How to Harvest and Store Winter Squash
Winter squash is a fantastic, easy-to-keep vegetable, but it's important to harvest and store them correctly. If they are harvested improperly or too soon, or are not cured or stored well, they may rot quickly and their flavor may be poor. Home-grown squash tastes so much better than store-bought, that it is well worth the effort to grow and store your own!
When to Harvest
1) Check days to maturity
First, look up the days to maturity for the varieties that you have planted. Has it been this long since you planted your seeds? This will give you a rough idea on when to start checking your plants. If your summer turned out cooler and cloudier than normal, it may take an extra week or two for the fruit to ripen.
2) Look for color changes
Most winter squash start changing color as they mature. Young butternut fruit, for example, is a pale green with colored streaks. As it starts to mature, it will become beige with dark green stripes near the stem. It is fully ripe when the fruit turns a solid deep tan color.
Spaghetti squash will change from a creamy color to yellow when it matures. Young delicata squash has green streaks on a white background. This background will turn beige and develop an orange blush when the fruit matures.
Acorn squash growing on the ground will have a pale yellow spot where the fruit rests on the ground. This pale spot will turn orange when the fruit is ripe. Obviously, that method can't be used with trellised fruit.
3) Other methods
Another common suggestion for determining ripeness of winter squash is to thump the fruit (listening for hollowness) or to test the skin of the fruit with your fingernail. If the skin resists being punctured, it's ready for harvest. I frankly don't bother with either of these methods, as I simply leave my fruit on the vine until shortly before frost, or until the vines have completely died.
I remove any late young fruit that won't have a chance to finish ripening, to allow the plants to put all of their energy into finishing maturing the older fruit. If you have a long, hot growing season, you probably don't need to worry about doing this. But some of my summers are pretty cool and short, and mildew often tries to kill my plants before my fruit is fully ripe.
You don't have to worry about squash becoming over-ripe if you just leave it on the vine. They will simply mature and then sit there, waiting for harvest. Your biggest concern is to pick the fruit and bring them indoors before frost. Any exposure to frost can damage the fruit or reduce its storage ability.
How to Harvest
1) Leave 3-5” of stem on the fruit
Use a sharp pruning shears, and cut the fruit off the vine, leaving a few inches of stem attached to the fruit. Don't carry the fruit by the stem. If the stem accidentally breaks off, the fruit will rot more quickly, so eat these fruit first. As you harvest and move the fruit indoors, make sure these stems don't jab and damage their neighbors. Once your squash has cured, you can trim the stems to just 2″ long.
2) Handle the fruit gently
As tough as some winter squash may look, they can be bruised if they are dropped or tossed. Also avoid nicking or scraping the skins. Damaged fruit may rot quickly. Always set them down gently, and don't pile large squashes together (such as 20 pound fruit). It's OK to make small piles of smaller squashes, though, such as putting them into milk crates for moving or storage.
I don't usually bother harvesting any fruit that has cracks, soft spots, or major blemishes, as they won't store well. If you do choose to harvest them, be sure to eat them as soon as they have cured.
It is often suggested that you wipe the fruit thoroughly, often with disinfectant, in an effort to improve their keeping ability. I have never done that, and my fruit usually store a long time – IF they have been well-grown, harvested when fully mature, treated gently, and stored properly. All I do is gently wipe off any excess dirt.
How to Cure and Store Winter Squash
Winter squash usually needs to cure for a while after harvesting, in order for the flavor and sweetness to fully mature. I don't “cure” them in officially recommended 80-90 degree temps for several days, though you can if you want to. I simply let them sit in their usual storage location until they are ready to eat.
It's a good idea to turn the squash over a few times during the first couple of weeks, and give them some extra ventilation, so that all sides get a chance to dry out properly.
Some people, if they feel their fruit may not be fully ripe when harvested, will place the fruit in the sunshine in a warm spare room for a couple of weeks, turning them occasionally, before placing them in storage.
Winter squash store best in a cool, dry location – about 50-55 degrees and 50-70% humidity, with good air circulation. However, mine store pretty well in an open closet that stays around 60 degrees, and I know of another experienced gardener that stores hers all winter in rooms that reach as high as 65-68. Just don't store them in hot rooms, or in cold, damp basements or root cellars.
Squash varieties can be divided into four main families – pepo, maxima, moschata, and mixa (which is rarely grown in the U.S.). Each of these families have different requirements for curing and storage.
The pepo family includes varieties such as Acorn, Spaghetti, Delicata, and a few small pumpkins, such as ‘New England Pie'. For best eating quality, cure these squash for 7-14 days, and then eat them within the next 6-7 weeks. Although you may be able to store them up to 3 months without rotting, the quality of the flesh deteriorates rapidly after 2 months from harvest.
The maxima family includes varieties such as Sweet Meat, Banana, Buttercup, Hubbard,Kuri, and many more. These squash should be cured for at least 1 month before eating, and many of them will keep for several months (some for over 6 months).
The moschata family includes Butternut, Musque de Provenence, Tahitian Melon Squash, “cheese” pumpkins, and others. You can start eating them after a couple of weeks of curing, though I often wait for a month for best flavor. These varieties often keep a long time. My butternuts are usually still in good shape early the next spring, but lose their eating quality as summer approaches.
If your fruit tastes starchy, it probably hasn't been cured well. If the flavor is poor or it lacks sweetness, most likely the plant was poorly grown or the fruit was picked immature.
I rarely purchase store-bought winter squash any more, because the flavor is pretty bad compared to my own well-grown and cured squash. I've even been disappointed with some butternut squash purchased at my farmers market, as they have sometimes rotted within 3 weeks of purchase, instead of lasting the usual 6 months. Growing and storing your own winter squash is a great way to enjoy delicious home-grown food that you don't need to can or freeze.