The Iowa gardener: How to harvest fruits and vegetables

Vegetable gardens will kick into high gear now through September, producing some of our favorite edibles. Here’s how to pick most effectively for better produce longer.

l Pick often and small. The biggest harvesting sin gardeners commit is waiting until produce is too big or too old. This results in produce that is tough, bitter or diseased. Check your vegetable garden daily and pick what you can. Frequent harvesting also encourages more production.

Remember that garden produce seldom gets as big as the supermarket kind, which is grown under ideal conditions in an ideal region of the world and, unless it’s organic, with lots of chemicals to pump up the size.

l Harvest when plants are dry. Harvesting when wet can spread disease, especially on green beans.

l Harvest early in the day. Produce tends to be better hydrated in the early morning.

Is It Ready?

Here’s how to tell whether specific types of garden’s bounty are ready to be harvested:

l Broccoli: Harvest as soon as florets are fully formed. Wait any longer and they’ll start to flower.

l Carrots: You can eat these at about any stage in which they have an orange root. The smaller the carrots, as a rule, the sweeter and more tender. Wait too long, and carrots will develop a “soapy” taste or become pithy.

l Cauliflower: Harvest as soon as the florets are fully formed. Wait too long and they’ll go mealy, having an unpleasantly grainy texture.

l Corn: Harvest after silks start to turn brown. Most of the kernels should be filled out. When a kernel is pierced with your fingernail, it should run milky, not clear, to show that the sugars have developed. Eat within the day, if not within a few hours.

l Cucumbers: Pick as soon as the plant looks fully filled out. It might not pull away easily, so clip it from the vine with a hand shears. It’s fine and perhaps even preferable if little prickles still are on the cucumber. It means you’re not letting it get really large, which also can mean bitter.

l Fall crops: Some vegetables have better flavor after a frost, so wait until then. These include cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts.

l Green beans: Should be smooth and still have their sheen with few bumps from developing seeds inside. Pick as soon as possible — smaller green beans, those no thicker than a chopstick, are more tender. Eat within two to three days.

l Green peas: Pods should be filled out but barely have sheen. Pea should taste fresh, green, sweet, not starchy. Eat within the day, if not within a few hours.

l Herbs: As soon as you have something to cut off, you can eat it. However, never cut away more than two-thirds of the plant unless you’re harvesting it just before first frost.

l Lettuce: As soon as you can see it, you can eat it. Instead of pulling the lettuce, cut it off with a knife or scissors just above the ground. It will regrow quickly, giving you a bonus harvest or two. When lettuce gets leggy, it’s starting to bolt — send up flower stalks. At this point, it is bitter and should be pulled up and discarded.

l Melons: Fruit is ripe when stem pulls away from fruit with only slight pressure. Blossom end — end opposite the stem — might soften. The fruit develops a pleasant aroma.


l Sweet peppers: Green peppers are ready to eat as soon as they’re full sized. Many green peppers will continue to ripen into red peppers if left on the plant until late summer.

l Tomatoes: Ripe ones feel heavy for their size. They don’t need to be fully colored, just at least halfway to three-quarters. Should pull away easily from the plant. Leave them on a windowsill for another day. Refrigerating diminishes the flavor.

l Zucchini: As soon as the bright golden flower drops off, harvest. Don’t let them get large, which makes them tough and bitter.

l Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at



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