How to Harvest Cool Season Vegetables

Updated 6-4-2013

Denise & I have been enjoying excellent production from our zone 1 garden for the past few months. Given that most gardeners have begun harvesting their early spring crops, I wanted to discuss some things I have learned over the years in this regard. Your cool season vegetables are going to be those frost tolerant plants that you can start very early in the spring or even late winter. These plants can usually be grown as part of a fall garden as well.

Harvest 6-2 (Strawberries, asparagus, radish, onion, lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli)



Asparagus is typically the first in ground vegetable that I harvest. Granted I harvest greens throughout the winter in the greenhouse, but it is not the same as harvesting out in the garden. Asparagus is pretty simple to harvest. If you are putting in new asparagus roots, do not harvest the first year. If your asparagus patch is two years or older, you can begin cutting the spears at the base as soon as they grow in the early spring. I only let them get about 8 inches tall, because when they get too tall they can become tough. I will typically cut spears until about late-June. After that I will let them grow. In the late fall, the ferns should be cut back.  


Asparagus Spears



Lettuce can be picked and eaten at any stage of maturity. I like to pick the leaves when they are large, about the size of a human hand. The larger leaves wilt less, and are easier to wash and pick.


Lettuce does not like the heat of the summer, and prefers a dappled shade environment. If you are like me, without a lot of shade, you can make temporary shade areas. Lettuce is cut and come again, which means you can remove some leaves, and the plant will still grow. I personally like to break off the largest leaves at the base of the plant. If you notice a milky white substance bleeding from the leaves when you remove the lettuce leaf, it may be getting bitter and starting to bolt. When it gets hot, the lettuce plant will want to go to seed quickly to preserve their DNA. I let them go to seed in my garden. Many times I get good lettuce with my fall garden from volunteers. This year my best lettuce is from last fall, in the form of spring volunteers.


I try to pick my lettuce early in the morning to minimize wilt. Immediately after the lettuce harvest, I will gently rinse the leaves in a colander, and shake the colander to remove most of the water. I will then put them in a zip-lock bag and force most of the air out of the bag before sealing. Then I put the bag in the vegetable drawer in the fridge. The lettuce leaves will stay for a few days like this. If they are left out they will start to wilt in an hour or so, so you really need to do this quickly. When you rinse the leaves, don’t completely douse them, and it is good to put them away with a little moisture still on them, but not so much that the leaves stick together. 

Volunteer Lettuce Patch



Arugula is a leafy green that grows very fast. It is a great early season crop, because you don’t have to wait long for the arugula to be ready to harvest. I actually like to harvest arugula as a baby lettuce. If you wait until the arugula gets large, the stem can be a little tough and the flavor is very strong. Arugula has a nutty flavor that can be off-putting to some. Once arugula starts to bolt, you can still pick, but the flavor becomes even stronger, so I usually stop picking and let the plants go to seed.


Like lettuce, arugula is cut and come again. Storage between picking and eating is handled the same as lettuce.

Arugula Flowering



This year has been my best season for spinach. Spinach really thrives in cool weather, but can literally burn up in hot weather. This spring has been pretty cool.


I like to pick spinach leaves of any size. The large leaves may have a tough stem that you have to remove, but it is easy to wash and pick. The smaller leaves are nice because it is easy to eat the stem, but it takes more time to pick. I just pick what looks good. I have had good luck with my spinach still tasting very mild even after they have bolted.


Storage between picking and eating is handled the same as lettuce and arugula.

Spinach Bolting



Kale is a leafy green, but it is actually part of the brassica family, which includes broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower etc…. Kale does very well in cold weather. In fact it tastes better after a frost. It is a very good fall garden crop.


The stems of even small kale leaves tend to be tough, so I typically take the leaves of the stem when I am putting them in a salad. I personally like kale much better than arugula. I find the taste to be very mild. Denise prefers arugula, because she does not care for the ruffled texture. The other nice thing about kale is that it is very tough, and does not wilt as easy as lettuce. I do however handle processing the same though.


Sugar Snap peas:

Sugar snap peas are best picked when the pods are at their largest, and the peas inside have started bulging. They are sweeter when picked this way. Snow peas are slightly different in that you should pick the peas when the pod is full size but the peas have not started bulging yet. I prefer sugar snap peas. It is important to go through your pea patch daily, because if you continually pick the peas, the plants will produce more snap peas.

Kale and Peas



Broccoli can be harvested anytime you have florets to cut. You will get a large center head that after it is cut, you will get secondary florets that grow that can also be cut and eaten. So don’t remove your broccoli plants after you cut the main head. The key to harvesting broccoli is to wait until the head is mature, but not too mature. You can tell this by looking at the florets. When they are tight together, you can probably wait, but as soon as they start to separate, they are getting to the point of flowering, and you should cut them. Having said that, I will cut broccoli early if it is a decent size and I want to eat it. If you wait too long, and it starts to flower, don’t worry you can still cut it and eat it flowers and all. Incidentally, you can also eat the leaves. I don’t really like the large leaves, but the small ones that come attached with the florets, I put them in my salads.



You can pick onions anytime you have a bulb, and that’s easy to tell, because the top part will stick out of the ground as onions are shallow rooted. I will pull the biggest onions as I need them, but I will always pull the onions that no longer have a green shoot any longer. So, if the green shoot has gone brown, I will pull those first. If all my onions still have some green, I will pull the ones where the shoots have flopped over. I will only pull the onion with the healthy green shoot if there are none of the others. This helps me to extend my onion season throughout the summer and fall.

Broccoli, Potatoes, Onion (Companions)



Cauliflower is pretty simple. You will get one large cauliflower head, and that’s it. It is easy to see the head forming. Like broccoli, if the cauliflower florets start to separate, you should cut the head. For me, I just wait until it is a mature size, which can range from softball size to soccer ball size, and cut them when I want to eat them. Some people will attach a large rubber band around the head to keep the leaves covering the cauliflower head. This will keep the cauliflower white. If you don’t it will get a brownish tinge to it, but don’t worry if you forget, as the color difference doesn’t make a taste or nutrient difference. I don’t bother banding my cauliflower heads. 



Early spring sown carrots won’t typically reach maturity until fall, but they are certainly edible at any time. I like to start eating them in mid-summer. I pull just a few everyday through the summer to eat fresh. I try to pull the largest ones first. This is easy to tell, because you can see the tops of the carrots, so try picking the largest diameter carrots first. If they are too small for your liking, wait longer.



Parsnips take even longer to mature than carrots. I don’t pick any parsnips until my carrot supply is vanquished. Parsnips are very cold hardy, so you can leave them in the ground until late-fall or even winter in some places. This works well because this is a time when produce is scarce.

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