Bulletin #4303, A Donor’s Guide to Vegetable Harvest

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Food for ME: Citizen Action for Community Food Recovery

Extension expert harvests produce from a local community garden; photo by Edwin Remsberg.

Originally prepared by Extension Educator Gleason Gray, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Revised and updated by Extension Educator Barbara Murphy, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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Have you ever wondered what to do with extra garden produce? Would you like to contribute to your community? Top-quality vegetables are welcome at most food cupboards, food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. Just be sure to call ahead to find out what kinds of vegetables would be useful and the best times to donate. Delivering fresh produce, and cleaning and bagging it before delivery, will help ensure that it is used.

When to Harvest Vegetables for Best Quality

Asparagus: Harvest when spears are 6 to 10 inches by snapping spears off at ground level.

Beans, green: Pick beans frequently, when the pods are smooth, before the seeds swell and create bumps on the pods.

Beets: Begin harvesting when the beets are 1 inch in diameter. Beet tops at this time make excellent tender greens. The main harvest should occur when beets are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Harvest fall beets before the first moderate freeze.*

Broccoli: Harvest the terminal head while florets are still tight with bright green color. Smaller side shoots will develop for later harvest.

Brussels sprouts: Harvest the sprouts (small heads) when they are firm, beginning from the bottom of the plant. Sprout flavor is improved after a few frosts, so delay harvest for best results.

Cabbage: Harvest when the heads are solid.

Cantaloupe: Cantaloupes are ripe when the stem slips easily from the fruit: ripe fruit should be donated within a day or two of harvest. For longer storage, pick the melon when a tug is needed to separate the fruit from the stem.

Carrots: Carrots can be harvested as soon as they are large enough to use. Fall carrots can be harvested until the ground freezes.

Cucumbers: Harvest cucumbers when they are 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and 5 to 8 inches long. (This will vary with variety.) Seeds should not be overly developed. Pickling cucumbers will be a bit blockier and not as long as slicing cucumbers.

Eggplant: Harvest when fruits are nearly full grown, but color is still bright and shiny.

Lettuce: Cut head lettuce when centers are closed and firm. Baby lettuce and leaf lettuce can be harvested regularly over the season by snipping individual leaves.

Onions, dry: Harvest onions when the tops have fallen over and the necks have shriveled. Let them harden off for a few days in a dry, warm environment. Remove the tops, place onions in shallow boxes or mesh bags, and cure in an open garage or barn for 3 to 4 weeks.

Onions, green (scallions): Harvest green onions when they are 1/4 to 1/2 inch in diameter.

Parsnips: Harvest in late fall after several moderate freezes.* For best flavor, leave parsnips in the ground and harvest the following spring.

Peas, garden: Harvest snap peas (sugar peas) when the pods have swelled moderately. The swelling of the individual peas should not be visible. Harvest snow peas when they reach the desired length but before the peas swell. Harvest shell peas when the peas have grown to desired size.

Peppers, sweet: Harvest when the fruits are firm and full-sized. If red fruits are desired, leave peppers on the plants until red color develops.

Potatoes: Harvest when the tops have yellowed or died. Do not leave in the ground if soil temperatures are high because this will accelerate over-ripening. Cure for about a week in a shaded, well-ventilated place (such as an open barn, shed, or garage). Avoid exposing tubers to light. They will turn green with even small amounts of light and become toxic.

Pumpkins: Harvest pumpkins when the skins are hard and the stems have turned woody. They should be harvested before frost. Remove the fruits from the vines with a portion of each stem attached.

Radishes: Harvest when radishes are 1/2 inch to 1 inch in diameter.

Rhubarb: Harvest leaf stalks when they are 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. DO NOT USE LEAVES: they are poisonous.

Spinach, kale, mustard: Harvest the leaves and leaf stems of greens when they reach suitable size. Either harvest the whole plant or the large outer leaves.

Squash, summer: Harvest when the fruits are young and tender. Remove the fruits from the plants with a portion of each stem attached. You should be able to penetrate the skin easily with your thumbnail. This is usually when zucchini and yellow summer squash are 6 to 8 inches long.

Squash, winter: Harvest winter squash when the skins are hard and the stems have turned woody. They should be harvested before frost. Remove the fruits from the vines with a portion of each stem attached.

Sweet corn: Harvest sweet corn when the kernels are plump and tender. The silks will be dry and brown, and the kernels filled. Check a few ears for maturity: open the top of the ear and press a few kernels with your thumbnail. If milky juices exude, the ear is ready for harvest.

Swiss chard: This green may be harvested continuously: merely break off the outer leaves.

Tomatoes: Harvest tomatoes at peak ripeness when the fruits are shiny and fully colored.

How you can help recover food

To get involved in community food recovery, use the ideas in the Food for ME fact sheets, call the National Hunger Hotline at 800.453.2648 (800.GLEAN.IT) or 866.348.6479 (866.3.HUNGRY), or visit WhyHunger.

Food Recovery Resources

* Light freeze = 28–31°F; moderate freeze = 24–28°F; severe freeze = below 24°F

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 1998, 2011

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