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Harvesting Your CACFP Childcare Garden

June 21, 2022

Child harvests lettuce at CACFP childcare garden.

How to start a garden at your CACFP site, pt. 4

This is part 4 of a multi-part series on gardening in the CACFP. Community gardens, childcare gardens, school gardens and farm-to-table are increasingly popular in our community. And for good reason! When children garden, they’re known to eat more fruits and vegetables, have a better understanding of nutrition, improve science achievement, improve social skills, and improve their attitude on the environment. This segment is all about the harvest. In previous segments we explored questions to ask before you begin, how to plant your garden, and all about garden maintenance. Next up we’ll talk about keeping children engaged and active throughout your garden project.

When to harvest from your childcare garden

For the most part, harvesting is a daily or weekly process based on the evolving needs of each plant. Some plants will have a window of several days when harvesting is prime, and others have a much shorter window. For the best estimate of when each plant will be ready to harvest, check the seed packet for “days to maturity” at the time you plant it or find that information online.

Try to plan your initial gathering for a day when the children can harvest from several different plants so that they can have a robust, exciting first experience. However, from that point on, as produce begins to ripen, harvesting will become a routine task carried out according to the rhythm of the individual plants.

Planning for harvest day

For a home gardener, harvesting can be as easy as wandering outside, plucking a ripe tomato and taking a bite. In the CACFP setting, harvesting your garden requires considerably more planning. Providers should assess time of day, weather and hydration, protective clothes, sunscreen, and implementing safety rules. We recommend making a harvest kit that includes the following tools, but please note that some of these should only be used by adults:

  • Two Food Safe Buckets – For cleaning and rinsing produce.
  • Large Mixing Bowl– Used to gather soft or delicate produce.
  • Harvest Bags – Used to gather firm, hardier produce.
  • Shovel – Used by adults to loosen soil around carrots and potatoes.
  • Safety Scissors – Can be used by students to harvest baby greens, pea shoots, and fresh herbs.
  • Strong Scissors – Can be used by adults to harvest squashes, cucumbers, and fresh herbs.
  • Harvest Knife – Can also be used by adults to harvest.
  • Gardening gloves – Some plants, such as tomatoes, have foliage that is irritating to the skin. While not harmful at all, participants may be more comfortable wearing gloves while harvesting.

How to harvest by plant parts

Harvesting varies greatly from one plant variety to another. Carrots are pulled from the ground while blueberries are picked from vines. Thankfully, there are some common themes about how to harvest based on parts of the plant.


Carrots, radishes, beets, turnips

Pull roots from the ground by hand. You may need a shovel to loosen soil around roots. In these instances, dig the shovel straight down 12 to 18 inches away from the plant, and then angle the shovel toward the plant and raise the soil up until loose. Root vegetables will stay crisp if they are washed and refrigerated. They soften in sun and heat.

Stems or Shoots

Celery, kohlrabi, pea shoots, chard stem

If stems and shoots are tender, they can be harvested by hand. These are great crops for little helpers to pick! However, sturdy stems will require a knife or scissors. Stems will stay crisp if they are washed and refrigerated. They soften in sun and heat.


Lettuce, kale, spinach, chard leaf

Harvest most leaves by hand. Some small leaves and young plants will need to be cut with scissors or else risk accidentally pulling the roots up if harvesting by hand. Typically, these crops are easy for children to harvest, and even the leaves that need to be cut can be done with child-size safety scissors. Leaves will stay crisp if they are washed and refrigerated. They wilt quickly in the sun and heat.


Broccoli, nasturtium, cauliflower

Pinch flower stem by hand or cut with a knife. Carefully check flowers for bugs as they provide many hiding places. Delicate flowers, like nasturtium, should be washed and eaten immediately. Sturdy flowers, like broccoli, will keep for several days if washed and refrigerated.


Tomato, squash, cucumber, berries

This category is broad and varies greatly from plant to plant. The ideal harvest window may be brief for certain species. Some fruits can be plucked from the plant, while others may require a knife to harvest.

Food safety and your CACFP garden harvest

How can we be sure it’s safe to eat? A good rule of thumb for food safety in your CACFP garden is this: if you wouldn’t handle your food that way, don’t handle your garden that way. For example, hands should be washed with warm, soapy water prior to harvesting produce. Harvesting tools should similarly be washed. Produce should be gathered and transported in cleaned and sanitized food-safe containers (no garbage bags or reused plastic grocery store sacks, please!).

Importantly, requirements for traceability, storage and more may vary depending on the intended use of the produce from your garden. If the harvest from your CACFP garden is meant to stock the kitchen at your site, requirements will be different than if the garden is a community garden for families and neighbors. Some school gardens are tasting gardens; children harvest so that they can try different vegetables, but they’re not included in meals or on the menu. Health and safety requirements, as well as documentation, will vary depending on the purpose of the garden as well as the location.

For a much more detailed presentation on food safety information, check out this USDA publication on Food Safety in School Gardens.  To find out more about serving produce from your garden in your kitchen or classrooms, contact your local health department.

Harvesting a love of gardening

Harvesting from the garden is a time of wonder for kids. It’s the big moment that seals the deal on a lifetime of love for plants and growing. Hopefully, your participants have been participating in planting and maintenance, so they’ve witnessed seeds turn into plants, and they’ve seen those plants flower and produce fruit. Harvest is the climax of their work. After all, who doesn’t love that first bite of a crisp cucumber on a hot day, especially after having seen it grow for weeks or months? Next up we’ll talk about keeping children engaged in your CACFP garden throughout the season. For an in-depth gardening guide, take a look at this resource from Team Nutrition.