When and how to harvest winter squash
Winter squash varieties are a staple in many gardens, thanks to their prolific fruiting, their ease of growth, and the long shelf life of the fruits.
Whether you grow acorn, butternut, delicata, Turk’s cap or any one of the other dozens of types of winter squash, the most important part of enjoying the harvest is knowing exactly when and how to pluck the fruits from the vines.
By mid-summer, your winter squash plants should be starting to develop young fruits. The male flowers will open first to ensure there is plenty of pollen around when the female flowers open a week or so later. Female flowers have a mini squash at the base of the flower, while male flowers have a straight flower stalk.
From the time they are pollinated, it typically takes many weeks for winter squash fruits to ripen. But how do you know the best time to pick a winter squash? If you pick it too early, the flesh isn’t fully developed and may be bland. If you wait too long, the fruits could rot on the vine and they may become mealy.
Here are some tips to help you determine when to harvest your winter squash.
• First and foremost, check the seed packet for the “days to maturity.” This is the number of days typically required for the plant to go from a planted seed to production. I usually wait about 10 days beyond that number to start checking the fruits for signs of readiness. Unlike some other garden crops, waiting a little longer to harvest winter squash is better than picking it too early.
• Next, examine the fruits. Their rind should be fully colored and difficult to pierce with your thumbnail. For acorn squash, a golden yellow or orange spot will develop on the bottom side when ready to harvest.
• Tap the fruits. If they sound hollow, they’re ready to pick. Winter squash will not continue to ripen once the fruits are snipped from the vine, so timing your harvest properly is key. However, do your best to pick all the squash before the first hard frost. While they’ll tolerate a few light frosts, heavy frosts will potentially damage the fruits and affect their shelf life. If the end of the season is growing close and you’re worried that the fruits won’t ripen in time, cut off the growing end off of each of the vines. This signals the plants that no more growth is needed and forces them to ripen the existing fruits a little faster.
• To harvest winter squash, cut the fruits from the vines with a pair of pruners. Do not pull them off or you could damage the fruits and promote rot. Leave a short nub of the stem intact.
• Once all of your winter squash have been harvested, it’s time to cure them. This process thickens the skin and enables them to last longer. After harvesting, line the fruits up on table in the garage or another dry room. Let them sit there for about 10 days to two weeks. Then, the fruits can be stored between 55 and 65 degrees humidity for several months.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.