Golden rules for harvesting your garden bounty
Guest Contributor: Cassey Anderson, CSU Horticulture Agent
Where has the summer gone? If you’ve been lucky and persistent you should have ample vegetables in your garden by now, both for your own uses and plenty more to donate. Today we’ll talk about good harvest practices for some garden vegetables and some of the best things to consider for harvesting successful crops to donate.
Three Golden Rules
The three golden rules of vegetable harvesting are:
- Keep it cool
- Keep it wet (when appropriate)
- Handle with care
With almost any crop, harvesting is best done in the cooler parts of the day. Many crops can be harvested and placed directly into a container of cool water, or at least placed out of the sun if you’re continuing harvest. Using a sharp knife, scissors etc. is a better choice for harvesting than tearing off the main plant, it reduces stress, reduces the chances for damage and makes for a cleaner product.
Harvesting for donation
When harvesting crops you intend to donate, it’s best to follow some basic food safety guidelines. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face, and if you’re ill, wait until you feel better before you harvest for the purpose of donation. As you harvest your produce, place directly into a container that has been washed each time before use. Do not use this container for other purposes like holding tools or compost. Clean your produce in a clean location with potable water. Once you have harvested and cleaned your produce be sure to use clean bins or boxes lined with chemical-free plastic bags (do not reuse grocery bags) but do not seal the bags. Keep harvested produce (except for tomatoes) cool in the refrigerator to store or before donation.
Produce should not be chopped or cut, this will reduce the shelf life (an exception being removing the tops off root crops or dying leaves if necessary). Try to time your harvest so you can deliver as soon as possible. Only donate the material you would want to consume.
Tips for Harvesting Popular Crops
Beans – pole and bush fresh beans. Harvest once the pods have grown round, but before the beans have begun to swell, the flavor decreases after beans mature in size. Clip off the vine rather than pulling to avoid damaging the main vine. For pole beans, ensure you harvest regularly (several times a week) to keep production high. For bush beans, the plants will throw 2-3 main crops before being finished. You can succession sow if you want a continued harvest.
Beans – dry beans. Allow the beans to fully mature and dry before storing, the pods will dry before the beans so check for any softness remaining in the bean before storing. if frost is threatening you can harvest the plant and hang to dry in a cool, dry space.
Root crops – Carrots, Beets, Turnips etc. Loosen the soil around the plant and pull when at desired maturity. Beets can be allowed to grow up to 2”, much larger and flavor may diminish. Smaller roots may be sweeter. Turnips should be grown according to the seed package, larger storage types vs small sauté varieties. Carrots can be left in the ground for winter harvests with a thick layer of mulch. Remove greens before storing to ensure longer storage, as the leaves will pull nutrients from the root crop.
Peppers – shade if the plants get late afternoon sun. Harvest when the pepper reaches mature size. It is possible to harvest when mature in size but not color and this can be OK for some crops (jalapeno) but not preferred for others (shishito). It’s important to clip the fruit when it’s cool and keep out of the sun to avoid sun scald damage especially for thinner skinned peppers.
Tomatoes – Harvest when the fruit colors, dark green tomatoes are immature and can be used as green tomatoes. If there is a color at the blossom end it’s known as a “breaker” and will successfully ripen on the counter. For green varieties often a small pink blush may appear on the base. If you’re growing more heirloom varieties pick slightly early from fully ripe to prevent mushiness. For more exotic coloring check images of the mature fruit and do frequent taste tests!
Summer Squash – these diverse garden providers can be harvested at any size, but generally harvest when 1-1/5” in diameter or 6-10” long and before seeds develop fully. If smaller harvests are desired, they are great for pickling. If a giant like the one pictured here shows up you can roast it. Clip from plant instead of pulling. If desperate to harvest your bounty of summer squash you can twist the fruit to release from the plant, but clipping is better.
Winter Squash – This can apply to pumpkins or any variety of storage winter squash. It’s best to wait until the fruit has gained a mature size, then reduce watering over a few weeks. Pluck any existing blossoms from the plant to pump energy into the existing fruit (the blooms are tasty too!). Harvest when the skin cannot be dented with a fingertip and the stem begins to dry or the rind develops a color. Cure in a warm, dry location out of the sun for at least a week or two then put into storage for up to 6 months.
Enjoy your harvest! As always, contact your local county Extension office if you have further questions.