It was late summer a few years ago when one of my gardening friends asked what sounded like a silly question. “How do you know when it’s time to pick green tomatoes?”
She was talking about the tomato varieties that are naturally green, like Green Grape, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, and Green Zebra.
It’s easier to time the green-tomato harvest if you know what to look for. Green tomatoes are ripe when they turn from bright green to a deeper color of green with hints of yellow or amber.
It’s important to know when to harvest fruits and vegetables for several reasons. If left on the plant too long, fruits and vegetables will become over-ripe and lose their fresh flavor. Another reason is when fruits are left on the plant too long, the plant starts setting seed and stops producing new fruits.
For example, one of the common mistakes gardeners make is waiting for homegrown eggplants to reach the size of the ones we buy at the grocery store. But the best time to clip eggplants from the plant is when the fruits are young and the outer skin is still shiny. Waiting too long means the fruit gets seedy, tough and bitter.
Here’s how to tell when it’s time to harvest some of the most popular fruits and vegetables from your garden:
Cucumbers are ready to harvest when they’re firm, green and the right size for the variety. The tastiest cucumbers are picked while small and tender, and before seeds start to mature. Clip fruits from the vine and leave a bit of stem to protect the end.
Leafy vegetables, like kale or chard, are best enjoyed when the leaves are young. Snip the greens from the outside leaves to the inside. Keep the growing tip intact so the plant will continue to send out new leaves.
Peppers can be clipped from their plants as soon as they’ve reached their full size for the variety. All peppers will turn color if left on the plant long enough, but that takes time. If you want a continuous harvest, keep harvesting the peppers, and plants will keep producing.
Tomatoes are ready to pick when they have their deep, mature color (whether red, yellow, orange, black or green) and the right size for the variety. Tomatoes should be slightly soft with shiny, smooth skin and a nice tomato aroma. Use clippers to snip tomatoes from the plant to protect the vines.
Winter squashes need to stay on their vines until the rind is dull and hard enough to resist a fingernail pushed into it. Use pruners to cut the squash from its vine and make sure to leave a handle. Winter squashes need to be cured in a warm place for a week or more to allow for longer storage in a cooler spot.
Zucchini and summer squashes need to be harvested while fruits are still small, about 4-7 inches long. Smaller is better for round squashes and patty pan squashes, too. Keep an eye on your squash plants because fruits can be ready to pick 7-10 days after flowering.