Harvest Time in the Fall Vegetable Garden

Carrots come in other colors besides orange. Elena Dijour/Shutterstock

With the arrival of cool nights that on some mornings leave a frosty reminder of the changing of the seasons, it’s time to begin harvesting from the fall and winter garden.

Harvesting might seem to be a routine matter of going to the garden and simply picking heads of broccoli, leafy greens or pungent herbs from plants you put in the ground in the heat of a late summer or early September day. There are certain harvesting techniques, though, that will increase the amount of produce your garden will yield.


The first consideration is the tools you’ll need for harvesting. While the cheapest, most useful tool is always your hands, it will help to have a knife for slicing through some of the greens, pruners for cutting woody herbs such as rosemary, and a pitchfork to dig out root vegetables such as carrots, onions, garlic (but, not potatoes), especially if your soil is compacted.

When to harvest

Timing your harvest depends on several factors. One is the USDA plant hardiness zone you live in. Hardiness zones determine the average date of the first frost. This is important because some plants, such as basil, are cold sensitive and should be picked before even a light frost.

Remember, the lower the number the cooler the zone. Another factor is the purpose of your harvest. If you want greens for salads, pick leaves of beets and Asian mustard while they are young and tender. Old and large beet leaves will be too strong for a salad. Leave these on the plant. Other leafy greens, such as chard, can be picked when they are large (including stems) because they are delicious when braised.

How to harvest

How you pick some herbs and vegetables can improve the plant’s vigor and production. Here are tips on harvesting a few common garden favorites and a few that may not be so well known:

Photo: natalia bulatova/Shutterstock
  • Beets: Don’t fret if the root is above ground but don’t wait too long to harvest, either. Roots get woody with age.
  • Broccoli: After harvesting the central head, don’t compost the plant. It will make new, though smaller, heads from the leaf bracts along the stem.
  • Bok choi and chard: Pick outer leaves and cut them at the base of the plant. Plants will continue to produce from the center.
  • Carrots: Some gardeners leave these in the ground all winter.
  • Cilantro and parsley: Harvest outside leaves from the base. Leaving a partial stem will cause energy to go into the old stem, not into making a new one. Cut off seed stalks, otherwise the plant will stop producing new growths.
  • Dill: Leave a portion of the stem. It will make side branches.
  • Lemon grass: This is not always easy to find, but is excellent for seasoning soups and teas. Harvest outside growths at the base.
  • Lettuce (except head lettuce) and many leafy greens: If you have only a few plants harvest outside leaves. Leave most on the plant to help it continue to grow. If you have a large garden, cut the whole plant, but cut the stems above the central growing point of tiny, emerging leaves.
  • Peppers: Try to avoid the temptation to pick when green. Flavor increases when they turn orange, yellow or red. They are perennials and will overwinter if dug up, potted and moved to a garage or basement.
  • Potatoes: Mound dirt around the plant as it grows because potatoes will form along the stem. Harvest with your hands.
  • Spinach: Harvest in morning when leaves are crisp. Pick outer leaves.