Veggie Gardeneing 101: Fresh Vegetable Harvest, Storage and Food Safety

Proper harvesting is just as important as proper growing. Knowing when produce is ready to harvest and how to store it can increase the storage life and edibility of your crops.

Terri James

vegetable harvest

There is nothing quite like enjoying the taste of a tomato freshly picked from your garden –an advantage the grocery store can’t offer! Here are a few tips for proper harvest and storage to help you keep enjoying your vegetables all season long.

In your vegetable garden, it’s important to keep track of timing. Each variety’s harvest window will vary as seeds are bred to show off various characteristics. Seed packets will include expected days until harvest maturity –information that you should keep readily available. As the harvest season approaches, vegetables will ripen and be ready to pick every day. Take a basket out into the garden with you each day to ensure peak harvest. Picking ripened fruit will also often encourage the plant to produce more.

When determining when to pick, remember that bigger produce does not mean better producer. Vegetables are often still small when their flavor and tenderness reach their peak. For some vegetables, like cucurbits, the flavor and texture are lost when they become too big. For example, a large, overlooked zucchini might be best grated and used in baking due to its woody texture. You’ll also want to handle harvested vegetables with care as they are prone to bruising, and protecting their integrity will allow you to store them longer. Finally, while out harvesting, keep a look for signs of disease or pests, and remove those fruits so as to prevent further spread. Remember to wash your hands before gardening, especially before harvesting. Also, remember to use a clean source of water for watering your garden –use drinking quality water from a municipal source or well. Rain barrels or surface water can harbor pathogens that lead to illness. When in doubt, or to reduce risk, make sure the water doesn’t come in contact with the crop (using drip irrigation or soaker hoses can help).

When it comes to storing your harvest, different vegetables are going to have different requirements, however, temperature and relative humidity are the two factors that need to be considered for every scenario. Long term storage can be broken down into cool and dry cool and dry(50-60°F and 60% relative humidity), cold and dry (32-40°F and 65% relative humidity), and cold and moist (32-40°F and 95% relative humidity). Home refrigerators, root cellars, and basements can provide some deviation of optimal storage temperatures and offer some extended storage.

Most produce does not need to be washed prior to storage, as water can damage the quality of produce. However, produce should be washed just prior to use or consumption. Do not use soap or bleach to wash vegetables, as they pose a health risk. Washing with plain water and wiping or rubbing with hands is sufficient to remove dirt and germs from most produce.

  • UNL Food
    • The Food website houses information on food, fitness, recipes, educational resources, food safety, food preservation, local foods, and youth/4-H as well as links to the Nutrition Education Program, Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, Meat Products, and the Food Processing Center.