Fresh Is Best: When (and How) to Harvest Your Own Healthy Produce
Did you know that most produce loses 30 percent of its nutrients within just three days of harvest?
Son, eat your vegetables… before they become empty calories!
And in some cases, the nutrient loss is much worse. Spinach, for example, retains a wimpy 10 percent of its vitamin C content only 24 hours after being picked!
This is just one of many reasons to grow your own food. By eating a plant that you harvested from your garden the very same day, you’re ensuring peak freshness, flavor, and nutrition.
Ready to make the transition from grower to chef? In honor of National Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Month, here are the harvesting best practices for 15 popular plants (listed alphabetically).
Like many herbs, basil responds positively to frequent (as often as twice per week) picking. In fact, regular harvesting not only results in many repeat yields, but also encourages new growth, delaying the bolting and flowering process.
Once your basil has developed six to eight pairs of leaves, pinch or cut stem tips just above where the plant is branching. (Everything you pinch off is your harvest.) This will promote future branching, creating a bushy, strong plant structure.
When your basil plant is mature and has several branches, don’t forget to harvest the lower, larger leaves at the base of the plant, too.
If production has slowed or you’re simply ready to grow something else, you can harvest an entire basil plant by cutting the stem at its base or pulling the net pot out of your Tower Garden.
Get more tips for growing basil »
An exercise in patience, broccoli can take up to 100 days before it’s harvest-ready.
The upside is that the plant’s edible (and highly nutritious) leaves can be harvested much earlier and incorporated into the same dishes as kale, collards, and other super greens. They should be ready after about a month — just cut them from the main stem, always allowing a few to remain to ensure the plant continues to grow.
You’ll know it’s time to harvest a broccoli head when it’s firm and tight. If you start to see flowers, you’re a little late. (But it’s still edible). To harvest, cut the head from the plant at a slant. This prevents water from pooling in the main stalk, which could cause the plant to rot.
After you pick the first head of broccoli, you can continue to harvest side shoots for several weeks.
Get more tips for growing broccoli »
You can harvest your chives once plants are six inches tall.
Using a sterilized pair of scissors, cut the plant’s outside leaves two inches above the base of the plant. If you harvest only half the leaves at a time, the same clump of chives will produce multiple yields throughout the growing season.
Growing garlic chives? They regenerate faster after harvesting compared to common chives, so they are better able to withstand multiple harvests and hard cutbacks. You’ll want to harvest these plants about every month, depending on the time of year.
It’s important to cut your chive plants regularly to encourage new bulblets to develop, as well as to prevent leaves from becoming tough and flowers from forming.
Chives dry and freeze well. But if you want to experience their full flavor and nutritional punch, enjoy them while fresh.
Get more tips for growing chives »
Keep a close eye on your cukes! They grow very quickly under the right conditions and will start producing fruit around 50 days after germination.
During the harvest period, you can expect to reap one to four pounds of cucumbers a week for up to 10 weeks, with proper care.
Most cucumber varieties are mature at eight inches in length, but you can pick them at any size, as long as you don’t allow them to get overripe (i.e., smooth, bloated, and yellow).
Harvest by cutting the stem above the fruit — twisting the fruit from the vine may damage the plant. Check your plants at least twice a week, and harvest frequently to encourage additional fruit to develop.
Get more tips for growing cucumbers »
Your eggplant crop may be ready to harvest as soon as one month after transplanting seedlings.
When an eggplant fruit is about half a foot long, cut just above its cap with a knife or shears. This will ensure that you don’t injure the rest of the plant.
Eggplant does not store as well as other produce. (People who claim to dislike it may not realize that they dislike stale eggplant.) Be sure to cook it immediately for the best flavor.
Avoid leaving mature eggplant fruit on the vine for very long. Once they grow too large, the fruit will become pithy and may taste bitter.
As a visual cue, fruit that has lost its glossy sheen or lightened in color is probably past its prime. If this happens, remove the mature eggplants from the vine so that other fruit may develop.
Get more tips for growing eggplant »
When can you enjoy your homegrown green beans? They will be ready to harvest about a month to six weeks after transplanting seedlings into your Tower Garden.
Younger beans will be more tender and have fewer strings inside the pod. For best taste, harvest before the beans show excessive swelling. Just snap or cut the beans from the stem, taking care to not damage the plant.
Your first harvest might be just a few pods. But as the crop matures, harvests will be more plentiful (until the heat of summer slows the plant’s growth). Regular harvesting promotes the production of new pods.
When the plant’s most mature leaves turn yellow or brown, your green beans will likely stop producing within a few weeks. This is normal and simply a sign that it’s time to start another round of plants!
Get more tips for growing green beans »
Kale is one the fastest growing plants in your Tower Garden! Depending on the variety and growing conditions, your kale may be ready to harvest in as little as one month.
Pick or cut the bottommost kale leaves first, allowing at least three or four leaves to remain and keep growing. You should enjoy this crop often, as — like many other plants on this list — frequent harvesting will foster new growth.
Get more tips for growing kale »
About 45 days after starting seeds — or whenever there are several mature leaves present — you may start harvesting your lettuce.
There are two ways to harvest: You can periodically pick individual leaves, which allows the plant to continue to produce. Or you can harvest the entire plant once it grows to a full head.
For the leaf harvest method, start from the bottom of the plant and pinch off or cut only a few leaves from each lettuce plant. Always allow two to three leaves to remain so the plant has enough energy to keep growing.
You can harvest like this every week until the plant shows signs of bolting. (In spring and fall, you can usually harvest for more than a month before bolting begins. In summer, this harvesting period will likely be a bit shorter.)
If you’d rather use the whole head harvest technique, simply cut or remove the entire plant once the lettuce head reaches the size you desire.
Get more tips for growing lettuce »
A slower grower, parsley may take up to 90 days before it’s harvest-ready. But when that time does come, the wait will be worth it!
Harvesting approximately one-third of a parsley plant at once will keep it healthy and productive. Snip off the stalks close to the base, beginning from the outside. (If just the tops are cut off and the leaf stalks remain, the plant will be less productive.)
You should pick parsley throughout the growing season to ensure a continual harvest and prevent a leggy plant structure. It’s also wise to trim unhealthy leaf stalks at the base of the plant and discard them.
Get more tips for growing parsley (PDF) »
You should expect to be harvesting your sweet green peas around 65 to 75 days after germination. Depending on the variety, peas may indicate that they are harvest-ready in other ways:
- Pick English peas when they’re firm but still succulent.
- Pick snap peas when the pods are crisp and round.
- Pick snow peas before the swelling seeds within the pod become too evident.
Pea pods are firmly attached to the vine. To harvest, hold the vine in one hand and twist the pod off the vine with the other. This will protect the vine from injury.
You should harvest your peas often to promote continued flowering and production.
Get more tips for growing peas (PDF) »
Your peppers will be ready to harvest about 65 to 85 days after transplanting seedlings. Most change color from green to red, yellow, purple, or orange when they’re ripe.
As the color of the fruit changes, so does the flavor. But peppers don’t continue to ripen once you remove them from the plant. So you should leave them attached until they’re as ripe as you want them.
It’s perfectly fine to harvest peppers before they reach full maturity — the immature fruit of some varieties are more flavorful. (Jalapeños, for example, are commonly harvested when green, even though they aren’t fully ripe until they turn red.)
To harvest, use a knife or shears to make a cut above the cap of the pepper, leaving a portion of the stem attached.
Get more tips for growing peppers »
You can harvest spinach (starting with the outer leaves first) as soon as the leaves are big enough to eat.
Harvest often to encourage continued production, prevent disease, and extend your plant’s life cycle. If you notice signs of bolting (e.g., sudden vertical growth), harvest the entire plant to prevent the remaining leaves from becoming bitter.
Get more tips for growing spinach »
Everbearing strawberries planted in the spring should start producing fruit by early summer. And once berries are red, they’re ripe and ready to eat!
To harvest strawberries, cut the stem just above the fruit. (Don’t pull the berries, as this may damage the plant.)
You should enjoy your harvests as soon as possible because the natural sugar in strawberries converts to starch soon after the fruit is picked. This is one of several reasons store-bought berries usually aren’t as good as homegrown.
Get more tips for growing strawberries »
Swiss chard is sweetest and most tender during the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. And yields are most flavorful once the plant is 50 to 60 days old.
But you can begin harvesting leaves when they are four inches long by cutting leaf stalks near the base. (Be careful not to cut the stems of the inner leaves, as this will stunt additional growth.)
Start with the mature leaves, picking three to five at a time. And don’t be shy about harvesting often, as this will stimulate the production of new leaves.
Get more tips for growing Swiss chard »
Tomatoes wait their turn! Fruit will always mature in the order that the tomatoes appear on the truss (i.e., the fruit closest to the branch stem will mature first).
The time it takes for a tomato plant to produce fruit depends on an array of factors, such as the plant variety, weather, pollination, and more.
But once you do see fruit, your first clue that a tomato is ripe and ready to pick is its color: It should be a deep red (or yellow or purple, depending on the variety).
Your second clue is the fruit’s hardness. The riper a tomato gets, the softer it will become. A perfectly ripe tomato has some give but is not mushy.
A ripe tomato should easily “pop” off the truss when it’s ready to harvest. But if you like, you can harvest the entire truss by cutting the stem attaching it to the main branch.
Get more tips for growing tomatoes »
This three-year-old Tower Gardener isn’t giving the nutrients in this lettuce any time to escape! (Photo by Tanya Conley)
Enjoy Your Harvest!
Did we cover all your favorite Tower Garden crops? If not, please drop your comments and questions below, and we’ll be happy to help.
Otherwise, download the free Tower-to-Table Cookbook (PDF) for ideas on using your fresh, homegrown, healthy produce.
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