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How to Select Ripe Produce

August 2, 2012
One day last summer I was in Kroger tested the honeydew melons for ripeness. One of the guys working in the produce department stopped what he was doing and asked me why I was grabbing the melons but not picking them up. He asked if I needed help. I told him I was checking to see if any of the 30 or so melons he had for sale was ripe and so far had not found any. He was surprised but his next words surprised me, “How can you tell if it is ripe?”
I know you don’t NEED to know about produce to work in the produce department of a grocery store, but that was pretty amazing.  So I told him: I feel for a waxy feeling, like a candle. If the melon is not ripe, it will not have that feeling. If it does, you can know that it will be sweet and not crisp inside, but a little soft.
When I saw this report by The Old Farmer’s Almanac on how to tell when produce is ripe, I figured you might appreciate the info.  (And are you as tickled as I am that the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a website????)

When is It Time to Harvest?

It’s easy to tell if certain fruits, vegetables and herbs are ready for harvest; others require a little more investigation. The following Ripeness Guide offers tips on how to tell when it’s time to harvest!

Have more questions about specific crops? Click on the highlighted crops below to go straight to the plant page with growing and harvesting tips!


Look for rich color, smooth skin, and a firm body. On the tree, the stem should part readily from the branch when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand and given a slight twist around, then up.


Globes should be plump, compact, and tightly closed. Green bracts (“leaves” of the bud) are not wilted and squeak if gently squeezed.


Cut spears that are about 6 inches in length. Look for tightly closed tips and firm yet tender stalks (whether thick or thin).


Taste one and decide. You may want to start harvesting French snap or string beans when they are about the diameter of a chopstick, maybe even thinner. Standard varieties are ready when they are as thick as a pencil and before the seeds swell and become visible through the pods. Lima beans are ready when their pods take on a green color and feel full. When bean pods turn white, feed them to the pigs or the compost pile.


Look for small to medium-size roots. Beets can be harvested at any time, but the larger ones will often be tougher and woody. Beets should have smooth, firm flesh, show a rich color, and have healthy green leaves (not wilted).


Look for the plump berries with a uniform black, shiny color with a hint of dullness. Avoid reddish color.


Look for the plump, firm beries with a uniform dark blue color with powdery white coating (called bloom). If picking yourself, don’t rush to pick the berries as soon as they turn blue. Wait a couple days. When they are ready, they should fall off right into your hand.


The buds (treetops) should be dark blue-green and tightly closed. If the underside of the top turns yellow, the broccoli is overripe. The stalks should be firm and the greens should be green and fresh (not limp).


Look for a firm body, and crisp, richly colored leaves. Avoid a cracked head, pale color, or wilted leaves.


Look for a fragrant aroma, a hollow sound when thumped, and a blossom end that is slightly springy when pressed. The color under the skin’s netting should be yellow or cream color.


Young carrots are the sweetest. Carrots are mature at ½ inch in diameter. Look for a bright color, firm body, and smooth skin. The leaves should be crisp and green.


The heads should be compact, white, and firm, with tightly clustered florets. The leaves should be bright green.


Stalks should be harvested when eight-inches long. Look for a fresh aroma, firm stalks, a green and glossy hue, and healthy green leaves.


Look for plump, firm fruit with a glossy, uniform, dark color for the variety and a fragrant aroma.


Cut before the purple blossoms form, and keep them cut back for the sweetest flavor.


Ripe, just-picked ears have a tightly attached husk that is pliable, healthy and green. If you open an ear and stab a kernel with your fingernail, a milky liquid shoudl ooze out; if it contains water or is dry, it’s not good. The kernels should be plumb and arranged in tight rows that extend to the tip of an ear.


Harvest when about 6 inches long. Look for richly dark green skin and a heavy, firm body. Small cukes are the sweetest and have the softest seeds.


Harvest when the skin of the fruit is smooth, shiny, and unwrinkled. The color should be richly colored and the body should lbe heavy and firm. Avoid large-size eggplant.


The wrapper or “paper” should be unbroken, tight, and dry (not disintegrate). When harvesting, the tops will turn yellow. The bulb should be firm and plumb, not shriveled or spongy. Avoid sprouts.


Look for plump, firm grapes that are tightly attached to the stems. If the green variety, the color should be green tinged with yellow; if the red variety, color should be dark red without any green; if the purple variety, color should be almost black without any green.


Harvest when the white portions are about one-and-a-half inches in diameter.

Lettuce (Head)

The lettuce head should still be compact and slightly yield when squeezed. Look for clean, crisp leaves with healthy color.

Lemons and Oranges

The best indicator of ripeness is taste. However, start with lemons that are heavy for their size and show a bright yellow color. Avoid dull or greenish color and soft spots.


Pick the pods when they are two-and-a-half inches long, or about 4 or 5 days old.


Harvest green onions when the bulbs are 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Wait for the tops of storage onions to fall over and turn brown before you pull them.


Pick when plump but before the pods wrinkle on the stem and take on a dull whitish cast.


At their peak, peaches have a golden color and a body that yields easily when gently squeezed. There should be no green left on the fruit. If you pick off a tree, the peaches should come off the tree with only a slight twist. The fruits found on the top and outside of the tree usually ripen first.


Harvest pears when they are mature but still hard. Most varieties do not change color when ripe, but the color should be consistent and the aroma fragrant. The stem area should yield slightly to pressure.


Look for a firm body with thick walls, smooth skin, and a bright and shiny color. They can be any size, but the longer bell peppers stay on the plant, the more sweet they become and the greater their Vitamin C content.


Potatoes should have a firm body and be heavy for size, without any black or soft spots, sprouts, wrinkles, or greenish tinge.  If you’re growing potatoes, harvest the first delectable little potatoes when plants have just bloomed. For more-mature potatoes, which will be the best keepers, wait until the foliage has died down.

Pumpkins and Winter Squashes

These cousins are ready to harvest when their skin hardens. Press your fingernail through the flesh. If you have to work at it, the squash is ripe; if it’s very easy to pierce, the squash is immature. The skin should be full (nonglossy), firm, and rich in color without blemishes or cracks or soft spots. The stem should be dry and firm.


Look for a firm, smooth, well-shaped body. The color should be bright. The leaves should be healthy and green.


The berry will be fragrant, plump, fairly firm (not mushy), and show a bright, uniform color. If you’re picking your own, don’t tug too hard on your raspberries. A ripe raspberry will leave the vine willingly.


Look for healthy, dark green leaves. Spinach that was left too long in the ground will have oversize leaves and taste bitter.


Ripe strawberries are fully red in color and shiny. They’ll be plump, green-capped, and have a fragrant aroma.

Summer Squashes

Yellow squash and zucchini are at their best when they’re 4 inches long. Pick them young. Plenty more will follow. They should feel firm, heavy for size, and show a bright and healthy skin as well as stem. Avoid dull or hard skin, an oversize body, soft spots, blemishes, and a dry stem.

Sweet Potatoes

Look for a firm body without a greenish tinge, soft spots or wrinkles. If harvesting, dig when the vines turn yellow.

Swiss Chard

Cut the first leaves when they’re 4 to 6 inches high. Then let the leaves grow until they’re 6 to 10 inches high before cutting again.


Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible. The perfect tomato for picking will be very red or rich in color, regardless of size. A ripe tomato will be firm and plump—only slightly soft. The skin will be smooth and glossy. The aroma will be fragrant.


The best tasting turnips are the size of golf balls. They have a firm body, smooth skin, rich color, and crisp leaves that are very green.


A ripe watermelon should have a symmetrical body shape, a buttery yellow underbelly, and a skin that’s neither too dull nor shiny. If you’re harvesting from the garden, the watermelon’s ready when the stem curls and turns brown and the place where the melon touches the ground turns yellow. Rap it with your knuckles and listen for a dull, hollow sound.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa Silverthorn permalink
    August 2, 2012 7:31 am

    Wow, wow, wow. This is an excellent source of information.

    That word “waxy” that you used. Tomatoes feel waxy to me, in stores. And, they are rock hard. Whenever I eat waxy, rock hard tomatoes – I get a stomach ache.

    Any idea why tomatoes are waxy, yet rock hard?

    • August 2, 2012 7:49 am

      Could be the acid in the tomato and your gut are not compatible. How do you do with “squishy” tomatoes and cooked tomato products like sauce?

      • Teresa Silverthorn permalink
        August 2, 2012 8:01 am

        Oh, no problem with those.

        I’m just wondering why store bought tomatoes have that waxy coating ?

        Home grown tomatoes don’t bother me, either. Also, those that are bought with the little vine still attached.

        It’s those hard ones, found in piles, at the grocery stores. Know anything about those? They have that waxy, hard coating.

      • August 2, 2012 8:47 pm

        I know apples are waxed to help preserve them longer…perhaps the tomatoes you have in your supermarket are also coated.

    • August 4, 2012 3:53 pm

      Perhaps it has something to do with the massive amount of genetic tweaking that our mainstream culture does to preserve and transport them. Trade flavor and quality for shelf life.

      • Teresa Silverthorn permalink
        August 4, 2012 3:55 pm

        I’ve wondered about that. Thanks for confirming it.

  2. August 2, 2012 11:06 am

    Blackberries, devoid of any redness as you suggest for ripeness, will detract from your putting up of jellies and jams with them. If buying to make jelly from, you want about 1/4 of the blackberries to be underripe so they set up better (more natural pectin in underripe berries).

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