After putting in the time and energy to grow your vegetables you want to make sure that you pick them at the right time.

When harvest time comes, it comes big-time. For the veggie gardener, the challenge now may be to keep ahead of a tsunami of vegetables. It's best to take a basket out to the garden every day to see what has ripened. Picking vegetables as soon as they are ripe often encourages the plant to produce more.

Keep in mind that it's crucial to keep track of what specific varieties you planted so you know what to expect. Whether you plant your vegetable plants by seed or seedlings it's a good idea to keep the seed packet or the plant plant tags. There are many cultivars of vegetables today, bred for different characteristics such as size. You can plant a watermelon variety that ripens at eight inches across or one that's not ready until the fruit weighs 30 pounds. And it would be a shame to pick yardlong beans (which actually are best when they are 15 to 18 inches long) at the 5 to 6 inches that would be normal for pole beans.

When you harvest, also look out for signs of trouble, such as yellowing leaves or rotting fruit, and remove the problem parts. Even if it's something you can do little about, such as blossom end rot or cracking from too much rain on tomatoes, there's no point in letting the plant put energy into fruit you won't be able to eat.

Okay, so here's a list of common vegetables with general tips for harvesting and storing...



Beans

Snap Beans / Green Beans - Bush and Pole

Before harvesting green beans, the pods should be firm and crisp and generally about as thick as a standard pencil. The bean should snap when you break them in half. The seeds on the inside should be very small and not filling out the pods. When picking be careful to just to pick the bean off the plant and not the entire stem that can and will produce more beans. You can pinch the beans off with your fingers or use a clean pair of pruners or scissors to do the job. Pick beans regularly as this helps to keep the plants producing.

Storage: Snap beans will keep for 1 to 2 weeks when stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator or frozen for long term storage

Shell Beans - Romano, Lima, Southern Peas, Soybeans, etc.

The pods on these beans should be plump and firm but tender when you pick them. Pick these beans when the pods change color but before the beans inside are dried out. Pick beasn from the plants every day or two to keep the plants producing.

Storage: Snap beans will keep for 1 to 2 weeks when stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator or frozen for long term storage

Dried Beans - Great Northern, Navy, Pinto, etc.

When the pods of these beans have dried on the plant, turned brown, and the seeds have hardened and rattle inside the pods, it's time for picking. If the weather has been rainy and wet and pods will not dry you can pick and hang them indoors to allow them to dry. When dry, the pods should split open a little making the beans easy to remove from the pods.

Storage: Place the dried beans in an airtight jar with a desiccant to absorb moisture, They can then be stored in cool, dry spot for up to a year



Carrots
Carrots can be left in the ground longer, unless the weather gets extremely hot but, usually, two to three months after planting time carrots are ready to harvest. You can always pull a couple to check their size. I always water the ground before harvesting to make them easier to pull. You can also loosen the soil a bit with a garden fork and then pull the carrots gently out of the ground. After pulling, brush soil off the plants and twist off the tops.

Storage: When you store carrots in the fridge do so in a covered container filled with water. Doing this should keep them fresh a lot longer.You can layer them in moist sand or sawdust and store them in a root cellar for up to 4 months. You can also can, freeze, or dry carrots.


Corn
Look for dark brown, soft silks (not brittle silks), and pick the ears when the kernels are plump and tender and when milky liquid comes out when you prick them with your fingernail. If the liquid is clear and watery, the corn isn't ripe yet; if there is no liquid, the kernels are too ripe and past prime.

Corn tastes best when picked in the later afternoon because of its higher sugar content. Harvest by twisting the ear off the plant in a downward direction.

Storage: Because the sugar in the corn quickly converts to starch, eat or preserve the corn immediately after harvesting. The sugar-enhanced or super-sweet varieties hold their sweetness and may be kept in the refrigerator a few days longer than standard cultivars. Freeze or can any surplus corn you may have.



Cucumbers
There are two basic types of cucumbers: pickling, and slicing. When growing cucumbers, keep in mind that they grow very fast. Don't leave them on the plants too long or they can quickly become oversized.

Slicing Cucumbers

You want to pick slicing cucumbers from the plant when they are of good size and ready to use. Do not allow the cucumbers to turn yellow or orange. If you leave too many mature cucumbers on the plants they will stop producing. A general rule of thumb with slicing cucumbers is to keep them picked so that a plant has only two to three cucumber fruits growing on it at any given time. When picking a cucumber from the plant, make sure to hold the stem firmly with one hand and pull with the other.

Storage: After picking, slicing cucumbers can be stored in the refrigerator wrapping in plastic wrap or in a sealed bag.

Pickling Cucumbers

The best time to pick pickling cucumbers is during the morning hours, when the fruits are firmest. It's best to pick the fruits when they are young and about 4 to 5 inches in length. The seeds on the inside should be soft.

Storage: After picking, immediately store the pickling cucumbers in the refrigerator. Don't wash the fruits until you are ready to use them.



Eggplant
Pick standard eggplants when the skin is glossy and tight, the fruits are about 5 inches long and, when you cut them open, the seeds are very small. If the skin has become dull you've waited too long to pick them and the fruit will have lost it's flavor. Use a sharp pair of pruners or other cutting tool to remove fruit from the plant. Make your cut leaving about 1 inch of the stem attached.

Storage: After picking, store in the refrigerator until ready to use.



Melons
Regardless of the variety, keep in mind that melons need to ripen on the vine.

Muskmelon / Cantaloupe

If you want good flavor, muskmelon must be pick when they are ripe. Most of the natural sugars that make them sweet are produced in the last few days prior to harvest. Most store-bought melons are not as sweet as the ones you grow and harvest at the right time in your own garden. So, when is a muskmelon ripe? Keep in mind that if you have to work too hard to get a muskmelon off the vine that it is most likely not yet ripe. There are several indicators as to when a muskmelon is ripe but the surest sign is when a crack forms on the stem right where the stem attaches to the melon. When this crack appears it will usually be just a few days and the melon will slip off the vine with very little pressure. Too, muskmelons are ripe when the rind is tan rather than green between the surface netting.


Watermelons

There are several indicators that will let you know when a watermelon is ripe. When ripe, the curled tendril at the stem end dries to brown and underside has turned to a yellow or cream color. Also, you can give the watermelon a good thump and, if ripe, there will be a deep resonant sound. Most watermelons will ripen a little bit more for 2 or 3 days after they're picked.

Storage: After picking, you can store watermelons at room temperature for a few days until they are totally ripe. Then they can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several weeks until you are ready to eat them. To store them longer, watermelon can cut into pieces and frozen.

Honeydews

Don't pick honeydew melons too early. It's best to keep a record of your varieties "days to maturity" (usually found on the seed package) and leave the fruits on the vine for at least this length of time. There are a few signals that will let you know when a honeydew melon is ripe. Near harvest time the skin will lose it's soft fuzzy texture, become much smoother, and will have a waxy shine to it. The skin should have a creamy yellowish color near harvest time. The melon should be very fragrant. When the melon has matured it will be yellow in color with random bright yellow areas.

Storage: After picking, honeydew melons will improve for a few days if kept at room temperature. Then they can be stored in the refrigerator until you use them.



Okra
Harvesting okra can be tricky, however, because you have to get to them before the pods become tough. It takes only about four days from the time of flowering to the time to pick okra. You will need to harvest okra every other day until there are no more in order to keep them producing.

Picking okra is simple. Picking okra should be done when they are two to three inches long. You just need to test the larger pods by cutting them open with a sharp knife. If they are too difficult to cut, then you missed the opportunity to harvest okra that day. Remove these pods as they are too old. They will rob the plant of the nutrients it needs to produce younger pods. If the pods are still tender, use a sharp knife to cut the stem cleanly right below the okra pod.

Storage: Once you are done picking okra, you will want to store them in plastic bags in your refrigerator. They will last about a week or so. You can freeze them if you have too much to save in the refrigerator.



Peppers
In general, peppers can be picked when they reach a usable size. Most peppers change color when ripe. Small, thin-walled peppers, like cayennes, tend to change color quickly. Bell peppers can show strips of yellow, red, or orange and will continue to ripen when harvested and stored at room temperature. Keep in mind that picking peppers regularly will make the plants more productive and that vitamin C content and flavor improves as the fruit ripens more.

You can cut peppers from the plant using a sharp pair of pruners or a knife. When cutting bell peppers leave at least a 1/2 inch of the stem attached. Other peppers, such as cayennes, can be pulled or twisted off the stem, and will usually come off with enough stem attached, but it's still best to cut the fruits off the plant to avoid breakage. Pepper fruits will continue to ripen after picking if kept in a warm room. Refrigeration halts the ripening process.

Storage: After picking, thick-walled peppers, such as bell peppers, can be stored fresh in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Or, you can cut them into strips, blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, and then freeze them. You can also pickle peppers. Small, thin-walled peppers start drying the moment you pick them. To dry hot peppers like cayennes, lay them in a single layer in a very warm place until they are beyond leathery but not quite crisp. Then store them in airtight jars.



Squash & Pumpkins

Summer Squash and Zucchini

The best time to pick summer squash, such as 'Yellow Crookneck', is when the fruits are about 6 to 8 inches long and about 2 inches in diameter, when fruits are still immature and tender. Harvest patty pan, or scallop types when they are 3 or 4 inches in diameter. It's best to harvest fruits regularly to keep the plants producing. Remove fruits from plants using a a sharp pair of pruners or a knife leaving at least 1 inch of the stem attached.

Storage: After picking, store fruits in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.



Pumpkins and Winter Squash

When the rind is hard enough to resist puncturing with your fingernail it's time to harvest pumpkins or winter squash. You can also wait until the plants have died back. When removing pumpkins from the vine leave 2 to 4 inches of the stem on the fruit. Avoid carrying the pumpkin around by its stem. If the stem is broken from the fruit decay will set in.

Storage: Cure winter squash and pumpkins for 10 to 12 days in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place that is about 75 to 80 degrees F. Then, for prolonged storage, move the pumpkins to a cool, dark, dry, and well-ventilated storage space where temperatures range between 50 to 55 degrees F. It's best to keep winter squash spread out and not stacked more than two rows deep to provide good air circulation and avoid rotting.



Tomatoes
When tomatoes change color, to red or yellow depending on variety, they are ripe. When firm and fully colored tomatoes will have their best flavor. If you like fried green tomatoes, pick them while they're still green and then slice and fry 'em up.

Storage: After picking, tomato fruits should be stored at room temperature. Don't store tomatoes in the refrigerator as this will cause them to lose flavor and firm texture.