Happy Harvest Happens Carefully

— Written By and last updated by Diane Lynch

Q: How do I know when to harvest vegetables in my garden?

A: Many enjoy the rewarding experiences of growing their own vegetables. After the seeds are planted, one anxiously awaits for little seedlings to emerge from the soil. The plants are given tender loving care though out the spring and into the summer. Then seeing the various vegetables grow brings excitement to any gardener because one knows that soon there will be fresh vegetables to harvest. As vegetables get closer to harvest, a common question pops up among many home gardeners . . . when is the best time to harvest all these vegetables?

Harvesting too soon may result in a yield reduction, while harvesting too late can result in poor quality. If vegetables are not harvested at the proper stage of maturity, there are permanent changes that occur which will effect the taste, appearance, and quality of the vegetables. Texture, fiber, and consistency are greatly affected by the stage of maturity. The stage of maturity at harvest, post-harvest handling, and the time interval between harvesting and serving can affect the quality of all vegetables. Some vegetables, like sweet corn, are more perishable and have a shorter shelf life than other vegetables.

There are some general rules of thumb to remember when harvesting any vegetable from the garden. Lowering the vegetable’s internal temperature helps to slow respiration and other processes that affect the vegetable’s shelf life. This is why vegetables should be harvested early in the day before the heat from the sun has warmed them. After harvest, most vegetables should be kept cool and out of direct sunlight until used.

Some vegetables are more prone to damage during harvesting than others. It is important to avoid bruises and cuts in handling vegetables. Discard any vegetables with decay or rot so it does not affect the good produce. Washing certain vegetables in cold running water immediately after harvesting removes soil, dust or other contaminants and helps lower the temperature.

The following is some hints on when to harvest some commonly grown vegetables:

  • Cantaloupe: Harvest cantaloupe when the stem slips easily from the fruit. Lift the melon and if ripe it should separate easily from the vine. Ripe melons should be stored in the refrigerator.
  • Cucumbers: Harvest cucumbers when the fruits are bright, firm and green before they get to large. A good rule of thumb to follow is 1 ½ to 2 inches long for sweet pickles and 3 to 4 inches long for dills. Avoid harvesting any yellow cucumbers.
  • Squash: Harvest squash when the fruit is young and tender. The skin should be easy to penetrate with the thumbnail. A glossy color will also indicate tenderness.
  • Sweet Corn: Sweet corn can be harvested when the corn silks darken and dry out. As kernels fill out towards the top, the ends become blunter instead of pointed. Pick sweet corn in the milk stage, when a milk-like juice comes from kernels when crushed with the thumbnail. Sweet corn is very susceptible to rapid sugar-to-starch conversion, therefore cook, eat, or chill immediately after harvest.
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes can be harvested in three stages: mature green, pink, and ripe. When harvesting at mature green, tomatoes should be firm, mature, and will have a color change from green to light green with no pink showing. Tomatoes harvested at the pink stage will be pink on the blossom end. When picking mature green or pink tomatoes, ripen at room temperature out of direct sunlight. Tomatoes harvested at the ripe stage will be full red but still firm. Red ripe tomatoes should be used immediately after harvest.
  • Watermelons: Harvest watermelons when the fruits are full size. When fully mature, the surface next to the ground turns from white to a yellowish color. The tendril at the juncture of the fruit stem and the vine usually dies when the fruit is mature.

For additional lawn and garden information contact the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The plant clinic is a free resource to Wayne County residents. One can reach the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic by phone at 919-731-1433, e-mail at Master.Gardener@waynegov.com, or stopping by Room 100 of the Wayne County Extension Office (208 West Chestnut Street, Goldsboro).

Learn More!
• Visit our website at https://wayne.ces.ncsu.edu/. Click on “Lawn & Garden” on left side of webpage.
• “Like” us on Facebook to receive timely garden tips, ask questions, and learn of upcoming gardening events. www.facebook.com/waynecountygardening

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Jessica Strickland
Extension Agent
North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Wayne County Center
P. O. Box 68
Goldsboro, NC 27533
E-Mail: jessica.strickland@waynegov.com
Phone: 919-731-1520
Fax: 919-731-1511