Vegetable Gardening For Dummies
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To get all the best flavor and highest nutritional value from your vegetables, you need to pick them at just the right time. Some vegetables taste terrible if you pick them too early; others are tough and stringy if you pick them too late.

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And after you pick your vegetables, what if you can’t eat them right away? When properly stored, most vegetables last a while without rotting or losing too much flavor (of course, eating them fresh picked is always the best).

In fact, you can store some vegetables, like potatoes and winter squash, for months. So in this article, I discuss harvesting and storing your fresh vegetables. You put in too much work not to do the final steps just right.

When are vegetables harvested?

Vegetable harvest times vary, but generally, most should be picked when they’re young and tender. That often means harvesting the plants, roots, or fruits before they reach full size.

A 15-inch zucchini is impressive, but it tastes better at 6 to 8 inches. Similarly, during the growing season carrots and beets tend to get woody (tough textured) and bland the longer they stay in the ground. The table below provides specific information on when to harvest a variety of veggies.

For more about harvesting and preserving what you grow, and all the phases of vegetable gardening, including preparing the soil, planting, maintaining, and much more, check out Vegetable Gardening For Dummies, 3rd Edition.

Other plants are continuously harvested to keep them productive. If you keep harvesting vegetables like snap beans, summer squash, snow and snap peas, broccoli, okra, spinach, and lettuce, they’ll continue to produce pods, shoots, or leaves.

When to Harvest Vegetables

Vegetable When to Harvest
Asparagus When spears are 6 to 9 inches long
Beans, snap Start about two to three weeks after bloom, before seeds mature
Beans, dried When the pods are dry and crack open easily
Beets When 1 to 3 inches wide
Broccoli When flower heads are tight and green
Brussels sprouts When sprouts reach 1 inch wide
Cabbage When heads are compact and firm
Carrots When tops are 1 inch wide
Cauliflower While heads are still white but not ricey (the florets are splitting apart)
Celery When stalks are large enough to eat
Corn When silks are dry and brown; kernels should be milky when cut
Cucumbers For slicing, when 6 inches long; for picklers, when at least 2 inches long
Eggplant Before color dulls; flesh should bounce back when pressed lightly
Garlic Pull up stalks when the bottom leaves yellow
Kohlrabi When 2 to 3 inches wide
Leeks When the stalks are at least 1 1/2 inches in diameter
Lettuce and other greens While leaves are tender
Muskmelons When fruit slips off vine easily; while netting (raised area on skin) is even; when fruit is firm. Fruit aroma is present through the skin.
Okra When pods are soft and 2 to 3 inches long
Onions When necks are tight and scales are dry
Parsnips When roots reach desired size, possibly after light frost
Peanuts When leaves turn yellow
Peas While pods are still tender
Peppers When fruits reach desired size and color
Potatoes When vines die back
Pumpkins When shells harden, before frost
Radishes When roots are up to 1 1/4 inches wide
Rhubarb When it shows red streaks on the stalks
Rutabagas When roots reach desired size
Shallots Harvest mature bulbs when tops wither and turn brown
Spinach When leaves are still tender
Squash, summer When 6 to 8 inches long
Squash, winter When shells harden, before frost
Sweet potatoes When they reach adequate size
Tomatoes When uniformly colored (varies by variety)
Turnips When 2 to 3 inches wide
Watermelons When undersides turn yellow and produce a dull sound when thumped

A good vegetable harvesting rule for many of your early crops is to start picking them when you have enough of a vegetable for a one-meal serving. Spinach, Swiss chard, scallions, radishes, lettuce, and members of the cabbage family certainly fit the bill here. These veggies don’t grow as well in warm weather, so pick these crops in the spring when temperatures are cooler.

After you start harvesting, visit your garden and pick something daily. Take along a good sharp knife and a few containers to hold your produce, such as paper bags, buckets, or baskets. Wire or wood buckets work well because you can easily wash vegetables in them.

The vegetable harvest information in the above table is based on picking mature or slightly immature vegetables. But many vegetables can be picked smaller and still have excellent flavor. Pick baby vegetables whenever they reach the size that you want.

The following vegetables can be picked small: beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, lettuce and other greens, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, snap beans, summer squash, Swiss chard, and turnips. In addition, some small varieties of corn and tomatoes fit the baby-vegetable mold.

Be sure to avoid harvesting at the following times:

  • When plants, especially beans, are wet. Many fungal diseases spread in moist conditions, and if you brush your tools or pants against diseased plants, you can transfer disease organisms to other plants down the row.
  • In the heat of the day, because the vegetable’s texture may be limp. For the freshest produce, harvest early in the day when vegetables’ moisture levels are highest and the vegetables are at peak flavor. After harvesting, refrigerate the produce and prepare it later in the day.
In the fall, wait as long as you can to dig up root crops, such as carrots, rutabagas, and beets, if you intend to store them in a root cellar or cold storage room. However, remember that while root crops can withstand frosts, you should harvest them before the ground freezes. They’ll come out of the ground easiest if the soil is still slightly moist. Also, don’t wash crops that are going to the root cellar; instead, just gently brush away soil crumbs. Use any blemished or cut vegetables within a few days.

Putting away your vegetables

You have only two choices when you harvest your crops: Eat the veggies right away, or store them to use later. Specific vegetables need different storage conditions to maintain their freshness, such as:
  • Cool and dry: Ideally, temperatures should be between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15.5 degrees Celsius), with 60 percent relative humidity — conditions you usually find in a well-ventilated basement.
  • Cold and dry: Temperatures should be between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (0 to 4.5 degrees Celsius), with 65 percent humidity. You can achieve these conditions in most home refrigerators or in a cold basement or garage.
  • Cool and moist: Temperatures should be between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15.5 degrees Celsius) with 90 percent humidity. You can store vegetables in a cool kitchen or basement in perforated plastic bags.
  • Cold and moist: Your storage area should be 32 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (0 to 4.5 degrees Celsius), with 95 percent humidity. You can create these conditions by placing your veggies in perforated bags (vegetables in bags without ventilation are likely to degrade faster) and storing the bags in a fridge.

You also can create cold and moist conditions in a root cellar. An unheated basement works well as a root cellar. However, these days, most homes have heaters or furnaces in the basement, which make the conditions too warm for storing vegetables. But if you don’t have a heater, or if you can section off a portion of your basement and keep temperatures just above freezing, you can store vegetables like root crops and even cabbage for long periods of time.

Make sure your vegetables are well ventilated in the root cellar; you can store onions, potatoes, and other root crops in mesh bags. Shoot for a humidity level that’s as high as you can get. To increase humidity, spread moist wood shavings or sawdust on the floor but keep the vegetables elevated on wooden boxes.

In the table below, I provide specifics on how to store your vegetables so that after you pick them, you quickly know what to do with them (that is, if you don’t eat them right away). The table also includes information on whether you can freeze, dry, or can vegetables, topics that I cover later in this article.

Storing Fresh Vegetables

Vegetable How to Store Expected Storage Life Comments
Asparagus Cold and moist Two weeks Store upright. Freeze, dry, or can.
Beans, snap Cool and moist One week Pods will scar below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius). Freeze after blanching. Can.
Beets Cold and moist Five months Store without tops. Freeze, dry, or can.
Broccoli Cold and moist Two weeks Freeze or dry.
Brussels sprouts Cold and moist One month Freeze or dry.
Cabbage Cold and moist Five months Freeze or dry.
Carrots Cold and moist Three weeks Store without tops. Freeze, dry, or can.
Cauliflower Cold and moist Three weeks Freeze or dry.
Corn Cold and moist Five days Freeze, dry, or can.
Cucumbers Cool and moist One to two weeks Will scar if stored below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius). Can be stored in a cool kitchen in a perforated bag. Don’t store with apples or tomatoes. Can.
Eggplant Cool and moist One week Prolonged storage below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) causes scarring. Freeze or dry.
Kohlrabi Cold and moist Two months Store without tops. Freeze.
Lettuce and other greens Cold and moist One week Freeze greens such as spinach and Swiss chard.
Muskmelons Cold and moist One week Freeze.
Onions Cold and dry Four months Cure (let dry) at room temperatures for two to four weeks before storing. Keep green onions cool and moist for one to four months. Freeze, dry, or can.
Parsnips Cold and moist Three weeks Will sweeten after two weeks at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). Freeze.
Peanuts Cool and dry Four months Pull pods after plant has dried for several weeks. Store dried in bags.
Peas Cold and moist One week Freeze, dry, or can.
Peppers Cool and moist Two weeks Will scar if stored below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Freeze, dry, or can.
Potatoes Cold and moist Six months Keep out of light. Cure at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15.5 degrees Celsius) for 14 days before storage. Freeze, dry, or can.
Pumpkins Cool and dry Two to five months Very sensitive to temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). Freeze, dry, or can.
Radishes Cold and moist One month Store without tops. Freeze or dry.
Rutabagas Cold and moist Four months Freeze.
Spinach Cold and moist Ten days Freeze.
Squash, summer Cool and moist One week Don’t store in refrigerator for more than four days. Freeze, dry, or can.
Squash, winter Cool and dry Two to six months Freeze, dry, or can.
Sweet potatoes Cool and moist Four months Cure in the sun. Freeze, dry, or can.
Tomatoes Cool and moist Five days Loses flavor if stored below 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). Don’t refrigerate. Freeze, dry, or can.
Turnips Cold and moist Two to four months Freeze.
Watermelons Cool and moist Two weeks Will decay if stored below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Can the juice or rind.
If you want to store vegetables, make sure you harvest them at their peak ripeness. Also avoid bruising the produce, because bruises hasten rotting. The storage times in the table are only estimates; they can vary widely depending on conditions. Store only the highest quality vegetables for long periods of time; vegetables that are damaged or scarred are likely to rot and spoil everything nearby.

If you live in an area where the ground freezes in the winter, you can actually leave some root crops — including carrots, leeks, rutabagas, and turnips — in the ground and harvest all winter long.

After a good, hard frost, but before the ground freezes, cover your vegetable bed with a foot or more of dry hay. Cover the hay with heavy plastic (4 to 6 millimeters) and secure the edges with rocks, bricks, or heavy boards. The plastic keeps rain and snow from trickling down through the hay and rotting your vegetables, and it also keeps the soil from freezing solid. You can harvest periodically through winter, but be careful to re-cover the opening after each harvest.

Freezing, drying, and canning veggies

You can preserve vegetables three different ways — by freezing, drying, or canning them — to make your harvest last longer than if you stored your vegetables fresh. (Refer to the table "Storing Fresh Vegetables," above, for information on whether a particular vegetable can be frozen, dried, or canned.) I don’t have room to cover all the details about these different methods, but the following list gives you a thumbnail sketch of each technique:


This is probably the easiest way to preserve vegetables. Heck, if you want, just puree up some tomatoes, put them in a container, and throw them in the freezer — they’ll last for months. The mix is great to use in spaghetti sauce or soups.

You also can freeze some vegetables, like beans or peas, whole. But usually you have to blanch them first to preserve their color and texture. Blanching is simply the process of dipping the vegetables in boiling water for a minute or two and then placing them in ice water to cool them off. Then you dry the vegetables with a towel and freeze them in labeled plastic freezer bags. Simple.


This technique can be pretty easy, but it must be done properly to prevent spoilage. Basically, you dehydrate the vegetables by laying them out in the sun to dry, by slow baking them in the oven, or by using a commercial dehydrator, which you can buy online and in many mail-order catalogs (see the appendix). In hot, sunny climates like California, you can dry ‘Roma’ tomatoes by slicing them in half and laying them out in the sun on a screen.

Spoilage is always a concern, so before drying your vegetables, you may need to get some additional information. You usually need to store dried vegetables in airtight containers; lidded jars work well. You can use dried vegetables to make soups and sauces.


Of all preserved vegetables, I like the taste of canned tomatoes the best. Nothing tastes better in the middle of winter. But canning is a delicate and labor-intensive procedure that can require peeling, sterilizing jars, cooking, boiling, and a lot of other work. I usually set aside a whole weekend to can tomatoes and other veggies. I don’t want to discourage you, but you need some good recipes, some special equipment, and probably some help if you want to can vegetables.

For more help with preserving canning and preserving, check out Canning and Preserving For Dummies by Amelia Jeanroy. Your local Cooperative Extension Service office also is a good source of information on preserving vegetables. Finally, the Learning Library at the National Gardening Association’s website has a treasure trove of veggie preserving knowledge.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden writer, radio and TV show host, consultant, and speaker. Charlie delights in making gardening information simple, easy, fun, and accessible to everyone. The National Gardening Association is the leading garden-based educational nonprofit organization in the United States, providing resources at and

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