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GardenSMART :: Pick Your Summer Harvest for Peak Flavor

Pick Your Summer Harvest for Peak Flavor

By Joan Casanova, Bonnie Plants, Inc.
Photographs courtesy of Bonnie Plants, Inc.

When harvest time approaches in your vegetable garden, you'll need to know when to pick for peak flavor. A good rule of thumb is that most vegetables are harvested right before full maturity; bigger isn't always better! Stay ahead of your crops by checking your garden every day or two, to prevent over ripening.

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Here are some timely tips on when to pick some of your favorite veggies:

Tomatoes. For full flavor, pick tomatoes from the vine when the skin is smooth, glossy, fully colored, and feels slightly firm, not hard, when gently squeezed.

The bottom of the tomato is where the fruit will begin to ripen. Be sure you know what color the tomato variety should be at maturity (red, pink, yellow, purple, orange) to estimate when to pick. Tomato flavor becomes much more complex as the fruits ripen, so you have good reason to be patient!

Store ripe picked tomatoes at room temperature indoors, or in a shady place outside. Never refrigerate tomatoes, because temperatures below 55 degrees F can cause flavor compounds to break down. Bumper crops can be frozen, canned, or dried for future use.

It's true; you can pick tomatoes sooner and allow them to ripen off the vine. If you want to pick them before they're ripe, they must be a mature green color. You can ripen tomatoes in a well-ventilated, open cardboard box at room temperature, checking them every few days, so if any spoil you're sure to spot them and remove them from the box. Mature green tomatoes will ripen in approximately 14 days at 70 degrees F and 28 days at 55 degrees F.

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Cucumbers. Harvest cucumbers when the fruit is just mature. Don't wait for cucumbers to get too big, since they can turn seedy and bitter. Check vines daily as the fruit starts to appear because they enlarge quickly. Vines produce more fruit the more you harvest. To remove the fruit, use a sharp knife or pruner, cutting the stem just above the fruit. Do not pull them off the vine since pulling can damage vines.

You don't want overripe fruit; it has seeds that are hard to chew. Yellowing at the bottom of a cucumber is a sign that the fruit is too ripe and bitter. Always remove any overripe fruit.

You can keep harvested cucumbers in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days, using as soon as possible after picking. It's best to wrap them in plastic wrap or put them in a zip lock bag to keep moisture in. They'll stay crisp longer.

Snap beans. Use two hands to harvest, because bean stems are easily broken. Don't pull on pods; instead, hold the stem in one hand and pick with the other. Healthy bean plants will often re-bloom and produce a second, sometimes a third, flush of beans when plants are thriving.

You can blanch and freeze snap beans easily. Blanch in boiling water for one minute and then cool in ice water. This process brightens and sets the color while preserving the crispy texture of the pods.

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Peppers. Use a sharp knife or pruner to cut peppers, but leave a short stub of stem attached. Pulling peppers by hand can cause branches to break off. Pick peppers when they are full size and fully colored. It's best to harvest often which will increase the plant's yield. If you aren't sure what fully colored is, check the variety tag description. Many hot peppers will turn red, but can be eaten green. Red, yellow, and orange bells start out green and turn color later as they continue to mature on the vine.

Most peppers can be eaten at just about any stage, and peppers have a long time window for harvest; they can continue to mature on the plant for several days past maturity. Over ripe bells usually get sweeter and over ripe hot peppers usually get hotter. After harvesting, rinse, pat dry and store in your refrigerator.

Summer squash. Harvest summer squash with a sharp knife or pruner when firm but when the skin can still be easily pierced with your nail. Zucchini and scalloped squash should be deeply colored; crookneck and straight neck squash should be pale. Check plants daily or every other day while they're producing and remove any overripe squash as soon as you see it to reduce the plant's demand for moisture and nutrients.

Since summer squash is so prolific you can slow production by picking both the male and female blossoms. Harvesting the first flowers won't hurt fruit production, since the early flowers are male, which bear pollen but not fruit. Blossoms are edible! Just remove the inner portion and use the petals, which will add a splash of color and taste to summer salads and recipes. Squash can be marinated, grilled and stored in your freezer if you have an overabundance.

Eggplant. Use a sharp knife or pruner to harvest eggplants as soon as they are big enough to eat, and while the skin is still glossy. The flesh should not spring back when you press down on it with your finger. If the skin turns dull and the seeds inside are hard and dark, you've waited too long. Like peppers, harvest eggplants often to increase the yield. Once harvested, rinse, pat dry, and store in your refrigerator. Remember, once you cut into an eggplant, the meat will begin to darken. Various marinades or lemon juice will prevent darkening.

For more harvesting tips, gardening information and some great recipes, please visit


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