For gardeners and farmers, there’s no bigger source of joy and pride than seeing your crops come to fruition. However, what many fail to acknowledge is that, unfortunately, the caretaking process doesn’t end along with your plants’ growth cycle. Knowing how to properly harvest and store your fruits and vegetables is crucial when it comes to getting the freshest, most delicious-tasting ingredients for your seasonal dishes.
Here’s how to properly harvest and store your fruits and vegetables:
- Find the right time to harvest.
- Use the right tools.
- Use a gentle harvesting technique.
- Cure your vegetables.
- Choose the best storage space for your produce.
- Find adequate space for storage.
- Be mindful of shelf life.
- Use alternative storing techniques for high yields.
In the following sections, I’ll take you through some tips and tricks you can incorporate into your gardening routine to properly harvest and store your fruits and vegetables. Keep reading to learn more about which approach will work best with your specific produce variety.
1. Find the Right Time To Harvest
If you’re a pepper farmer, you may have noticed the way your peppers change colors as they grow. Tomato farmers also will know the all too familiar look of a green tomato that just won’t ripen to red. Or, if you tend to go the opposite way–accidentally growing your jalapenos until they’re bright red or waiting until your broccoli accidentally flowers before harvest–you’ll know that timing is everything when it comes to a successful harvest.
There are few hard and fast rules for all vegetables when it comes to harvesting, and that’s because all varieties are unique. If I could say harvest all your fruits when they become three inches long, you’d have some rotten broccoli and some under-ripe melons. Usually, your seed packets will give you information on the best time to harvest. It’s essential to follow these guidelines. Otherwise, you risk your crop tasting kind of off.
However, there are some good rules of thumb you can follow when harvesting. These won’t be exact for all fruits and vegetables, but they’re a start. Some harvesting tips and tricks include:
- Cut instead of pick
- Wait until they’re ripe
- Pick all the ripe fruit off of the plant
- Try to harvest veggies when dry
- Get your veggies out of the sun once harvested (so they don’t continue ripening)
- Don’t wash right away (wait until right before consumption)
Again, this is by no means exhaustive but should be a good list of “do’s” and “don’ts” in general.
2. Use The Right Tools
The right tools make all the difference when you harvest your fruits and vegetables.
If you’re an amateur gardener, you may only have a few tools in your shed. Luckily, many of the instruments you’re already using are going to be perfect for harvesting. You’ll typically need:
- Gardening gloves
- Harvesting basket
- Scissors/snippers, knife, or cutters
In lieu of a harvesting basket, a good old-fashioned pasta colander will do the trick if you don’t have any more space in your gardening budget. A kitchen apron works well and can protect you from damaging your clothing if you puncture a vegetable or get down in the dirt.
3. Use a Gentle Harvesting Technique
It seems like a no-brainer, but this is one of the most important elements to consider when you harvest your fruits and vegetables. It can be easy to get lazy and stand up on top of your ladder just throwing apples down or tossing tomatoes into a bag rather than placing them in it gently. Especially if you have a large crop to harvest, shortcuts are attractive. However, resist the urge!
Any damage done during the harvest process may make your fruits and vegetables rot quicker. Bruising, scraping, cutting, slicing–any accidental damage to your products will likely result in the shelf life being reduced by as much as a quarter. You worked so hard to get your crop ripened and ready to eat–don’t waste all that hard work by moving too quickly during the harvest!
Additionally, if you accidentally pop a fruit or vegetable open while you harvest, you’re likely going to have to throw it out. Most fruits and vegetables go through an enzymic browning process when they get exposed to oxygen, which causes them to rot in mere minutes or hours.
Harvesting can be tedious, but it is a task worth slowing down. Luckily, humans have been growing and harvesting plants for thousands of years, so there are dozens of harvesting hacks beyond the helpful products listed above. For example, if you’re growing green beans, you can invest in a stool to save your back from unnecessary aches.
A gentle harvest can be challenging on your body, but there’s a lot you can do to prepare for harvesting. You might even consider moving your harvest schedule around, keeping your body safe by doing arm-heavy tasks and back-heavy tasks on different days. Additionally, you can do some gardening-specific workouts to help your body adjust. This yoga video is explicitly made for gardeners:
So, when I say harvest gently, I don’t just mean pick your fruits and vegetables gently. Take care of your body and be gentle with yourself, too!
4. Cure Your Vegetables
Some vegetables require to be taken through a curing process before you can take them inside. Moisture on their skin makes them unsuited for cool or dry storage in your household, so you should leave them out in the sun, where they ripened to help them dry off. It can allow your vegetables to dry and harden before you take them in, which means their shelf-life will reach its full potential rather than succumbing to premature rot.
Vegetables that require curing are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Onions and shallots
- Grain corn
Typically, you’ll just leave them outside a little longer once you’ve harvested them out of the ground. Later on in this article, I’ll detail what this looks like for each of the above vegetables.
5. Choose the Best Storage Space for Your Produce
You need to know how to store your fruits and vegetables before figuring out if you have enough space in your kitchen. All fruits and vegetables are different. Some prefer fridge space while others prefer countertops, some vegetables like to be kept in a dark spot, and most of your greens will do best when wrapped up in paper towels to soak up some of their moisture.
I’ll detail all of this and more below when I start diving into specific fruits and vegetables, but here are some general guidelines for storing the most common produce:
|Basil (in a cup of water like flowers)||Carrots||Garlic|
|Asparagus (in a cup of water like flowers)||Cherries||Pineapple|
|Tomatoes (until ripe, then move to fridge)||Lettuce||Mangoes|
|Avocado (until ripe, then move to fridge)||Grapes||Watermelon|
|Apples (until ripe, then move to fridge)||Berries||Onion|
Fruits in the fridge like to be 40°F (4.4°C) or below. One common misconception is that all fruits and vegetables will last longer if they are in the fridge. This isn’t the case. Potatoes may taste different if stored under forty degrees, and bananas tend to brown faster this way.
Additionally, some fruits and vegetables should never be stored together. Some fruits release a gas called ethylene which can speed up the ripening process. While this may be beneficial if you want to make a bowl of guac and your avocados are still under-ripe, storing ethylene-producing fruits with ethylene-sensitive produce leads to a quickly rotting crop.
You shouldn’t store fruits and vegetables that are ethylene producers with other, sensitive fruits and vegetables. Some familiar ethylene producers are:
It’s best practice to keep these fruits in their own space, so they don’t disturb the ripening process of other produce. Additionally, these fruits should not be stored in bags or ventless containers, as the gas will become trapped in the container and make the produce rot quicker. Some farmers use ethylene gas to help their fruits and vegetables ripen quicker. Check out this video of what manufactured ethylene looks like:
Knowing how to store your fruits and vegetables is an essential step in the harvesting process, so don’t wait until the last minute to figure this part out. Otherwise, you may have a bag of your hard-earned crop picked and ready to store with nowhere to put it!
6. Find Adequate Space for Storage
Before harvesting your vegetables, you’ll need to make sure you have enough room to store them in. Some vegetables and fruits like to be on the counter while others need to be in your fridge, and more specifically, in your crisper.
Getting a set of vegetable produce containers to make room in your fridge is an excellent option if you don’t have a lot of fridge space. If you are homesteading and plan on bringing in big crops at a time, you might want to get an additional fridge just for your harvest.
Countertop fruits and vegetables will still need somewhere to go. If you have a lot of crops that like to be out at room temperature, you may want to invest in some additional storage so you can easily store your room-temp vegetables and fruits. Potatoes like dark spaces, so you might look into a specific breadbox for them.
Additionally, there are quite a few unique storage methods you might consider depending on how much land you have to spare, the resources you have available, and how much crop you plan on harvesting. For example, the buried garbage can method is sometimes used for potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, or cabbage.
7. Be Mindful of Shelf Life
The two above steps are crucial, as they can make or break your crop. Putting a bag of berries in the wrong place means you might have to deal with a rotting mess within a few days when you could’ve been happily snacking on them for a week.
When it comes to home farming and gardening, many work extremely hard to get their crop ready. Don’t let it spoil because you put it in the wrong place! Making sure your fridge is at the right temperature or that your “cool and dry” storage place isn’t unnecessarily moist (which can be challenging in humid climates) will make all the difference.
With that being said, it’s important to be observant of your fruits and vegetables. The shelf life of vegetables and fruits might be a lot shorter than you’d think, and this is especially true if you’ve put them in the wrong conditions. Be mindful of the shelf-life for your produce and keep an eye out for signs of wilting, rotting, or molding.
If you do find mold, make sure to thoroughly clean your storage spot so no active spores can spread.
8. Use Alternative Storing Techniques for High Yields
Looking at the shelf-life of your fruits and vegetables might scare you, especially if you had planned a farm-to-table dining approach rather than selling or sharing your bounty. Most fruits and vegetables will go bad within a week or two of picking, and harvesting too much at once might result in a bit of waste. Of course, you could compost your rotted fruits and veggies, but this is an unideal solution compared to consumption.
You can try some alternative storing methods if you end up with too much produce. Big yields can be frozen, canned, pickled, or dehydrated if you’ve had a big year.
Freezing vegetables is one of the easiest ways to store excess yield.
You’ll just need some freezer-safe containers and ample room to store your crop. If you plan on freezing a lot, you could think about getting an extra freezer just for your vegetables. Usually, you’ll grab them as usual, clean them, and then blanch them. Blanching is the process of putting your veggies in boiling water to stop the enzymes that produce the loss of color and texture.
Some vegetables require a good water balancing, while others may prefer a steam blanch. You’ll want to cool them after balancing and then place them in their storage containers, whether trays, pans, or freezer bags.
You can’t freeze all vegetables and fruits. Some fruits and veggies will become limp, bitter, or lose their texture when put in the freezer. You shouldn’t freeze:
- Citrus fruits
- Green peppers
Some of these fruits and vegetables could be frozen with a little prep. For example, potatoes can be diced up and frozen, then used for hash browns. Watermelon can be blended and frozen in the form of popsicles, too. They’ll still likely lose some taste or texture, but it may be worth it if you’re worried about food waste.
If freezing isn’t an option, you can also get creative with your crop. Consider canning, dehydrating, or pickling if you have any excess produce.
Harvesting and Storage Techniques for Common Garden Fruits and Vegetables
As mentioned numerous times above, all fruits and vegetables have different storage temperatures and shelf lives. Additionally, they all like a different area in your kitchen. Your seed packets should give you some guidance on this, or you can grab a farmer’s almanac to see how your fruits and veggies will do best. Otherwise, keep on reading, as I’m about to go through harvesting and storage techniques for fifteen different backyard crops.
As a good rule of thumb, you’ll want to store your fruits and vegetables somewhere cool or cold, and the area should either be dry or moist. Very few fruits and vegetables will be stored somewhere hot and moist or hot and dry. Below are some common preferences:
|Cool and Dry||Cold and Dry||Cold and Moist|
There are also some additional tips and tricks you can consider when storing your fruits and veggies. Below, I’ll take you through everything you need to know about the following produce. I will discuss the best harvest approaches, tips for storage, some specific recommendations, and the typical shelf life. Feel free to skip to the crop you’re looking for:
- Broccoli and Cauliflower
- Green beans and pole beans
You’ll harvest apples when they look to be the right color for picking. Apples that are very green or yellow might still need to do some ripening.
To store, you can refrain from harvesting until fully ripened or let them fully grow on the counter. It’s recommended that you don’t store your apples near potatoes because it can affect the taste of your apples. Once the apples have reached full ripeness, you’ll want to put them in the fridge.
If you’d like to freeze your apples, you can do so by cutting them or slicing them before putting them in freezer bags. Additionally, you might consider making apple jam or apple butter if you have a high-yielding crop.
Typically, you can expect your apples to last 2-3 weeks after they fall off of (or are picked from) the tree.
|Firm and the right color||Ripen on the counter or in the tree, then store in fridge when fully ripened|
Freezing: Slice or cut apples before freezing
Asparagus is a pretty slow-growing crop (it can take two years after planting for them to come up), so when it’s time to gather them, you’ll know. You’ll harvest asparagus when it’s about 9-inches above ground for three weeks. Each year you plant and harvest asparagus, you can allow the growing season to extend.
To store, you can leave asparagus on your counter in a cup of water with the stems cut off. You could also do this in the fridge, but it may cause them to go limp a little quicker or affect the taste. You can also freeze asparagus by cutting it up and putting it in a freezer bag. Additionally, if you have a lot of asparagus, you might consider canning.
Typically, you can expect your asparagus to last 3-5 days in the refrigerator.
|9 inches above ground||Cut the stems and place in a jar filled with water, then store in the fridge covered with a plastic bag|
Freezing: Blanch for 2-4 minutes before freezing in storage bags.
|3-5 days in refrigerator|
You’ll harvest berries when they look ripe enough to eat, with full color and size. Pick berries early in the morning if you can, before the fruit gets hot. You should always keep the leaves on the produce because they keep the fruit from rotting. Additionally, make sure to throw out any berries that have become over-ripe or spoiled on the vine.
I’d recommend getting something to scare off garden pests such as birds and squirrels for berries. They’re pretty hot real estate for these kinds of animals, and their harvesting window is already limited. Additionally, if you want a tool to help you out, I’d recommend a berry picker.
To store, you’ll want to put your berries right into the fridge. Berries like cool, moist storage, so the crisper is your best bet. Don’t wash until you are ready to eat; otherwise, you may risk bruising or damage that can cause a shorter shelf life.
You can freeze your berries if you have too many to eat before they go bad. These don’t need to be blanched, just de-stemmed and picked through before putting in a freezer bag. You can use a little cool water to wash them off, just make sure to dry completely before putting them in the freezer.
Typically, you can expect your berries to last only 2-3 days, as their full sweetness and flavor comes from being eaten right after picking.
|When they look ready to eat, fully ripened with full color coming through||Refrigerator crisper, cool and moist |
Freezing: Wash with cool water before freezing
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli and cauliflower are pretty similar when it comes to their harvesting and storage preferences. You’ll harvest broccoli before it’s flowered when the heads are somewhere between 6-12 inches in diameter, and the stems are about eight inches long. For cauliflower, you’ll be looking for those compact florets.
To store, you can place them in the fridge for a little more than a week. For cauliflower, cutting the roots and stem might help it last longer. You can also freeze broccoli and cauliflower after blanching in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. Before freezing cauliflower, break it down into smaller sizes.
|When heads compact but not flowered (6-12 inches in diameter, stems 8-10 inches long)||In fridge, cold and moist |
Freezing: Blanch in water for 3 minutes or steam for five minutes before cooling before freezing
You’ll harvest carrots somewhere between 2-3 months after planting when you start to see the tops of the carrots pop out. This video gives a good visual of what this will look like:
Remove tops before placing them in a bag and putting them in your fridge. Carrots last a while in the fridge, especially when whole. You can freeze them if you plan on using them for cooking, but the texture will be a little different, so you won’t be able to eat them carrot-and-ranch style after a freeze.
|2-3 months after planting||Cool and moist in fridge for 3-4 days|
Freezing: Freeze carrots after blanching for 5 minutes
Cucumbers are ready to harvest when they’ve reached your desired size and have changed from their light, yellowish-green color to a dark green. Leaving a little bit of stem will help them retain their freshness for longer, so consider this as you cut or pick.
Keep away from vegetables or fruits that release ethylene gas. To store, you can wrap them in a paper towel and place them in the fridge or keep them on the counter.
Typically, you can expect your cucumbers to last a few days on the counter and a few days in the fridge. You should eat them as soon as possible to ensure optimal crispness.
|7-9 inches long and dark green||Keep on counter for a few days, likes cool and moist in fridge for 3-4 days|
Freezing: Not Recommended
You can begin harvesting your garlic when you notice the tops have yellowed and are beginning to fall over. This is a good indicator the garlic underground has ripened and is ready to be dug out. You’ll need to cure your garlic for 2-3 weeks in a warm, dry location before bringing it inside. Some swear by hanging their garlic up, which looks like this:
To store, you can put it in your pantry or another cool, dark place. You can freeze garlic, but it might take away some taste. Regardless, garlic will be good in the freezer, no matter how you prepare it. You can put the full bulbs in, remove the cloves, or mince before freezing.
|Tops yellow and begin to fall||Cure for 2-3 weeks, then store in a cool dry location like a pantry. |
Freezing: Clean and dry before putting in freezer
|3-4 months or longer if stored properly|
Green Beans and Pole Beans
Harvest pole beans and green beans when they seem to be the right length and firm to the touch. Mushy pole beans have been harvested too early, and hard pole beans are harvested too late. You’ll store your beans in the fridge for 5-7 days, or you can blanch and then freeze for a little bit longer.
One thing I’ll recommend for green beans (not pole beans) is a stool for you to sit on when you harvest if you have a larger crop. Standing on your knees and hunched over can be extremely taxing on your back if you do it for too long.
Additionally, for pole beans, I’d recommend one of the apron baskets I talked about above or an apron in general, so you don’t have to constantly be moving up the ladder and down during your harvest.
|Firm, right length in size||Fridge |
Freezing: Blanch for 3-minutes and let cool before freezing
You’ll know kale is ready to be picked when the leaves are full-sized. Kale is one of those extremely resilient veggies that can withstand some chill and frost if need be, which is why it’s usually harvested in later seasons. Trench storage is recommended for your kale, but you can also put it in the fridge wrapped in a paper towel to get rid of excess moisture.
|Leaves are full size||Trench storage is recommended, otherwise it can be put in the fridge with a paper towel. |
Freezing: Blanch for two minutes before freezing
When the onion leaves have started to yellow and fall over, you can start to dig the produce out. Typically, you’ll have to let your onions cure for 2-3 weeks in a hot, dry location before you take them inside. Once inside, these go best in a cool, dry location like a pantry.
If you cut your onions open and want to store them, you should use a glass container. Sometimes plastic can absorb the smell of onion too.
Onions aren’t usually recommended for freezing whole, but you can put diced or sliced onions in an airtight bag in the freezer.
|Leaves have yellowed||Cure for 2-3 weeks, then store in a cool dry location like a pantry.|
Freezing: Not Recommended
There are tons of different pepper varieties, but you’ll usually know it’s time to pull them up when they’ve reached their full size and coloring. This video by The Pepper Geek shows you when to pick jalapenos, bell peppers, bananas, and ghost peppers:
After you harvest your peppers, you’ll store them in the fridge. Freezing can be a little more complicated because the process will depend on the specific type. Usually, you’ll remove the stem and seeds. However, for sweet and pimento peppers, you’ll want to remove the skin first. Peppers should last 1-2 weeks.
|Size has been reached and color have come through||Store in fridge|
Freezing: For hot peppers, wash and remove stems and seeds before freezing. For sweet or pimento peppers, roast until skin can be rubbed off. Then peel, remove stems and seeds, and freeze.
It can be hard to tell when potatoes are ready to dig out because they’re underground. It’s a pretty good bet that your potatoes are ready to be harvested when the vines on the ground have died and the ground is looking dry. Once harvested, you’ll cure your potatoes for two weeks before storing in a dark, dry location like a pantry.
I’d suggest getting creative with the way you plant your potatoes for an easier harvest. This video shows you how to grow your potatoes in a laundry basket:
Potatoes will last 1-2 weeks, but you should toss them once they start to sprout.
|Vines have died and ground is no longer moist||Cure in a dark location for 2 weeks. Store in dark, dry, cool locations like pantry or cabinet.|
Freezing: Not recommended, but you can dice up and freeze if you plan on using them for hash browns.
Cooked potatoes are good for 2-3 days in the fridge
Pumpkins are pretty easy to harvest and store because they like to stay outside on their vine for as long as possible. Once your pumpkins have reached the right size and color, you can clip them from their vine, but they like to stay outside where they were planted for as long as possible. If you’re using the pumpkin for cooking, you should prepare it before putting it away. Putting a whole pumpkin in the cold temperature of a fridge can result in quicker rotting.
|Reached desired size||Warm, dry location (outside) or on counter, not in fridge|
Freezing: Cook before freezing
There are many varieties of squash, but you can count on picking them from your garden when they have reached the desired length and color.
You’ll store your squash in the fridge, somewhere that’s cool and dry, away from moisture. The crisper is not a good location for your squash. Harder, winter squash can be okay to store on the counter for a long time or even outside.
|Plants have reached desired length and color||Cool and dry, in fridge |
Freezing: For summer squash, blanch for 3 minutes and cool before freezing. For winter squash, not recommended.
|2-3 months for winter and summer squash|
4-5 days for zucchini
Tomatoes are ready to pick when they have reached the desired size and color. You don’t want to wait too long to harvest tomatoes, or they become over-ripened on the vine and inedible. A firm, plump texture is what you’re looking for from your crop. Try to cut them still on the vine for longer storage.
To store, you’ll first let your tomatoes ripen on the counter, or preferably still on the vine. Once they are fully ripe, you can put them in a cool and moist part of your fridge. They’ll keep for 1-2 weeks.
|Reached average size and color||Allow to ripen on counter, then store in the fridge|
Freezing: For use in recipes, you can wash, blanch for 30 seconds, peel, and cut tomatoes. After cooling, freeze.
You can always count on acquiring adequate storage space and the right tools for a headache-free harvest. All fruits and vegetables require different harvest techniques and will thrive in different storage conditions. It’s best practice to check the details on your particular crop, rather than following the same rules for all of them. Additionally, there are lots of tricks and trips you can use on particular fruits and veggies.
Storage needs are also unique to each variety. If you have a high-yielding crop, you can learn to freeze, can or pickle your produce to keep them stored for longer.