FALL & WINTER HARVESTING TIP SHEET
A basic knowledge of harvesting tips and techniques not only maximizes your yield but maintains the nutritional content in your food. Generally, vegetable crops remain fresh in storage longer when picked early in the morning or in the evening after the sun has set. Any crop can be harvested any time of the day for immediate use.
Minimize damage to plants by harvesting with clean sharp cuts using clippers or kitchen scissors. Pulling or tearing leaves can not only damage tender leaf tissue, but can also puts stress on young roots.
As with any gardening endeavor, a good rule of thumb is to know your plant. All vegetable crops are just as different as landscaping plants - some grow tall, some need more water than others, etc. Know your plant - it’s fun! To take some of the guess work out of knowing when to harvest, here are some of the basics for harvesting your fall/winter crops.
(lettuce, chard, spinach, arugula, kale, mustard greens, etc.)
We see salad greens in the store in one of two ways: (1) whole plants (e.g. heads of lettuce), or (2) packaged “baby” greens or young leaves.
The tradeoff here is that we can let a plant “mature” and harvest a larger quantity at one time or we can regularly harvest tender, younger, more nutritionally rich leaves over a longer period of time.
We like to encourage home gardeners to harvest the second way, by removing one or two of the lowest, “baby” leaves on each plant. Harvesting this way, the plant continues to grow by creating new leaves in the center of the plant, while you remove the oldest, lower leaves on the plant. Remember that “baby greens” does not refer to any particular variety of plant, but simply refers to leaves that are picked when young.
For lettuce remove as much of the leaf as possible. For those leaves with “stalks” like kale, spinach, chard, and arugula, harvest the entire leaf stalk too. Harvesting the stalk also helps them last longer in the refrigerator.
“Heading” COLE CROPS
(broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi)
With these crops we get one main “head” per plant. The head is harvested by cutting below the base of the head with a few of the outer most leaves attached.
The leaves on all these plant are quite edible. Removing too many leaves before harvest, however, can reduce the size of the mature “head”,
Cabbage heads can widely differ in mature size, depending on the variety and environmental conditions. Often heads are left on the plant as long as
the outermost leaves still look good. Cabbage should be harvested as soon bugs like cabbage worms start to find them.
Cauliflower heads will are typically picked after reaching 5-6“ or more. If left on the plant too long the bugs definitely will find heads. As the cauliflower head approaches 5-6” across, the top one or two leaves are bent to cover and “blanche” the developing head. All other things being equal, the heads of yellow (‘Cheddar’) and purple (‘Graffiti’) cauliflower tend to mature smaller than white varieties. The presence of yellow flowers indicates that you waited too long to harvest.
Kohlrabi will produce one swollen stem base per plant and is harvested by cutting below the head and the side leaves removed. The kohlrabi head is roughly the size of a grapefruit when mature.
Broccoli heads widely differ in size depending on variety and environmental conditions. The central head may be 5-8” across or more for early varieties (e.g. ‘Pacman’, ‘Green Comet’) to 10-14” or more for later maturing varieties (e.g. ‘Premium Crop’).
While other heading cole crops produce only one main head and that‘s it, a healthy broccoli plant, on the other hand, will continue to produce many, many small side florets throughout winter once the central head is removed. Broccoli is actually a collection of immature flowers. If you do not allow the broccoli plant to make any yellow flowers, that is if you pick the florets before any flowers ever open, you will have tons of side florets to harvest. If the plant is allowed to make but a few flowers, seeds will begin to form, and yield of side florets greatly diminishes.
LEAFY MUSTARD GREENS
(bok choy, napa cabbage, mizuna, red giant, komatsuna, etc.)
Those plants we collectively call “mustard greens” are harvested much like salad greens. One can either wait to harvest a larger more mature plant, or harvest the younger lowest leaves on the plant. Again we recommend the second method.
Harvesting just a few leaves of bok choy or napa as needed will give you a more nutritionally rich harvest. And picking just a few leaves at a time as needed will extend your harvest over a much longer period of time. As with salad greens, remember to harvest the entire leaf base, and using scissors or clippers works better than tearing leaves.
(beets, carrots, radish, turnip, rutabaga, garlic, onions, etc.)
How does one know when to harvest carrots, beets or radishes if the root is in the ground? The best way to know if your root crops are ready to harvest if to work your finger around in the top inch of soil feeling for those swollen roots.
The nice thing is that almost all root crops tend to push themselves up out of the ground a bit as the root develops. Especially for those of you with shallower raised beds, you will see some of the top of the roots exposed.
Radishes and carrots tend to have that basic 1” size that we are all familiar with. Beets, turnips, and rutabagas on the other hand can widely vary in size depending on the variety, spacing, and environmental conditions (water, soil, etc.). Again, the best method to know when to harvest is to poke around a bit in the ground.
Radishes are one of the quickest root crops to mature, while carrots and parsnips will take several months. Remember that the leaves of all the above mentioned roots crops can be eaten too!
PERENNIAL HERBS - that persist for several years
(Sage, thyme, rosemary, winter savory, oregano, marjoram, etc.)
Herbs can be harvested fresh as needed or harvested and dried for future use. Common sense typically prevails here, so just clip any leaves as you need them. These perennial herbs will persist for many years. By harvesting the leaves on the branch tips, you will induce the plant to branch more, which increases your yield. The flowers on any of these herbs are edible too!
ANNUAL HERBS - will need to be replanted at some point
(dill, cilantro, parsley, basil, etc.)
Dill, cilantro, and parsley all have the same basic growth habit. They grow leafy shoots that eventually produce a flower at the top of the shoot (sooner in cilantro, later in parsley). Here again, clip any leaves that you need as you need them. You can either harvest the oldest leaves on each plant or cut groups of leaves a couple of inches above ground level. Scissors are you friend here. Simply pulling on the leaves of a young cilantro plant, for instance, can uproot the entire plant.
If you see your dill or cilantro start to create a vertical flowering stem, cut that off (harvest the leaves on the stem). When we prevent the plant from flowering, it will be forced to grow more leaves.
Basil, on the other hand, grows differently from the above mentioned annual herbs in that it creates branches, more like a shrub. Here again, one can simply harvest any leaves that you need. We suggest you target two types of leaves for harvest. (1) First, harvest the largest leaves on the plant. By removing the largest leaves, usually those attached to central stems, more light reaches the interior of the plant. (2) Harvest stem tips. This promotes more branching and bushiness and prevents flowering, both of which increase yield.
Never let your basil plant flower. Because they are annuals, once basil starts to create seed, “it’s job is over”, and plants start to decline. That being said some lesser common types of basil are perennial (e.g. African Blue basil, Greek Columnar basil, Tulsi/Holy Basil) and should be harvest like the above mentioned perennial herbs.
Green onions are often sold in bundles. But did you know that green onions (also called scallions or bunching onions) are perennial crops? You can simply clip or cut off the green onions at the base and they will regrow. You might say, “But I like the white part down in the ground.” Certainly you can go ahead and pull them up; you can also pull away some of the soil and cut the shoot off down lower to get more of the “white”, and as long as the roots are intact, the plant will regrow.
Sugar Snap / Snow peas are one of the few fall/winter crops in which we harvest an actual “fruit”. We harvest snow peas for the edible pod, once it reaches the size we like. We harvest snap peas for the edible pod and seeds once the peas have formed and the pod swells. Shelling peas are harvested for the seeds (peas) alone and not the pod; harvest once peas have fully filled the pod. If the pod itself turns dry and/or yellow, you’re likely waiting too long to pick them.
The most important thing to remember when harvesting all peas, is to actually pick them! Being an annual, peas have basically one season to grow, create seed and die. By removing the pods (which prevents the plant from “going to seed“), the pea plants will have no choice but to continue to flower and thus make more pods. By allowing seeds to remain on the plant in unharvested pods, production greatly declines.