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Aaron Steil, Horticulture, (515) 294-2710,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Garden Column for the week of July 23, 2004

Harvesting Vegetable Vine Crops

By Aaron Steil,
Extension Intern
Reiman Gardens
Iowa State University

Knowing when to harvest some vegetables is easy. Most varieties of tomatoes, for example, turn red when ripe. For other vegetables determining maturity may be more difficult. Many of the vegetable vine crops, such as cucumber and melon, fall into this category. Harvesting at the right time is important to ensure optimal nutrient content, high productivity and best taste. Size, color, and firmness are most often used to determine the best time to harvest. These characteristics are specific to each vegetable. Use the following descriptions to harvest vegetable vine crops at the proper time and ensure the most enjoyment from your garden produce.

Summer Squash
Harvest summer squash, such as zucchini, scallop, straight and crookneck types, when the skin is soft and easy to puncture with a fingernail. Zucchini and other long-fruited types should be harvested when they are about 2 inches in diameter and 6 to 12 inches long. Scallop types are best when they are 3 to 5 inches in diameter. Cut stems with a sharp knife leaving a short piece of stem on each fruit. Plants will need to be harvested every other day. If left on the plant too long, fruit become large with tough skins and large seeds. Summer squash begins producing edible fruit approximately 45 to 60 days after planting.

The proper time to pick cucumbers depends on their use. Harvest pickling cucumbers when they are firm, dark green and reach 2 to 4 inches in length. Pick slicing cucumbers when they are 6 to 8 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. When fruit reach the desired size, harvest the cucumbers using a sharp knife. Leave a small section of the stalk on each fruit. To keep cucumber plants productive, harvest the fruit every 2 to 3 days. Cucumbers are ready to pick 55 to 65 days after planting.

Muskmelon and Honeydew
Harvest muskmelon or cantaloupe when the stem pulls easily and cleanly from the fruit. If the stem has to be removed forcibly from the melon, it is not fully mature. In addition, mature muskmelons have a distinct, musky aroma and the end opposite the stem should be slightly soft. Honeydew will not slip from the stem when ripe. Harvest honeydew melons when the end opposite the stem softens and the skin takes on a creamy yellow color. Muskmelons, cantaloupe and honeydew reach maturity 75 to 100 days after planting.

Several methods are used to determine the maturity of watermelons. For most, however, the color of the rind on the underside of the melon is the most reliable. When the fruit is mature, the underside of the melon will turn from whitish green to a butter-yellow or cream. Pick watermelon with 2 inches of stem left on the fruit. The browning of the 'pigtail' or green, curly tendril attached to the vine near the melon is not reliable as the fruit of some cultivars mature 7 to 10 days later. Thumping is also difficult as many individuals have difficulty differentiating between the metallic ring produced by immature fruit and the dull ring of ripe melons. Watermelon is ready to eat 80 to 100 days after planting.

Winter Squash
Harvest winter squash, such as acorn, banana, butternut, hubbard, spaghetti and turban types, when they develop their characteristic color. When mature, the fruit's stem begins to dry and split and the skin or rind becomes firm and cannot be punctured by a fingernail. With a sharp knife, harvest the mature fruit leaving a 2 to 3 inch portion of the stem attached to each fruit. Harvest all winter squash before the first frost. Winter squash matures 85 to 120 days after planting.

Harvest pumpkins when they are uniformly orange and the rind is firm and not easily punctured. Cut pumpkins from the vine with a sharp knife leaving 3 to 5 inches of stem. Pumpkins are ready to harvest 90 to 120 days after planting, depending on variety. After harvest, protect pumpkins from freezing temperatures to ensure good storage.

Correctly picking vegetables using the guidelines above will ensure the most enjoyment out of your vegetable garden.


ml: isugarden

Editors: A color photo, suitable for publication, is available at right. Click on the thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The fullsize photo is 284K.

Caption: To keep cucumber plants productive, harvest the fruit every 2 to 3 days.

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