You’ve carefully tended your crops, protected them from the vagaries of British weather, seen off invasions of slugs, mildew, caterpillars and all manner of pests and diseases. You’ve fed them, watered religiously and you are on the cusp of harvesting your very own produce... One challenge that you might not have expected is knowing when to actually harvest your crops. Pick them too soon and they may taste terrible; leave them too late and they are past their best! So how do you know if they’re ripe yet?
For some crops the answer is obvious - most soft fruits, tomatoes and peppers change colour on ripening, signalling that they are ready to pick. Courgettes can be cut when they reach the desired size, and many Salad leaves can be cut as and when required, without too much cause for concern. But other crops can leave you feeling uncertain.
Here are some tips on knowing when to harvest your fruit and veg.
Many of our favourite vegetables are roots or tubers that are produced beneath the soil. But how do you know what’s going on down there? Here's how to get the best from your home grown vegetable crops.
Carrots can be lifted at any size from trendy little baby vegetables to larger, more mature roots. Before you get stuck into lifting the whole crop, simply pull a couple of roots to make sure that they are the desired size. Carrots are usually ready between 2-3 months after sowing.
Celery can be harvested from August onwards, or when the stems reach around 30cm (12"). Lift the plants with a garden fork and then cut away the roots just below the point where the stems are joined. Make sure that the plants are all harvested before the first frosts. Celery can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks after harvesting.
Leeks can be harvested from 16 to 20 weeks after sowing depending on the variety. However, they will stand for months in the soil, so they can be lifted individually from summer right through to winter, as and when they are needed. Gently loosen the soil before lifting each leek to avoid damaging the crop.
Onions and garlic
Onions and garlic
Around June and July, the leaves of Onions and Garlic will begin to yellow as the bulbs mature. Harvest them a week or two after the leaves die back. Choose a dry day to loosen them from the ground with a fork. After lifting the bulbs, you will need to leave them on the soil surface for a day or two until they have fully dried in the sun. Once dry, remove the top foliage and store them in a well ventilated, dry position.
Parsnips mature in about 16 weeks from sowing but they keep well in the ground so you can harvest them from late autumn through to January, as and when required. However, their flavour will be improved if they are left in the ground until exposed to frost, giving the roots a lovely sweet flavour. Loosen the soil around them with a fork before lifting to avoid damaging the roots and make the task a little easier.
Pods at the bottom of pea plants will mature earliest so these are the ones to pick first. Early varieties can be harvested 11-12 weeks from sowing while maincrop varieties need 13 -15 weeks to mature. Mange Tout is best harvested young while the pods are still flat. Harvest Sugar Snap peas when semi-mature, as the peas inside each pod begin to swell.
As the tubers mature, potato stems and leaves will yellow and die back. This is a useful indicator that your crop is ready but you don’t need to wait for this to happen. Potatoes can be harvested earlier. Loosen the soil with your fingers and dibble around the roots to explore what is down there. If you can feel tubers of the size that you want then go ahead and harvest them. If the tubers are still too small for your liking then leave them for a few more weeks.
Leave your pumpkins on the plant for as long as possible until the skin has hardened and the fruits start to crack near to the stem. But be sure to harvest them before the first frost though! Cut each fruit from the stem leaving several inches of the stem attached.
Sweetcorn will let you know when the cobs are ready! When the silky tassels at the end of each corn turn brown, peel back the outer sheath and insert a thumbnail into a kernel. The cobs can be harvested when the juice is a milky colour. If the liquid is clear then the cob needs a little longer, but if doughy then the crop is over overripe.
Fruits can be just as tricky. Here are some of the fruits that often raise concern when it comes to harvesting.
Apples must be harvested in autumn before the first frosts, but not all varieties will ripen simultaneously. Apples are ready to harvest when they come away from the branch with a gentle twist of the fruit. Fruits that don’t fall away easily will need a little longer to mature.
You will need to net gooseberry plants as the fruit develop to prevent birds from stealing your crops. Harvest some unripe gooseberries while they are still firm for cooking and freezing in May, leaving the remaining fruit to ripen fully in June for eating fresh from the plants. Ripe Gooseberries will be soft and juicy to the touch.
The fruits are unpalatable immediately after picking, but you can make them into jellies or wine. Leave Medlar fruits on the tree until late autumn and harvest them in dry weather when the stalk parts easily from the branch. To eat them raw they will need to be stored for 2 or 3 weeks on slatted trays until the flesh has become soft and brown. This process is called ‘bletting’ where the flesh becomes soft and brown, but not rotten.
If you are lucky enough to have a Mulberry then the fruits are best harvested by shaking branches over a sheet spread on the ground. The ripe fruits will drop from the tree and can be easily gathered up from the sheet.
Pears need a period of storage to finish ripening them off of the tree. If allowed to fully ripen on the tree, the core begins to break down becoming soft and mushy, so they are best harvested slightly under-ripe. Most are ready to pick if the fruits part easily from the tree when given a gentle twist. Finish ripening on slats in a cool, dry place. Early varieties will be ready in just a week or two while later varieties can take months to fully ripen.
Wait until the second season after planting before you take a crop to avoid weakening your plants. Harvest Rhubarb stems from April to June, when the leaves have fully unfurled and stems are 30cm (12") long. Pull from the base of each stem and twist them away from the crown. Harvest only a few stems at a time leaving at least 4 leaves intact at all times to in order to feed the plant.