At the end of the growing season, it is time to pick winter squash and store them. But how do you know they are ready? Use these tips to harvest the fruit and provide the best storage conditions.
Growing melons? Find out how to know when watermelon is ripe for picking. They do not improve after harvest so timing is everything.
The Difference Between Winter and Summer Squash
Before we jump in with the winter squash tips, let’s make sure we know which squash are in this group.
All squashes (winter, summer) are in the Cucurbitaceae—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. 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.
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?
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).
1 Cucurbita pepo
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
2. Cucurbita maxima
- 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
3. Cucurbita moschata
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
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I wish there was one tell-tale sign it’s picking time but there isn’t.
But, just like watermelon, there are clues, which, considered together, are a good indicator.
We want to pick winter squash when they are mature, which also means they are at their peak starch levels. During storage these starches covert to sugar. And it’s that sweetness that makes them delicious.
Signs Winter Squash is Ready to Harvest
1. Days to Maturity
Let your seed packet be your guide.
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)?
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.
2. Tough Skin
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 beginning to rot.
3. Brown Stem
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, many years do not go this way and, with frost coming, you may just have to pick it anyway.
4. Matches Photos
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.
5. Hollow Sound
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.
How to Store Winter Squash
1. Keep the stem attached
When picking, always keep a few inches of stem attached to the squash and use a sharp, clean knife to make the cut (no pulling or tearing).
2. Only store squash that is damage-free: no cuts, nicks, soft spots, mold. It should be very firm and unblemished.
3. Disinfect the Skin
Wash the skin with a 1:10 bleach/water solution and dry thoroughly to prevent mold.
I had to start doing this one year when gross, fuzzy stuff started appearing in my cold storage room.
Others may skip this step without a problem.
4. Cure the squash before storage
Sit the squash in a dry, sunny spot for 10 days or keep it in a warm room for 5 days. Then put it straight into cool storage.
5. Store in Cool, Dry Location
Ideally, you have a storage room with shelving where you can place the squashes (not touching) on newspaper-lined shelves.
The usual things are recommended: low humidity, good air circulation, and temperatures staying in the range of 10-15°C (50-60°F).
6. Check Every Few Weeks
Put a reminder in your phone to go visit your squash every few weeks.
Remove any that show signs of mold, fungus, or rot, and clean up after them with bleach solution.
And, most importantly, start using them. It’s time for squash spaghetti, soups, muffins, breads, and more.
The smaller and thinner-skinned winter squashes have the shortest shelf life so use those up first.
Squash Seed Snacks
All winter squash seeds are edible.
- Wash seeds and remove stringy bits by rubbing with dish towel.
- Spread out on parchment-lined baking tray.
- Bake at 225°F | 107°C for 15-20 minutes.
- Season as desired.
And there you go! When done right, you can have squash available right through the winter.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛