It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

Try This Twist on Thanksgiving Leftovers: Easy Turkey Enchiladas

If you’re like me, you cook way more turkey than you need for the number of family or guests. But turkey is a delicious leftover. I love turkey sandwiches, but in New Mexico, we’re all about growing and eating chile. So I’ve substituted turkey in my favorite chicken enchilada recipe several times. That way, we can eat up all the leftovers without feeling like we’re, well, eating leftovers!

cheese and turkey enchiladas
The key to these enchiladas is layering. And the cheese! Oh, and New Mexico green chile.

This is such an easy recipe, and it’s simple to adapt for areas of the country where you can’t grow or buy fresh green chile. Use canned chile (New Mexico grown if you can find it, of course!) and make it as hot as you like. I’ve even made a small chile-free version of it in a tiny casserole dish for my daughter when she was younger and wouldn’t eat hot, spicy foods.

Most of the ingredients laid out and ready to to make easy enchiladas after all that time in the kitchen over Thanksgiving.
Most of the ingredients laid out and ready to make easy enchiladas. It’s refreshing after all that time in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Typically, chicken enchiladas are layered like a casserole, at least in my experience throughout New Mexico and Arizona. If you prefer to put the tortillas in oil and then roll them with the chicken and onion inside, you can make them that way. I like mine layered, plus I believe these are a tiny bit healthier because I dip the tortillas in low-sodium chicken broth instead of frying them. At the least, I can trade those calories for more cheese!

It takes very little prep time to set up assembly of these easy enchiladas, including a shallow bowl with some chicken broth to soften and moisten tortillas instead of messy, high-calorie frying.
It takes very little prep time to set up assembly of these easy enchiladas, including a shallow bowl with some chicken broth to soften and moisten tortillas instead of messy, high-calorie frying.

And if you live in a climate that’s warm enough to grow your own chile peppers, I highly recommend it. We realized when eating the dish pictured that ours lacked a little flavor this year, but we had a cool summer and live a few zones colder than optimal for chiles as it is. I’m going to try a few tricks next year to keep the chile plants warmer.

fresh roasted New Mexico green chile
Fresh roasted green chiles go with turkey and chicken, especially in this dish.

Check out the recipe for Turkey Green Chile Enchiladas below, and note that I used chicken in the photos only because I had some leftover roasted chicken in my refrigerator. We’ll be eating plenty of turkey next week!

Easy Turkey Green Chile Enchilada Recipe

  • Servings: about 4 to 6
  • Time: 15 mins plus 35 mins cook time
  • Difficulty: easy
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NM turkey enchiladas
Easy turkey enchiladas served with tomatoes, lettuce, refried beans and a dollop of sour cream.

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked, boned turkey, shredded or chopped

1/2 onion, chopped

3 to 4 fresh roasted green chiles or 1 to 2 cans (4 oz each) New Mexico green chile, chopped, to taste

1 can low-sodium chicken broth

1 (10 oz) can cream of chicken soup

1/2 (10 oz) can cream of mushroom soup

1 dozen corn tortillas

2 to 3 cups shredded cheddar or jack and Colby (Mexican blend) cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop or shred cooked turkey into bite-sized pieces. Chop onion. Peel, rinse and seed green chiles before chopping to desired size.

Mix chopped onion and turkey together; add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Mix canned soups and 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Add chopped green chile to soup mixture and stir. Pour remaining chicken broth into a shallow bowl.

Dip a corn tortilla into chicken broth and place it into the bottom of a casserole dish, preferably a 9 x 12 rectangular pan. Repeat with another tortilla and a third as necessary, tearing the third tortilla in half as needed after dipping to adequately cover the bottom of the pan.

Sprinkle chicken/onion mixture evenly over tortillas, followed by about one-third of soup/green chile mixture. Sprinkle evenly with some cheese.

Repeat the layering process two more times, being sure to reserve a small portion of soup mixture and cheese for the top layer.

Dip and place the final three tortillas on the top layer. Add remaining soup and green chile mixture and top with cheese as desired. Bake uncovered in center of oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until mixture appears bubbly toward the center of pan. Cut into squares and serve with desired toppings, such as salsa, lettuce and tomato, sour cream or guacamole.

As the enchiladas cook, the cheese browns and crisps. You can cover it with a loose layer of foil if it gets too brown or crispy.
As the enchiladas cook, the cheese browns and crisps. You can cover it with a loose layer of foil if it gets too brown or crispy.

Roast Green Chiles on Your Grill

Several events signal fall in New Mexico: the State Fair, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and the smell of roasting green chile in the air. I can’t do justice to describing the scent except to say that it’s earthy, unique and mouth watering.

New Mexico green chile
Green chile from our garden freshly picked and roasted right on the grill.

If you’re from New Mexico or have traveled here in the fall, you’ve seen vendors roasting green chile in special baskets over sparkling fires. You can purchase chile by the pound or bushel, take it home and freeze enough for the year. Aside from cool evenings and changing leaf colors, there’s no better reason to love New Mexico autumns!

Alternatively, of course, you can grow your own green chile. I wrote about New Mexico chile in March if you’d like to know more about growing the plant. Today, I roasted about eight chiles, all picked from a single hardy plant in our vegetable garden.

I say hardy not because chile is difficult to grow. On the contrary, this particular plant survived a gopher attack near its roots that caused water to just drain down a hole until we plugged it and used drip irrigation only. The gophers invited ants to take up residence a few inches away. And when the weather was unseasonably damp in July, black appeared on the stems and I thought we would lose the plant to a fungal disease.

This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.
This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.

Instead, we’ve been fortunate enough to harvest at least 15 peppers off one plant, and we’ve roasted our harvest on the grill a few times.

The reason green chiles are roasted is to blister the skin of the pepper so that you can peel it easily when ready to cook the chile. If you purchase green chile instead of growing it, you’ll get the best flavor and easiest peeling by having the seller roast the green chile for you; they use high heat and toss the chiles for more even blistering. But it’s also simple to roast green chiles from your garden on the grill, especially if you’ve already got the grill on to cook (maybe a patty for a green chile cheeseburger!)

chiles roasting on grill
I blistered these green chiles on our gas grill, which might not roast as evenly, but does the job well enough for freezing.

Simply wash the green chiles and pat them dry. Then place them on the grill about five to six inches above the coals. Turn or roll the chiles to coat them evenly. Patience helps, so that you roast them fairly slowly. You should hear some popping sounds and smell the chile cooking slightly. Using long-handled tongs, carefully remove each chile to a plate, and quickly place them in a plastic bag or other covered container to steam the peel slightly. Whole green chiles are much easier to peel after freezing. I just remove as much air as I can and place my bag in the freezer while the chiles are still slightly warm.

green chile ready to freeze
Seal the chiles while still fairly hot to steam the peels. Then freeze for up to a year or 18 months.

Check out more chile roasting methods from the Hatch Chile Store.

New Mexico Chile

If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum). You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper.

Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially to make delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!

red chile ristras
New Mexico red chile, strung in decorative ristras. Image from the National Park Service.

According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?

If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.

green chile from community garden
Green chile harvested from neighborhood community garden, along with other great vegetables.

Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fills with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the next few months.

If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Here’s a list of companies that support the NM Chile Association.