When is it time to pick winter squash? How can you tell your squash is ripe on the vine? Along with the required days to maturity, there are some other signs to help you decide it is harvest time.
From there, the next step is curing and storing winter squash properly so they last as long as possible in cold storage.
While soft-skinned squashes like zucchini can be picked before they are mature, winter squashes need to reach maturity prior to harvesting.
Use these tips to know when to pick your winter squash so it can be cured for storage.
- When to Pick Winter Squash
- Signs Winter Squash is Ready to Harvest
- Winter Squash Examples
- The Difference Between Winter and Summer Squash
When to Pick Winter Squash
As a new gardener it is not always obvious when our crops are ready for harvesting. We’re often just thrilled that we grew something—and we should be. It’s wonderful to be able to grow our own food.
But learning how to time harvests right to catch foods at their peak is the next skill to learn.
With winter squash, one of the problems is they can appear ready for picking before it’s time.
Unlike summer squash like zucchini that we eat when the skins are soft and the plant is still immature, winter squash is picked at maturity when the rind (usually inedible) has toughened up. You could eat winter squash before maturity but you would miss out on that sweetness we know and love. You can read more about these two squash groups here.
The number one guideline for picking winter squash is knowing the days to maturity. This is the number of days we know it takes the plant to grow and mature in the garden. Check the information with your seed company to confirm whether this is from germination to harvest or from transplanting to harvest. They are two different things and can mean the difference of many weeks.
Either way, there is no working around how long it takes each type of vegetable to grow. The days to maturity is a basic guide that says if conditions are met, it should take about this long to harvest mature or ripe fruit.
If you’re in that timeframe, it’s very likely harvest time. For many of us in cold climates, this is around August, September, or perhaps into October. The other tips listed below can also help your decision.
Winter squash is picked when mature because that’s when starch levels peak. From there, we cure the fruit to allow the starches to convert to sugar. That’s when they are delicious and can be used right away or placed in cold storage. Depending on the variety, they may store safely for weeks (acorn squash) or months (butternuts) if conditions are right.
How to Cure & Store Squash covers everything you need to know after harvesting.
Signs Winter Squash is Ready to Harvest
1Days to Maturity
This is your number one tip. And it’s going to be different for every type of winter squash you grow.
Let your seed packet be your guide.
I have listed the days to maturity for many types of squash below.
How many days to maturity does the seed packet (or catalog) say it will take?
Has it had enough time? Were conditions favorable (sun, water, soil)?
Has there been enough time since the fruits started forming? This stage alone can take 50 to 60 days.
Some years my squashes and watermelons are very slow to mature, other years they are ready right on schedule. A quick review of the weather often explains the speed or delay.
Do not, however, wait to harvest until frosts set in. The flavor becomes unpleasant once the temperatures really drop and there is no getting it back.
As winter squash mature, the skin hardens. Is yours thick and tough?
Some growers test for maturity with a fingernail: if you can easily mark the surface, it’s not ready. Or it’s getting too late and beginning to rot.
In an ideal growing season, the squash ripens on the vine and the stem starts to dry out and turn brown. That’s an easy tell.
But, the late summer or fall weather may have other ideas and, with frost coming, you may just have to pick it anyway.
Does your squash look like the photo in the seed catalog?
Size and color can be good indicators of maturity, although sometimes the fruit—just like humans—can appear mature before their time.
So, it’s just one more factor to consider.
Also check the field spot—that part of the fruit that rests on the ground in the garden. This will sometimes darken with maturity.
Knocking on mature squash and watermelon can produce a hollow sound. There’s more of a thud when they are under and over ripe. I’ll leave it to you to conduct comparison tests. I do not have an ear for this.
As you can see, no one sign is going to guarantee timely picking, but, together they help us make an educated guess.
Ready to Harvest?
Leave 3-inches of stem attached to the squash and remove from vine using a clean blade. Hold your squash from the bottom: you do not want to break or damage the remaining stem.
After harvesting, it’s time to cure and store your winter squashes.
Winter Squash Examples
If you look through seed catalogs, you will notice there are 3 main species.
Some varieties are open-pollinated (OP). Others are hybrids (F1). This explains different seed types and common terms.
The days listed are days to maturity (from transplant to harvest time).
Smaller winter squashes including acorn squash do not store as well as larger, thicker-skinned varieties. Be sure to eat them in the first month or two after harvesting.
- Festival (85 days) – F1
- Mashed Potatoes (90 days) F1
- Reno (70-75 days) F1
- Table King (105 days) OP
- Table Queen (85 days) F1
- Delicata (80-100 days) OP – also called Bohemian or Peanut squash
- Sweet Dumpling (110 days) OP
- Small Sugar Pumpkin (110 days) OP
- Spaghetti Squash (90-100) OP
- Burgess Buttercup (115 days) OP
- First Taste (85 days) F1
- Gold Nuggett (85 days) OP
- Kurinishiki Mini Kabocha (95 days) F1
- Shokichi Green Mini Kabocha (100 days) F1
- Shokichi Red Mini Kabocha (100 days) F1
- Sweet Mama (85-95 days) F1
- Turban Squash (100 days) OP
- Uchiki Red Kuri (80 days) OP
- Queensland Blue Pumpkin (110-120 days) OP
- Sugar Hubbard Squash (110 days) OP
- Super Moon (90 days) F1
These ones often taste best after several months of storage.
- Butternut (110-120 days)
- Waltham (110 days) OP
- Tiana (95 days) F1
- Early Butternut (85-90 days) F1
- Victory (88 days) F1
- Butterbaby (105-110 days) OP
- Butterbush (75-85 days) F1
- Fairytale Pumpkin (110 days) OP
- Gold Nugget (85 days) OP
The Difference Between Winter and Summer Squash
Summer squashes, like zucchini, have soft, edible skin and are best eaten within days or weeks (at most) after picking if stored in the fridge. Winter squashes have hard, inedible skin and need to mature before harvesting and then go through a curing process to allow natural sweetening of the inner flesh. Winter squashes can last many weeks or months in the right cool storage conditions.
All squashes (winter, summer) are in the Cucurbitaceae family—also known as cucurbits or gourd family with over 965 species including cucumbers and watermelons.
We grow all of them during the summer, of course, but put them into summer and winter groups based on various characteristics.
Summer squashes are the softer-skinned varieties that grow quickly (45-60 days), often in bushes producing a lot of fruit. We pick and eat summer squash when it is immature. To avoid ending up with massive zucchinis the size of Goodyear blimps, it is best to harvest the fruit when moderate in size. This also encourages more fruiting.
- Summer squashes have soft, edible skins and last a few weeks in the fridge at most.
- Winter squashes have tougher skins and can be put in cold storage for weeks or months depending on the variety.
Winter squashes are slower growing (70-120 days) and have tougher skins. They grow on vines that sprawl across the garden and are harvested when mature at the end of the growing season before frost sets in. Not all winter squash are big like large Halloween pumpkins, but if they are, one vine may produce just one or a few. The little guys are more prolific.
Summer squashes are best eaten right away. Many winter squashes can be stored for the winter (if conditions are right) and improve with time.
One other distinction I grew up with is: would you eat the skin? If yes, it’s a summer squash. Too thick and tough? It’s a winter squash.
All the plants in the Cucurbitaceae family have similar needs and behaviors:
- Optimal soil temperature for germinating seeds: 25-35°C (68-95°F).
- Male flowers grow first. Female flowers form second and have tiny fruits at the base that require pollination.
Related: Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?
If you have squashes you won’t be storing or eating, you can use them as fall decor. See these no-carve ideas for pumpkins.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
Seed Starting for Beginners
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by Melissa J. Will
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