Picking at the Peak

Expert tips on how to pick your fruits and vegetables at the height of freshness.

By Matt Ernst

Sweet corn
Sweet corn—one of summer's most perishable crops—tastes best fresh from the garden (we're talking minutes here) and dripping with butter. If you can't prepare it directly after harvest, cool the ears on ice and then refrigerate them. 
  • Harvest sweet corn about three weeks after the first silks appear. You'll know the corn is ready when the ears fill to the end with kernels and the silks and green husks become dry. An opaque, milky juice will seep out of punctured kernels. 
  • Snap off sweet corn ears with a quick push, pull, and twist downward. 
  • For a taste of summer in winter months, you can freeze sweet corn on the cob. Blanch and freeze right after harvest. 
Frequent harvesting of cucumbers helps the vines produce new fruit. Why? Because one actively growing cucumber needs 40 percent of the plants photosynthetic output, says research from North Carolina State University. 
  • Pick bright green, firm slicing cucumbers when they reach 6 to 9 inches long. 
  • Detach cucumbers from the vine with a quick, upward snap. 
  • Quickly remove and compost any yellow, puffy, overripe fruit. 
Ripe eggplants drain the plant's resources. So know what you grow and harvest eggplants when they reach the proper size for their variety. 
  • Select glossy eggplants that spring back when pressed. Overripe fruits don't spring back, have brown seeds, and taste bitter. 
  • Use shears to remove eggplants from the vine, says Willie Chance, University of Georgia extension agent. 
Leo Keene, who with his wife, Jean, grows about 45,000 bulbs of garlic at Blue Moon Farm in Richmond, Kentucky, suggests using a square-tipped spade to dig garlic. "Your goal is to sever the roots," he says. 
Dig about 4 inches away and parallel to the plant. Sink the spade 6 to 8 inches into the ground; then push to a near 90-degree angle, cutting the roots and lifting the garlic. Knock the dirt from the bulb and shade it immediately. "Garlic is easily sunburned," Leo Keene says. 
  • Start digging garlic when at least half of the top has died back. 
  • Leave tops intact and hang bulbs in a shaded, dry, well-ventilated area for two to three weeks—this process helps to preserve garlic for months. 
Hot weather is a lettuce crop's worst enemy, because it causes bolting (the formation of seed heads) and bitter- tasting leaves. Luckily, you can often harvest tasty leaves from both head and leaf lettuce plants right up to bolting, Cashel says. 
When buying lettuce at farmers' markets, look for vendors who display their lettuce on ice or in coolers, Cashel advises. And don't be afraid to ask if the vendors grew their own crops. 
  • Harvest lettuce in the morning to preserve the crispness it acquires overnight. 
  • Immerse lettuce immediately into cold water after cutting; then rinse and refrigerate. 
  • Cut leaf lettuce when outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; cut head lettuce when heads are moderately firm. 
Pure melon flavor is short-lived and best enjoyed fresh. The more mature the melon, the less time it will keep in the refrigerator, though you can try freezing melons to preserve their summery sweetness. 
  • Harvest most muskmelons when the stem separates easily from the fruit. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow at full ripeness. 
  • Honeydews soften slightly on the flower end of the fruit when ripe and change slightly in color. 
  • The belly of a watermelon turns from greenish white to buttery yellow or cream at maturity; also watch for the curly tendrils where the stem meets the melon to turn brown and dry. 
  • If you can't enjoy your melons right after the harvest, store them in a sealed container in the refrigerator, because their musky aroma can affect the flavor of nearby foods.