harvest winter squash--when?

ClareBroommaker's picture

Do you generally wait until the vines die back before you harvest winter squash? That is what I have done, except for maybe acorn squash which sometimes begin to ripen to orange while on the vine.

This year we have some beautiful butternut squash and my mate is getting eager to pick some. I keep telling him that we have to wait until there are no streaks of green on the stem end, and that it is best if the stem itself is brown. These butternuts were planted from seed from fruits my son gave us, and to tell the truth, I think my son probably harvested early as they were lacking in sweetness and I'd even say lacking in starches. So it might be a strain that needs every day on the vine it can get.

So...what tells you it is time to harvest winter squash?

Sweet Tatorman's picture

While I hesitate to extrapolate to all varieties, I have grown butternut, hubbard, and cushaw varieties. My experience is that if consuming within a month or two you can pick them at anytime after attaining full size. If the objective is long term storage the conventional wisdom is to wait until the skin near the stem end cannot be pierced with your thumbnail [slight indentation is OK]. This works for me. I don't deliberately wait until the vines die back but in the case of my cushaw variety there will be a few that I don't see until then as they tend to hide well under the foliage. At that stage they require a meat cleaver and hammer to split open. Leaving unpicked longer than necessary risks additional exposure to various insects that can burrow through to the interior.

Butternuts are long-keepers, and they tend to convert their starch to sugars during storage. So use your more perishable squashes first - the acorns and such - and keep the butternuts for later - they'll sweeten up and taste better that way.

alice's picture

UK summers are short and not very intense because of the broadly maritime climate. Here we need to bring winter squashes in before the first frost and the skins are often not as hard as in warmer climates. The people who seem to have most success with storing then put them somewhere fairly warm and sunny for a few weeks to help them harden or cure properly, such as a conservatory -- temps in a conservatory more stable than a greenhouse because of being attached ot the thermal mass of a house. Then they will mostly store through, for instance on shelves in a cellar. I think commercially they are cured at about 27 C temps for 10 days and then stored in cool conditions approx 10 C but this is all artificially provided. I guess it might be possible to experiment with curing in an airing cupboard or similar warm place.

It's necessary here in the UK to select varieties which will ripen fruit well enough in the short mild summers, lots of winter squash varieties need more time or heat to form a proper skin than they get outdoors. So I have grown some massive Hubbard types but couldn't get them to cure well enough to keep, mostly ended up in soup kitchens in Sept/Oct. I tend to buy from seed companies local to the UK so I know the variety has set seed properly at least once in the climate.

ClareBroommaker's picture

We usually don't have to get the last of our garden harvested until about November 10, when there is a mad dash to get the last of the tomatoes before a predicted hard frost. We oddly had a very small area of cold damage to the butternut leaves just before I asked this question. Thanks to those who mentioned the fingernail test for hardness, a good reminder.

My mate went out to mow this morning and returned with a picked squash, leaving the stem behind so I did not see what it looked like. We went ahead and cut it open. Though he says this was one of the first formed squash, I do not think it was quite ready, as it oozed more of that sticky sap than I have ever seen a butternut ooze. But we cooked it and it was sweet, a nice texture all the way through, and delicious. It was much better than the squash we had taken the seeds from, which I'm now convinced were quite immature. (My son had grown them in Minnesota and was forced by weather to collect them when he did.) However, I planted the seeds much later than I normally would as I was trying to avoid involvement with the height of squash bug season.

So, if I can keep my mate away from the squash (eat last year's sweet potatoes instead!), I will give these squash all the way till first expected frost unless it becomes obvious that they are ready.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Night before last, we had a second bit of cold affecting a larger portion of the plants, and directly, visibly damaging a few squash. so we picked about 100 pounds worth and left the rest to see if they might be able to continue maturing for another couple of weeks. Some of the vines had run over a small compost pile, so I hope they rooted in there to give a second source of nutrients and water and maybe can continue developing even if the origins of the vines are too damaged.

I do not think a single one of these squash are mature. But I put the picked ones under a poly tunnel and the temp under there is 82F today. We might have to eat squash with every meal for awhile if these look like they are not going to keep well after a curing week or so.

The late planting did seem to help avoid the worst of the pests, but that is of little use if I don't get good fruits from them.

I'm going to test cook some of the really immature green squash--maybe use in stir-fry as sort of a neutral vegetable that will flavor with a sweet and sour sauce or even just soy sauce. Huh, Worcestershire might be good, too. I might have some Mexican recipes for green squash. Will have to look in my books and maybe move the cooking aspect to another thread.

alice's picture

Congratulations on your 100 lbs of squash, that sounds like a great harvest. I hope some of those cure well. It's definitely a work of many years working out which varieties work in a particular climate and garden and how to avoid their pests and get them stored right and so on. I hope your friend is ready to eat plenty of squash.

ClareBroommaker's picture

The 100 pound batch came into the living room yesterday due to the persistently chilly weather. They do look like they have colored up a bit more.

It's 47F and the next few days look like they might bring a hard freeze, so we picked the remaining squash after the rain stopped today, bringing 149.3 pounds to the front porch where the wind is drying the mud and bits of grass on them. When dry, I'll have to bring them indoors.

It was good that we left these latest ones on the vine after the first round of picking because some of them did mature noticeably with the extra time even if it has been chilly.

My husband says that some of the squash that had been visible growing over the fence are just gone. I've seen no evidence of animal gnawing, so if there are missing squash, it must have been people. Funny-- a neighbor walked by while we were filling the wagon and told us that he'd had to tell his Dad not to steal our butternuts. I gave him a nice one for his dad. Actually I need to give that neighbor some for himself.

Season total from three not well spaced mounds is 248.9 pounds. Yay.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

That's an impressive yield from three mounds!! I am hoping that the forecast freeze a few days from now doesn't happen as my cushaw squash is still setting fruit. This cushaw is an odd squash. Initially it has only male blossoms. By July it has a few females but still ~100:1 ratio of males to females. Only by October are there more females, perhaps 20:1 males to females. I suspect this is a day length issue as this squash is native to southern Mexico (seeds smuggled into the country by a woman I know).