I Grew Some Vegetables, Now What?

Having a productive garden in August is kinda like a having a three-year-old who keeps asking, “Why, mommy? Why?!” You love them, but sometimes you wish they’d just stop and give you a minute of quiet peace.

So it is. After months of work, the vegetative horn of plenty arrives in August. Crops are pumping out the vegetables and the brief respite after the push of spring planting is gone. Now it’s pick it, eat it, freeze it, dry it, can it, pickle it time. A push of another kind: the storm before the calm.

Harvest time raises some questions for people who are new to this vegetable-growing thing….how do I know when something is ready? What does it mean to harvest? How do I do it, and what happens if I don’t?

The harvest: I’d rather the garden had waited until I was ready for this, but that’s not how it goes.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned the hard way:

How you harvest has a huge impact on how much time it takes you to clean your produce in the kitchen. Leave as much dirt in the garden as possible! Hose off root vegetables in the field if at all possible. If you are cutting head lettuce, cut through the stem inside the outer layer of leaves. Leave the dirty outermost layer of leaves in the garden and your head of lettuce will go into the kitchen much cleaner.

Fruiting things like cucumbers, green beans and zucchini should be harvested every other day or more frequently during peak production. All these plants have one goal: make a mature fruit full of mature seeds. The minute they do this, they roll over, have a cigarette and call it a day. From a gardener perspective, this means they stop pumping out the vegetables. No good. As much as you hate those beans now, you’ll want dilly beans in November. Keep picking.

In the Maritime Northwest, twice a week harvest for tomatoes is usually fine.

When you pick green beans, harvest them in a bundle with all the stem ends facing the same direction. It’s easy enough to keep them facing one way in your harvesting basket, and makes trimming them up in the kitchen so much easier.

Harvest early in the morning if you can, especially for leafy greens. The leaves have had all evening to take up moisture form the soil and become full and perky. Over the course of a hot day, much of this water will be released into the air around the plant’s leaves. On a really hot day, or if a plant has an under-developed root system or is in dry soil, you may even see your plants wilt, which is the result of the leaves losing moisture faster than the roots can replenish it. A plant harvested when it is full of internal moisture will taste a lot better and last longer than one harvested in the heat of the day.

If you are cutting down a swath of baby lettuces (as for a mesclun mix) cut about an inch off the ground to avoid picking up extra dirt and give the baby lettuces the best shot to regrow for another cutting.

Green things (again, think cucumbers or green beans) can be a bit hard to spot amongst green foliage. Stop looking for the color and start looking for the shape of the vegetable.

Watch your leafy greens (lettuce, chard, kale, etc.) for signs of bolting in the summer heat. Bolting is where a plant decides it’s all grown up and ready to make seeds. They seem to stretch out along their stem and will develop flower buds and, eventually, seeds. If your nice buttercrunch lettuce suddenly looks like it has a pointy head, it’s about to bolt. Members of the brassica family-like kale- make tasty little flower buds when they bolt that can be eaten like sprouting broccoli, but once spinach or lettuce goes too far into a bolt it loses a lot of its fresh-eating quality. Catch bolting greens early and you can still use them.

Lettuce that has started to bolt: note the stretched out stem and added space between the leaves.

Things that change color like tomatoes and peppers are easy to spot when they are ripe, but there are different degrees of ripeness. My Sungold tomatoes are ripe and pretty good when they are yellowy-orange. When they are dark orange they are fantastic. When the skin starts to look really thin and translucent they are getting a bit overdone for my taste and are likely to crack within a day or so. This is the kind of vegetable observation that comes with eating straight off the plant, so don’t ever feel bad for “hand-to-mouth harvesting.”

Sometimes you’ll find a gross cucumber or bean or tomato. Maybe it will have weird spots or some mold or a lot of holes in it. Pick it immediately and get it away from everything else. Stop the spread of grossness as soon as possible. (“Grossness” is a technical horticultural term, similar to “squidgy.”)

Unless you are deliberately harvesting a head of lettuce, spinach, etc. taking a little from each plant is better than taking an entire plant. Relatedly, harvest large leaves from the bottom and leave the central growing point to keep growing.

When you cut the central head of broccoli, cut low on the plant to encourage a few more large secondary heads.

When you harvest from trellised plants, squat down and look up, under the foliage. Sounds a bit like you are invading your cucumber’s privacy, but that’s how you find the hidden goodies.

What are your best tips to harvest the bounty?


  1. says

    It can be like a treasure hunt! Things like raspberries I look from several different angles from each side, because the little buggers are always hiding under the leaves! Great post Erica…

  2. says

    I've found that if I leave a few cukes, zucc's, squash, etc. on the vine they keep pumping the new growth out. I figure if there are only a few left they will figure might as well make more, so I keep a medium amount growing on the vine. With the bolting lettuce I cut off the top bits where the leaves are bolting. I got around an extra 3-4 weeks worth of lettuce that way this summer, wohoo! Other than that, just basically be sure to keep picking so the plant thinks it needs to produce more, and don't pick it clean or it might thing growing season is over. great tips btw!

  3. chaya says

    For tomatoes, if you hold off on watering them for a day or two prior to harvest, they'll resist cracking a little better. I tend to let my tomatoes wilt just a little between waterings, especially at the end of the summer, to stress the plant a bit and get it to ripen fruit faster. Seems sadistic when I lay it out like that, but there you have it.

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