into the toe, tie a knot, drop in the next, tie a knot, etc. Hang for air circulation. Complete drying or curing takes 2 to 3 week.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): common storage, chop and dry, or freeze.


Parsnips should be left in the ground until the tops freeze, since they are not fully flavored until after early frosts. Moderate sized parsnips have the best flavor - larger ones may be too woody. If you do not have storage facilities, you can leave the roots in the ground and mulch them with straw so they can be dug up throughout the winter.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): common storage, or freeze.


Pea pods should be full and green with tender, sweet peas.

Harvest Chinese and snow peas, which are eaten pod and all, when the pods are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and the peas are about the size of BB's. The pods are usually picked 5 to 7 days after flowering.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze, dry, or bottle.

Peppers and Chilis

Fruits may be harvested at any size, but they are usually picked when they are fully grown and mature. They may be left on the plant to ripen to a red or yellow color (in which case they will be mellower and sweeter). Hot peppers, except Jalapeno (which remains green when ripe), are usually harvested at the red ripe stage.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): dry, bottle, or freeze


New Potatoes:

Dig before the vines die when tubers are 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Large potatoes:

Potatoes store best if harvested after the vines die naturally or from a frost. Use a spading fork to dig 4 to 6 inches beneath the soil surface. Handle the tubers gently during harvesting to avoid bruising. Damaged potatoes should be used first.

Let the potatoes dry several hours in garden after digging them up. Potatoes should be dug up in the early morning or in the evening, as potatoes should not be exposed to too much sunlight for any length of time. Remove the adhering soil, and avoid washing them unless covered with mud or heavy soil. Allow to air dry and cure for several days before storing.

Potatoes should be stored in a cool (about 40 degrees), well circulated, dark, slightly moist area away from apples. If potatoes are stored below 35 degrees, the starches in the potato metabolize into sugars, but aren't used up quickly. Potatoes stored above 50 degrees will sprout.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): common storage, freeze, dry, or bottle.


Pumpkins should be allowed to ripen fully on the vine, but should be picked before the first heavy freeze. The fruit should have a deep, solid color and a hard rind. Cut pumpkins from the vine, leaving 3 to 4 inches of the stem attached. Pumpkins without stems do not store well, and should be stored in a cool, dry area.


For the best flavor, start thinning and eating radishes when they are the size of marbles. They will be good up to one inch in diameter - after that; they may become hot and pithy.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): not applicable.

Spinach Spinach may be harvested from the time the plants have 6 to 8 leaves until the seed stalk develops. For the best quality spinach, cut off the leaves while they are young. Cut the entire plant off at the soil surface. Wash and dry leaves thoroughly and store in refrigerator. Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.


Summer squash:

Harvest summer squash while it is still young and tender: 6 to 8 inches in length and 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Glossy color indicates tenderness. Scallop squash are best while small, 3 to 4 inches in diameter and a grayish or greenish-white in color. Squash generally grow rapidly and are usually ready to pick 4 to 8 days after flowering.

Winter Squash:

Harvest winter squash when the fruit has a deep solid color and the rind is hard (no moisture collects in mark made by pressing fingernail into the rind). Harvest after vines die down, but before first hard freeze. Light frost will not damage mature fruit. Cut squash from the vines carefully, leaving 1 to 2 inches of stem attached. Avoid cuts and bruises.

Winter squash should be cured in a warm (75º - 85º F), dry place for 10 days. Then store in a cool (50º to 55º F) dry location. Inspect for soft spots occasionally. Winter squash will keep until early spring.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): common storage, freeze, or bottle.


For canning, fruit should be fully colored, but firm, not mushy. Fruits will continue to ripen after they are picked. Once the tomato is picked, the sugars will not develop as well as they would have on the vine. To store tomatoes for fresh winter use, pick the mature tomatoes (light green, turning white), that are without cracks, nicks, bruises, or frozen parts. Store them in a cool, dark place to ripen. They will keep for a couple of months in the right conditions and longer if "long keepers" are the variety stored.

Tomatoes should be stored on wire screens flats without letting them touch one another - one layer per flat. This organization will allow air circulation to discourage microorganism growth. Tomatoes can also be stored by wrapping them in newspaper. Tomatoes should be stored in a 50 degree climate.

If you have available space, tomato plants may be uprooted at end of season and hung upside down in the basement. Throughout the fall and winter, tomatoes can be harvested off the vines as they ripen.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): bottle, fresh common storage, dry, or freeze.


Harvest turnips when the roots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The tops can be used for greens when they are 4 to 6 inches long. Turnips can be left in the ground after a heavy freeze and mulched with straw for harvest during the early winter.

Ideal long-term storage method(s): freeze.

Gardening Harvesting