As summer draws to a close, temperatures cool and daylight hours shorten. It’s almost time to get your garden ready for the change of seasons. But one pressing question remains: how to know when the garden is finished growing? After all, not all plants produce at the same time. Knowing when to harvest is a crucial piece of end-of-season gardening. Read on to learn more about harvest timing and the best way to prepare your garden for fall and winter.

Keep Track of Plantings

It’s easy to lose track of what you’ve planted and, more importantly, when you planted it. Document which seeds you plant in spring, to make it easier at harvest time. Keeping a simple garden planning document or spreadsheet will allow you to anticipate harvest dates. It’s also a great way to track which species work best in your garden and which varieties to skip next year. Your garden planner should include:

  • Plant varieties used
  • Date planted
  • Anticipated harvest date
  • Where it was planted in the garden
  • Frost dates for your area
  • Notes on successes and/or problems

Spend Time in the Garden Daily

The best way to understand your garden is by spending time in it. Visit your garden daily to check for ripe produce. With daily check-ins, you won’t miss a single cucumber, tomato or carrot. Some plants may even produce a second round or allow for succession planting if you pick soon enough. You can also use your daily garden time to keep from getting overwhelmed by tasks. Spending just 15 minutes a day on the following can make it easier when it’s time to prepare your garden for winter:

  • Deadheading flowers and removing seeds
  • Checking for pests and diseases, such as aphids, thrips or powdery mildew
  • Watering when needed
  • Removing weeds

When to Harvest

Every variety has its own anticipated growing period. If you keep track of when and what you planted, you’ll already have a good idea of potential harvest dates. Some produce tastes better if you harvest it when it’s small. For instance, zucchini, carrots, green beans, lettuce and herbs tend to taste best if they’re picked before they grow large (and tough or bitter). Produce that “hangs” tastes better when it’s left to fully ripen on the plant. For instance, tomatoes, peppers, stone fruits and apples need time to grow ripe and flavourful. You may be wondering how to know when the garden is finished growing. Look for these signs that tell you when to harvest:

  • Corn is ready to harvest when the silk starts to dry, and kernels release milky sap when squeezed
  • Cucumbers ripen at different sizes depending on variety, so it’s vital to track which you plant
  • Lettuce and greens can be harvested once they reach the desired size; smaller greens are usually more tender, while larger greens can grow bitter
  • Garlic and onions are ready to harvest when the tops turn brown and flop over
  • Green beans should be harvested before they reach their full size, as they’ll be more tender
  • Melons should smell sweet and make a hollow sound when you thump them
  • Peas should be picked once they reach their desired size inside pods
  • Peppers differ widely in colour and shape; as a general rule, most green varieties can be harvested at almost any size, but red, yellow and orange peppers may need more time
  • Potatoes are ready to harvest when the tops dry and turn brown
  • Root vegetables ripen at different times depending on variety, so keep track of what you planted
  • Tomatoes are ready to harvest when they release easily from the stem and are rich in colour

End of Season Gardening Tasks

After you’ve harvested your last round of produce, it’s time to prepare your garden for winter. Start by removing plant debris from the planting area. You may choose to remove the dead plants, chop them and add them to a compost pile, or till them under the soil to compost naturally over the winter. Every few years, you should test the soil after the growing season ends. Check to be certain nutrient levels haven’t been depleted. You may need to add helpers, such as compost, manure or other organic matter to replenish the soil over the winter months. Check the soil pH, too, and add lime or sulphur as required to balance pH levels. By visiting your garden regularly and carefully tracking what (and when) you plant, you’ll have a much better idea of when to harvest. Enjoy your fresh produce!

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