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Robert R. Westerfield, Extension Horticulturist

If vegetables are not harvested at the proper stage of maturity, physiological processes occur that permanently change their taste, appearance and quality. The texture, fiber and consistency of all vegetables are greatly affected by the stage of maturity at harvest, by post-harvest handling and by the time interval between harvesting and serving.

Some vegetables are more highly-perishable than others. Sweet corn and English peas are difficult to maintain in an acceptable fresh state for even a very short time, while other vegetables have a much longer shelf life.


Harvesting most vegetables when they are young and storing them properly will help extend their shelf life. In some cases, newer hybrid varieties have helped add shelf life to certain vegetables. Lowering the internal temperature also helps to slow both the respiration process and quality decline. This is one reason for harvesting vegetables early in the day before the heat from the sun has warmed them. After the harvest, most vegetables should be kept cool and out of direct sunlight until they are either processed or consumed.

While harvesting too soon may result in only a reduction in yield, harvesting too late can result in poor quality due to development of objectionable fiber and the conversion of sugars into starches. A late harvest can also cause plants to terminate, or stop producing as they complete their reproduction process. Fully-mature vegetables left on the plant also attract more disease and insect problems. The following table gives suggestions for determining the proper stage of maturity for harvesting many vegetables.

Vegetable Part Eaten Too Early Optimum Maturity Too Late
Artichoke, Globe Immature bloom Small flower buds When buds are 2" to 4" in diameter Large buds with loose scales or bracts
Asparagus Stem Insufficient length 6" to 8" long; no fiber Excess woody fiber in the stem
Beans, Lima Seed Insufficient bean size Bright green puffy pod; large seed Yellow pods
Beans, Pole Green Pod and seed Insufficient size Bean cavity full; seed ¼ grown Large seed; fibrous pods
Beans, Snap Bush Pod and seed Insufficient size Turgid pods; seeds just visible Fibrous pods; large seed
Beets Root and leaves Insufficient size Roots 2" to 3" in diameter Pithy roots; strong taste
Broccoli Immature bloom Insufficient size Bright green color; bloom still tightly closed Loose head; some blooms beginning to show
Brussels Sprouts Head Insufficient size; hard to harvest Bright green; tight head Loose head; color changes to green-yellow
Cabbage Head Insufficient leaf cover Heads firm; leaf tight Loose leaf; heads cracked open
Cantaloupes Fruit Stem does not want to separate from fruit Stem breaks away easily and cleanly when pulled Yellow background color; soft rind
Carrots Root Insufficient size ½" to ¾" at shoulder Strong taste; oversweet
Cauliflower Immature bloom Head not developed Compact head; fairly smooth Curds open; separate
Celery Stems Stem too small Plant stands 12" to 15" tall; medium-thick stem Seed stalk formed; bitterness
Collards Leaf Insufficient leaf size Bright green color; small midrib Large midrib; fibrous
Corn, Sweet Grain Grain watery; small Grain plump; liquid in milk stage Grain starting to dent; liquid in dough stage
Cucumber Fruit Insufficient size Dark green skin; soft seeds Skin beginning to yellow; hard seeds
Eggplant Fruit Insufficient size High glossy skin; side springs back when mashed Brown seeds; side will not spring back when mashed
Lettuce, Head Leaves Head not fully formed Fairly firm; good size Heads very hard
Okra Pod Insufficient size 2" to 3" long; still tender Fiber development; tough pods
Onions, Dry Bulb Tops all green Tops yellow; ¾ fallen over All tops down; bulb rot started
Peas, English Seed Peas immature and too small to shell Peas small to medium; sweet bright green Yellow pods; large peas
Peas, Southern (green) Seed and pod Peas immature and too small to shell Seeds fully developed but still soft; soft pods Hard seeds; dry pods
Pepper, Pimiento Pod Insufficient size Bright red and firm Shriveled pod
Pepper, Red Bell Pod Chocolate-colored pods Bright red and firm Shriveled pod
Potato, Irish Tuber Insufficient size When tops begin to die back Damaged by freezing weather
Potato, Sweet Root Small size; immature Most roots 2" to 3" in diameter Early plantings get too large and crack; damaged by soil temperature below 50°F
Rhubarb Stem Small size; immature Stem 8" to 15" long is best Fleshy stem becomes fibrous
Soybeans Seed Seeds not developed Thick pods; bright green Dry pods; seed shatters out
Squash, Summer Fruit Insufficient size Rind can be penetrated with thumbnail Penetrating with thumbnail is difficult; large seed
Squash, Winter Fruit Soft rind Rind difficult to penetrate with thumbnail Damaged by frost
Tomatoes Fruit May be harvested in three stages: Mature green – tomato is firm and mature, color changes from green to light green, no pink color showing on blossom end. These tomatoes will store one to two weeks in the refrigerator. Pink – pink color about the size of a dime on the blossom end. At room temperature, these tomatoes will ripen in about three days. Ripe – tomato is full red but still firm. Should be used immediately.
Watermelon Fruit Green flesh; green stem is difficult to separate Melon surface next to the ground turns from a light straw color to a richer yellow Top surface has a dull look

Acknowledgement is made to Willie O. Chance III and Darbie Granberry for authoring the original manuscript of this publication.

Status and Revision History
Published on May 01, 1999
Published with Full Review on Nov 08, 2011
Published with Full Review on Nov 30, 2014

Bob Westerfield Senior Public Service Associate; Areas of Interest: Consumer fruits and vegetables, Horticulture
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