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Harvesting vegetables

Q: How do you know when your vegetables are ready for harvest?

Beth King, Meadville, PA

Color is the first clue to a tomato's ripeness. Softness is also and indication. Color is the first clue to a tomato's ripeness. Softness is also and indication. Photo/Illustration: Allison Starcher

A: Ruth Lively, former senior editor of Kitchen Gardener magazine, answers: When a vegetable is ready to harvest depends mostly on what part of the plant you’re going to eat. Some vegetables have a particular point at which they’re ready to eat; others can be eaten at many stages of growth. To be a good ripeness detective, you’ll need to call on all five of your senses.

Tomatoes, corn, and winter squash all need to ripen before you harvest. Pick tomatoes when they have colored up, when the flesh gives to gentle pressure, and when the stem willingly separates from the vine at the first joint above the fruit. Color is the first indication that a tomato is nearing ripeness, but the other two clues are better signs.

Corn silks turning dry and brown indicate that the kernels inside are full and milky and ready to harvest. This generally happens about three weeks after the silks first begin to show.

Leave winter squash on the vine until the rind has hardened and its color has deepened. If you plan to store them, leave them on the vine until the plant has died, then pick the fruit.

Most other vegetables give you some leeway. Eggplants and peppers can be picked once the fruit has reached a usable size, but be sure to harvest eggplants while the skin is still glossy because once it dulls, the quality diminishes. And if you’re after red peppers, leave them until they’ve fully colored up.

Summer squash can be eaten at any size but is best when relatively small and tender. Pick while the skin is still glossy and has some “grab” when you move your hand across it. Green beans and cucumbers can be picked when they’re the size you want. Just don’t let them get too large. Pick shelling peas as soon as the peas have filled out the pod.

Some root vegetables take a little sleuthing. Leeks and onions can be pulled and eaten at any stage. Leave onions intended for storage in the ground until their tops yellow. Garlic is ready when the tops are starting to yellow, but while they still have five or six green leaves. You can start digging for new potatoes about seven weeks after the plants break ground. For storage potatoes, wait until two weeks after the plants have died before digging. Other root vegetables like beets, turnips, and carrots can be harvested when you like the size, but you’ll need to do some prospecting to determine when your treasures are big enough to suit you.

Happily, leafy vegetables are easy. Pick lettuces, spinach, and greens leaf by leaf or head by head, whenever they’re big enough for you.

From Fine Gardening 92, pp. 82