When to Harvest Your Vegetables

Collage of beets, fennel, and carrots

Harvest time is when your home garden shines! It is such a pleasure to be able to harvest vegetables at the exact right time before you eat them. While grocery store vegetables are harvested for looks and transportability, homegrown vegetables are harvested for perfect flavour and freshness.

This advantage depends, however, on knowing when to harvest each vegetable and how to maximize flavour. We can’t take you through the rules for all vegetables in this article, but our Grow Veggies program offers much more information and hands-on experience. That said, here are a few rules of thumb.

Know the plant part that you are harvesting. Here are a few guidelines for each plant part that you can apply your own preferences to in deciding when to harvest:

  • The leaves and stems of plants (e.g., lettuce, chard, kale) are generally harvested based on size – a smaller size usually means a more tender vegetable, while a larger size means more food.
  • The roots of a plant (e.g., carrots, beets, turnips) are where the plant stores its energy reserves for the next year, so the longer you wait, the more carbohydrates/glucose it will contain – however, smaller roots will be more tender and sweeter, and less likely to have split.
  • The fruits of a plant (e.g., tomatoes, beans, squash) hold the plant’s seeds – harvesting earlier means less water and seeds in your vegetables, while harvesting later means sweeter and more tender fruits.

Bigger is not usually better. While more food is usually better than less, the size difference may be attributable to water, seeds, or fibre.

Know your plants. Different varieties have different characteristics – for example, long beans and French beans will look different when perfect, and it would be disappointing to harvest long beans when they are the size of French beans. Similarly, not all tomato varieties turn red when ripe. Keep your seed packets handy for cross-reference when harvesting.

Know your pests. You’re not the only one who knows when the vegetables in your garden are perfect! Knowing what “competitors” are present may lead you to harvest a little earlier (or at least take measures to protect your vegetables).

Watch the weather. Heavy rain may cause your tomatoes or zucchinis to become too large or split. A heat wave may cause your almost perfect lettuce or broccoli to bolt. Make sure to harvest in advance of either scenario.

Finally, try to harvest in the morning. Plants do most of their growing and replenishing of water reserves overnight, so harvesting in the morning means crisper and longer-lasting vegetables, and keeping them cool (not necessarily cold) after harvest helps them stay that way.

There are also some things that you can do in advance of harvesting to improve your harvest. Cut back on watering when you want to increase flavour or storability. Add more water to vegetable plants such as celery if you want to soften their flavour. You can reduce intense flavours by burying or shading their stems from sunlight starting two weeks before harvest. This is called blanching, and it’s often done with strong-tasting stem vegetables such as celery, leeks, onions, asparagus, and rhubarb.

The most important aspect of harvesting is taking the time to learn how you like your vegetables. You’re in control of harvesting, so tweak the variables above so that your homegrown veggies taste perfect to you. And of course, don’t forget to taste-test when harvesting – it’s one of our favourite things to do with our Grow Veggies participants at our teaching garden!