Garden Variety: When to harvest fruits and veggies

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Tomatoes can be harvested at multiple stages.

Knowing the right time to harvest fruits and vegetables from the garden is tricky for some crops, even for experienced gardeners. To complicate it further, some produce can be harvested at different stages or have additional edible parts of the plant than what is traditionally harvested. Follow these general tips for when to harvest fruits and vegetables commonly grown in Kansas.

A simple suggestion that works for many fruits and vegetables is to watch for plants to produce something that looks like what would be for sale in the produce aisle or at the farmers’ market. This works for many things but is also limiting and can be deceiving. For example, watermelons may look harvestable long before they are ready, and squash blossoms are a delicacy that are hard to find anywhere but in your own garden.

Watermelons are a prime example of the next consideration, which is whether the fruit or vegetable needs to ripen or mature before harvest. This is the case with most fruit, including apples, berries, melons, etc. An unripe one is hardly edible and certainly not palatable. In contrast, fruits and veggies such as cucumbers and squash are best harvested before they ripen or mature. And a few fruits and veggies, including tomatoes and beans, can be harvested green, ripe or somewhere in between.

If the crop is new or unfamiliar, or you want to know if there is anything (like squash blossoms) you have been missing, read on and/or check credible resources for crop-specific information.

Apples – Let ripen on tree. They will start to fall when ripe, which could happen any time between late July and October depending on the variety. Get them off the ground as soon as possible, or insects and wildlife will feast on them before you do.

Beans – Harvest at multiple stages. Pick tender pods before the actual beans have formed inside them if the pod is desired for eating. Pods can also be eaten after beans have formed inside but will become more fibrous with age. If the beans themselves are preferred, let them get large within the pods. Wait until the pods start to turn yellow or pale green as they mature. Pick at this stage and shell the beans from the pods to eat. You can also let the pods dry on the vine before harvest and then further dry the beans after they are shelled.

Leaves of bean plants are also edible. Try them in soups, stir fry, or other ethnic dishes (mostly Asian) that include them. Tender young leaves and tendrils are also good raw.

Berries – Raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and others – Always let ripen on plant. Raspberries and blackberries will pull away from the plant easily when ripe. A strawberry should be fully red for best flavor.

Corn – For sweet corn, harvest when kernels are fully developed but not mature. As they age, they lose their sweetness and harden. Watch for the silks (the soft strings that hang out of each ear) to dry. When they start to dry out, peel a section of husks back gently to see the kernels. Harvest when they are fully developed.

For popcorn, flour corn, ornamental corn or others, harvest when kernels are fully mature. The silks and husks will dry and plants may begin to dry as well.

Cucumbers – Harvest based on personal preference for size and variety. For example, pickling cucumbers might be harvested when they are only a few inches long to pickle whole, or at 6 to 8 inches long to for pickle slices. Other cucumbers might be harvested anywhere from a few inches long to a foot or more. Try harvesting at different sizes and stages to determine what you like best.

Eggplant – Harvest based on personal preference for size and variety.

Melons – Let ripen on vine. Cantaloupe, muskmelon, and honeydew: The melon should pull away easily from the stem (known as slipping) when ripe. Watermelons: The tendril (a short curly stem) closest to the melon turns brown or black when the melon is ripe. The underside of the melon should also turn from white/green to a cream color.

Peaches – Let ripen on tree for best flavor. Color should change from green to yellow or the peach color for which they are named. They can also be harvested slightly before ripening and allowed to ripen on the counter for longer shelf-life.

Pears – Pick when mature but before fully ripe. Lift fruit in your hand and tilt it. If the stem breaks away easily from the branch, it is ready. Avoid pulling or forcing the fruit from the tree.

Peppers – Harvest based on personal preference for size and variety. Red and yellow peppers start out green and can be eaten then, but their flavor changes as they mature and color develops.

Squash – Summer squash such as zucchini, yellow, yellow crookneck, scallop, etc., are best when harvested before they are mature. Harvest at about the size typically found at the store or market. Larger squash are generally less palatable.

Winter squash such as spaghetti, butternut, acorn, pumpkins, etc., should mature before harvest. Wait until the skin has hardened to the point that it cannot be easily punctured.

Blossoms from all kinds of squash may be harvested to eat. Plants produce male and female flowers, which are distinguishable by the bulb at the base of the female flower. Female flowers are reported to be tastier, but they are also the ones that produce the fruit. Use male flowers in bud form or remove the anthers at harvest. Use them in stir fry, deep fry them, stuff them with various ingredients and bake them, or use them fresh in salads or as garnishes.

Tomatoes – Harvest at multiple stages. Green tomatoes can be sliced and fried or cooked in a variety of ways and have a different flavor than ripe tomatoes. Tomatoes that are about half-ripe can be harvested and allowed to ripen on the counter. Or, let them ripen completely on the vine for best flavor.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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