How To Harvest and Store Fresh Vegetables

Our tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other plants are finally producing and we’ll be adding gradually to the selections we offer at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. One of the biggest challenges for us is to keep food fresh for our buyers. And we want to help customers enjoy their fresh produce for as long as possible.

farmers market table
Our first harvest for a Farmers’ Market this year in Alamogordo, NM.

When I’ve researched information, I’ve often found long-term storage tips, which can differ from just keeping food fresh for your family all week. The storage tips below also apply to fresh produce from a stand or grocery store. The harvesting tips help you know when to pluck that yummy fruit and how to make sure it stays fresh.

farmers market in New Mexico
The Alamogordo Downtown Farmer’s Market has plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Seed packets, plants and extension publications have great information on when to harvest vegetables, but days to maturity can vary by region and even seasonal weather, so rely on solid information and your gut if you’ve grown and harvested an edible in the past. When I say not to wash a vegetable, I mean before storage. It’s always a good idea to wash produce you grow or buy before eating, especially if the produce is not grown organically and comes from the grocery store.

Beets: You can harvest beets anytime, depending on whether you want to work with small roots. The optimal size is slightly over 1 inch to about 2 inches in diameter. They taste best picked before summer heat kicks in, or in fall if you plant them in summer. Cut the greens off down to about one inch above the shoulder of the root and brush the root dry (if you wash it before storing, let it dry completely). You can also store fresh beet greens in the refrigerator for about 3 days wrapped in plastic.

Beets for sale at the farmers market
These multicolored beets were a hit this year.

Carrots: Brush aside a little dirt and see if the carrot’s top, or shoulder, is at least 1/2 inch in diameter. If the top is emerging from the soil, you can bet it’s probably time to harvest. After pulling up the roots (so fun!), cut the leaves about 1/2 inch above the shoulder. Either leave the soil or brush off with a clean cotton towel, or wash and dry completely before storing carrots in an unsealed plastic bag.

Cucumbers: Harvest in early morning but not while the plant is wet. Cut the fruit from the stem, leaving up to 1/2 inch of stem. Cucumbers store best at 50° but absent a perfect spot, keep them in the refrigerator crisper drawer, unwashed and wrapped in a few layers of cotton towels. Check them every few days for moisture and dry off. They’ll keep up to 10 days.

cucumber ready to harvest
This yummy cucumber is ready to harvest. You can tell by the flowers that we’ll have lots more soon.

Green beans: Harvest when they seem firm and long and snap from the vine. The best time is morning if it’s dry. If the beans are lumpy and long, they won’t taste as well (but can be frozen and used in soups). Don’t wash beans before storing. Keep in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer for up to one week. Snap peas follow similar methods, but let the peas form inside sugar snap peas and keep up to 3 days in storage.

Lettuce: Harvest before the plant bolts, or explodes in growth, for freshest flavor. Cut leaf lettuces such as Mesclun mix from the outside first, leaving some stem for the plant to grow and produce a second time. Cut head lettuces just above soil level. Wash and dry lettuce immediately. We triple-wash our lettuce, spinning after each rinse. Store lettuce in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Either puff the bag up with air by blowing into it (we don’t use that method for lettuce we sell…) or add a paper towel inside the bag to soak up moisture.

Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.
Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.

Okra: Harvest when 2 to 3 inches long. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to one week.

Summer squash: Harvest with a knife or sharp cutters when 4 to 7 inches long. Cut the stem carefully, leaving no more than an inch on the fruit. Wipe clean; don’t wash before storing. They do best in a dark room at about 59°, but can be kept in the crisper drawer in a plastic bag.

yellow summer squash
Summer squash ready for Saturday’s market.

Tomatoes: Pick while the fruit is at the peak of color; the green has disappeared but the red or yellow is rich. If you wait too long, tomatoes can crack. Wash and dry before storing. Tomatoes are so easy to store right on a kitchen counter. Of course, a cooler room might be better, but they do not need refrigeration. Store tomatoes with the stem scar pointed up to avoid spoiling around the scar.

harvesting-and-storage-tips-farmers-market-vegetables (4 of 7)
The top yellow cherry tomato is ready to harvest. The ones below are a little green and should be ready in a few days!

Here’s a fruit bonus: Harvest watermelon when the vine’s tendrils begin turning brown or when the ground spot on the fruit turns from white to yellow. You should keep them in a cool area (about 60° to 70°) and it’s best to only refrigerate watermelon after cutting the fruit open.