I think watching a garden grow is one of the most satisfying things you can do. Plant a seed, and in the span of a few weeks, the once bare ground becomes covered by a dense canopy of edible leaves, fruits, and vegetables. When it's finally time for picking your plants out of the garden, you get to see the tangible results of all your hard work.
When a garden is flourishing, it’s a beautiful sight to see. You can tell there’s life buzzing there. Pollinators delicately sticking the landing on one plant after another, microbes working their magic beneath the soil line, and roots getting what they need from the ground.
As humans, we shed skin cells on a daily basis, essentially slowly regenerating our outer shell. As the day passes, your plants, too, transform. They move as they reach for the rays of the sun, the dance in the wind, and grow slightly bigger with each passing moment.
It all happens so slowly that the moment for harvest often sneaks up on us. We spend so much time taking care of these plants that we forget that there will come a time to reap what we’ve sown.
The harvest, I think, is an often overlooked piece of the gardening puzzle. A savvy gardener knows that it’s not just about planting and care, it’s also about picking and using the produce you’ve grown with all your efforts.
Below, you’ll find a list of 15 favorite garden plants along with how and when to harvest each delicious morsel of produce.
How and When to Harvest Popular Vegetables
When to harvest: Unless you’re growing miniature globe carrots, the days to maturity will be about two months or so. Check your seed packet recommendation, or toss a bit of dirt aside to check whether your carrots have achieved their desired girth. In partial shade, carrots take longer to mature.
How to harvest: A gentle tug out of the ground should do. Leave them in the ground until you plan to pick them. Careful not to leave them in the soil when winter comes around, because they’ll freeze into the earth, and you won’t be able to pluck them.
When to harvest: As soon as the leaves have reached a desirable size, usually about 4 inches long. Baby lettuce leaves are a gourmet delicacy. When it’s hot out, don’t wait too long to get picking in your garden because lettuces of many varieties bolt in the heat.
How to harvest: For leaf-lettuce, pick outer leaves first working your way in. Head lettuce can be sliced off at the base of the plant. Expect 2-3 cuttings in most cases.
When to harvest: Kale is ready for picking out of the garden once the leaves are large enough for a sizeable harvest, typically when leaves are around 10 inches long.
How to harvest: Pick the outer leaves first. The plant will continue to grow and produce edible foliage. Most kale varieties are hardy and can be overwintered.
When to harvest: Usually, it’s time to harvest potatoes when the leaves yellow and die back. You can check to see whether potatoes are ready for harvest by gently rooting around in the dirt in search of harvestable spuds.
How to harvest: This depends on how you’re growing potatoes. Dig into potato hills or in raised beds to find taters. If you're growing potatoes in bags or containers, feel free to dump out the earth. You can try pulling up an entire plant, too. Always be careful when harvesting potatoes, you don’t want to damage them. Damaged spuds are the first to spoil in storage.
When to harvest: Summer squash matures reasonably quickly. Once successful pollination has occurred, the fruit will grow rapidly on the vine or bush. Harvest squash at any size, though larger fruit will usually have more seeds. Most varieties are ready at about 60 days.
How to harvest: Gently cut squash from the vine with a sharp knife. Be sure to use a clean knife to avoid spreading disease. Attempting to break or tug a squash off of the vine may damage your plant.
When to harvest: Peas are another quick growing plant that is ready for picking out of the garden early in the season, usually 54 days after planting. Harvest pea pods frequently as they mature on the vine. Don’t wait too long, since pods may become tough and unpleasant to eat.
How to harvest: Snap pods off the plant, but be careful not to tug too hard.
When to harvest: When Brussel sprouts have reached an edible size – about 1-2 inches in size – feel free to start picking out of the garden. Brussel sprouts take a while to reach maturity and produce sprouts, though, so patience is key. Harvest is typically at the end of the growing season.
How to harvest: Pull off individual sprouts as needed. Alternately, I suggest harvesting the entire plant at once to prevent pests from getting to your Brussel sprouts. Keep them stored in the fridge for up to two weeks.
When to harvest: Tomatoes will turn red (or yellow, orange, or striped) as they ripen. You’ll notice they are firm but with a slight give. At this point, your tomatoes are ready to pick. Check the seed recommendations if you're unsure.
How to harvest: Gently pull tomatoes off the vine. They should give easily when they're ready for picking out of your garden.
When to harvest: Peppers turn colors once they’ve ripened, but they can be picked at pretty much any stage. As sweet peppers ripen, they usually get sweeter. Different pepper varieties will have different harvest times.
How to harvest: Pepper plants, in my experience, are quite delicate, so I prefer to cut peppers off the plant instead of roughly tugging them.
When to harvest: You can harvest beets when they're baby roots or at their larger size. Check your seed packet to find out the average maturity date. Waiting too long to harvest can result in tough textured beets. They’ll survive exposure to frost, but as with carrots, don’t let them freeze in the ground, because they’ll be impossible to remove.
How to harvest: Carefully pull them out of the ground. Use the root portion and leaves, as both are edible.
When to harvest: I love beans because they continue to produce as you pick them. A few small bean plants provide plenty of food. As soon as you spot blossoms, check your plants frequently to make sure you pick young pods. If you leave pods for too long, they’ll get tough and stringy.
How to harvest: Don’t pull too hard or you’ll risk taking the whole plant with you. You can try to tug beans off the plant, but a pair of scissors helps the process along.
When to harvest: Like squash, if you wait too long to pick cucumbers, you’ll find yourself with cukes that are more seed than flesh. If your plant is productive and healthy, though, you might be surprised to find hidden behemoths among the foliage. Keep an eye on your plant and pick cucumbers when they're the right size for eating.
How to harvest: A gentle tug and twist are usually sufficient to dislodge a cucumber from its vine. However, you may want to avoid firmly gripping spiky cukes. If the cukes or accompanying vines are spiked, use scissors.
When to harvest: Onions are slow growers. Harvesting takes place at the end of the season in most cases. Once the tops have died over it’s time to harvest your onions.
How to harvest: Storage onions should be cured before storing. All that’s required to harvest any onion, though, is to simply lift it from the ground.
When to harvest: Pluck tender eggplants once they’ve reached their mature size. It’s a bit tough to tell when an eggplant has been sitting on the vine too long and has become bitter and seedy without cutting it open, so I like to pick mine as soon as they’re an edible size. If they’re too small, waiting a couple of days is usually sufficient.
How to harvest: Use scissors to cut eggplant from the vine. Be careful! Many eggplant varieties have spiky stems, and they can inflict pain.
When to harvest: Many varieties are quick to bolt to it’s essential to keep a close watch on spinach, especially as spring turns to summer. Harvest often.
How to harvest: Harvest whole plants if there’s a risk of bolting, but if weather is still hospitable, it’s fine to pick off individual leaves. Harvest at any stage. Baby leaves are more tender than full sized ones, though.
Always have your eye on your garden, and you’ll quickly become accustomed to what needs to be harvested when. Stay in tune with the flow of the growing season, and you’ll never have to pull bolting plants or get rid of bitter tasting herbs to make room for a second futile round of growth.