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picking vegetablesOne night last week after dinner, I was fixing my daughter a dessert of yogurt and applesauce, and I said, “Hey, kiddo, I’m making you a special treat!” And she said, with the enthusiasm only a toddler can muster, “Is it broccoli?” She was so excited by the possibility of having broccoli for dessert that I was a little sad to disappoint her with mere yogurt and applesauce.

I don’t think my daughter would be as excited about the prospect of broccoli for dessert if she weren’t so involved in our garden from seed to harvest. Every night, my family gets to eat the most delicious, freshest, most local, most organic produce in the world! Our garden just keeps giving and giving.

For the past few weeks, our little fenced-in oasis of raised beds has been pushing beans and zucchini, onions and potatoes, basil, parsley, and garlic. Three days ago, we picked the first of our cucumbers. Our corn is a few days from being ready, and we are just teetering on the edge of tomato inundation. Picking ripe vegetables is part of our daily routine these days, and every day we learn something new about how to do it right.

Knowing when things are ready to pick can get a little confusing for new gardeners. Even for seasoned gardeners, knowing just when to pick vegetables takes patience and skill. Picking at the peak of ripeness isn’t rocket science, but there is a fine art to knowing that if you pick a zucchini today, you’ll have a tender, sweet treat, but if you wait till tomorrow, you’ll find a baseball-bat-sized fruit that’s pretty much good only for baking (or composting). The Organic Gardening test gardeners have spent years learning from trial and error so that I can present you with these 10 tips for harvesting vegetables at their peak ripeness.

Capturing Your Garden at the Peak of Freshness

Pick Beans That Snap

Beans actually snap in half when they’re ready to be harvested, and the inner seeds bulge the sides of the pod just slightly. Make sure you pick your beans at least every other day once they start coming in; otherwise they’ll get too big, the shells will get tough, and they won’t be nearly as enjoyable as if you pick them sooner.

Get Your Broccoli Before It Bolts

Harvest your broccoli when the central head is fully formed but before any sign of yellowing appears and before buds open and flower. Cut 6 to 7 inches below the head. Some varieties produce side shoots once the main head is removed. You can continue harvesting as long as shoots are produced.

Harvest Sweet Corn Every Time

The silk should be dried and brown and the cob should be plump. Pull back the husk a little to expose the kernels. Puncture a kernel with your fingernail. If a milky fluid flows out, the corn is ready. If the liquid is clear, the corn is immature, and if it’s pasty, you’ve waited too long to pick it.

Pluck Cucumbers Before They’re Bitter

Don’t let your cukes get too long or too big. The bigger they get, the more bitter they become. Shoot for around 6 to 8 inches. The skin should be dark green. Pick ’em a little smaller for pickling.

Select Slim and Slender Zucchini

In my book, zucchini is best when it’s picked on the small side—8 to 10 inches max. But inevitably you just won’t see some of the fruit until it’s gigantic. Pick them when your thumbnail can easily puncture the rind. I actually use a pocketknife to cut through the thick stem.

Give Cantaloupe the Slip

When the skin looks completely netted and the color between the net turns from green to yellow, lean in and take a whiff. It should smell somewhat musky. If you don’t smell anything, you should wait. If your melon is ripe, it will separate easily or “slip” from the vine. Some people also knock on the melon, listening for a dull thud, but there is an art to cantaloupe knocking that takes years to refine.

Pick Eggplants Before They Get Dense

Harvest your eggplants when the skin is shiny and firm, and purple to black in color. If fruit is overripe, seeds are hard and flesh separates into stringy channels.

Gather Up the Tastiest Spuds

Harvest spuds after most of the vines have died, when skin is firm. If you like new potatoes, you can start harvesting when the plants begin to flower. I planted my taters in deep straw mulch, which makes it easy to just reach in and grab a few when you want them without disturbing the whole plant. You can leave the potatoes in the ground for a while if you want, but make sure you lift them before the ground temperature goes below 40˚F—cool temperatures will turn the starch into sugar and ruin the taste of your taters.

Pick the Juiciest Tomatoes

Depending on variety, harvest at full color and when they are firm. An overripe tomato quickly loses its firmness. And can also split and crack on the vine. But an underripe tomato will usually ripen up in a day or two. So it’s better to err on the side of not ripe enough.

Pull Watermelons with Tone

There are a few telltale signs for ripe watermelons: The tendril closest to the fruit’s stem withers and browns; the belly turns cream to yellowish in color; and when you tap the fruit, you hear a dull, hollow sound.

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Eric Hurlock is the online editor at Organic Gardening magazine. He lives and gardens in Chester County, PA, with his wife, daughter, and new baby. Follow his Real World Gardener blog at

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