When to harvest your homegrown vegetables

Get those tasty vegetables harvested at the right time by following these tips.

Photo credit: Howard Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Photo credit: Howard Schwartz, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

In the spring, Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators and Master Gardener hotline staffs answer many questions about planting a vegetable garden. As the season progress, eventually the questions have to do with when to harvest those hard-worked-for vegetables and fruits. The seed packet or a gardening book will give you an estimate of days until harvest. Almost nothing matches that date, but it gives you an approximation. Use that date as a starting point. Here is a preview of coming garden attractions.

Beans

This very much depends on how you like your beans. If you prefer the beans to be tender and smooth, pick them before any bean seed bulges are seen on the bean. These beans can be steamed or sautéed. If you like your beans “shelly-bean” style, you will want to wait until the beans inside can be seen and the outside of the pod is still green. These beans with the seeds inside are cooked for a longer period of time, often with a chunk of bacon.

If you are growing dry beans like cranberry or black beans, wait for the pods and plants to shut down and turn tan. This should be towards the end of summer. You want these beans as dry as possible before taking them out of their pods.

Root crops like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips and radishes

Use the “days to harvest” to estimate when to pick. However, a good indication is how wide the root is at the shoulders. That is the part of the root where the top stem leaves meet at the top of the root and it protrudes above the ground. Choose the biggest one first and pull it. This will begin to train your eye to what the hidden bottom of the root looks like.

Broccoli

When the green, tight heads are developed and the buds are closed, it is harvest time. Those buds will rapidly open into small, yellow flowers and the broccoli is now past its prime. Hot weather will cause the heads to “bolt” or open sooner. It is better to pick a little too early than too late. Do not remove the plant because the plant will produce side branches with small broccoli heads that can be harvested.

Onions

When the green top of the onion tips over, the onions are as big as they are going to grow. This is called “flagging over.” The onions do not need to be removed from the soil immediately because the cool, damp soil will prevent them from drying out. However, remove them if the soil is wet.

Potatoes

When the plants flag over or become yellow, potato production has finished. Just like onions, they can remain in the soil for a period of time unless the soil is wet. At the time the potato plants are flowering, adventurous smart gardeners will dig by hand next to the plants and steal away a few new tubers. These are the precious “new potatoes.” The new potatoes will be tender and sweeter than their older potato cousins that are harvested later.

Muskmelons

Muskmelons are ripe when the background color and the netting are tan. Usually the bottom of the melon that touches the ground is a yellowish color. Take your thumb and gently press on the stem where it joins the melon. If it is ripe and sweet, the stem will separate without much pressure. There is no advantage to thumping on the melon other than to cause bruising and early rotting.

Tomatoes

Even though it seems very obvious when tomatoes are ripe, this is more directed at those growing some of the heritage or antique varieties. These plants were bred for flavor. Newer varieties were bred for several qualities like flavor and how easily the tomato separates from the stem. The older varieties may not separate, and the stem and several immature tomatoes are ripped away. Until you are sure that the tomato will separate from the vine easily, use a small pair of hand pruners and cut them loose.

Corn

The silks at the tip of the ear turn brown. The ear will angle slightly more away from the plant. You want to pick sweet corn when the individual kernels are more rounded than rectangular. Rounded is sweet; rectangular has become starchy. 

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