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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Harvest Vegetables at Proper Time for Best Quality

LAS CRUCES--Few store-bought vegetables can match the taste and quality of homegrown produce. However, quality requires a home gardener's diligent, watchful eye.


On or two days can make all the difference between a tender zucchini squash and a 15-pound squash doorstop, said a New Mexico State University horticulturist.

"A large zucchini can be used to make zucchini bread, but most of us would prefer a 6-to-8-inch fruit for use in salads or casseroles," said George Dickerson, with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Snap beans should be picked when the pods are about the size of a pencil, before constrictions between the individual beans are evident. "If you wait too long, the beans will be stringy," Dickerson said.

Regular sweet corn quickly can become starchy if not picked and processed carefully. Silks should be brown and the kernels near full size. Crushed kernels should excrete a milky substance. "Super-sweet corn varieties are popular because they are twice as sweet as regular sweet corn to begin with, and the conversion of sugar to starch is slower," he said.

The key to determining maturity in cantaloupes is to wiggle the stems. "The stem will slip from the melon relatively easily when the fruit is mature," Dickerson said. The rind's background color should have changed from green to orange. Cantaloupes also should have a ripe smell.

Watermelons can be harvested when the corkscrew-like tendril on the stem attached to the melon turns brown. The spot where the melon touches the soil will be creamy yellow. Thumping the melon should produce a dull, hollow sound.

"Cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage and brussels sprouts should mature in the fall when it's cool for maximum quality," he said. "Cool weather slows respiration, causing sugars to accumulate in these vegetables making them sweeter."

When the small head begins to form on a cauliflower plant, cover it with the plant's leaves to protect it from the sun. "You may need to tie the leaves with twine to keep them in place over the head," Dickerson said. Excluding the light will blanch the curd causing it to turn white.

Tomatoes can be picked and fried when they are a mature green. "Most people prefer their tomatoes fire engine red for best quality," he said.

Bell peppers can be harvested when the fruit are full-sized but are still green, firm and crisp in texture. Other colored varieties can be left on the plant to mature until they reach the desired color--red, chocolate, yellow, or orange.

"Winter squash like butternut should be allowed to turn tan in color with a hard rind," Dickerson said. "Acorn squash will turn yellow where they touch the ground. Pumpkins should be allowed to reach their full color and develop a tough rind."

Potatoes will continue to grow until the vine dies. After the vines turn yellow, dig the potatoes with a garden fork. "Handle these carefully and store in a cool, dry, shady place, allowing them to cure," he said. For new potatoes, harvest any time after the tubers start to form.