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Some crops, like leaf lettuce, are quick to go from seed to harvest. Others, like winter squash need a full season to mature. But they’re worth the wait! When I begin harvesting winter squash, everyone loves to help. It’s fun to see the rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes of the many varieties we grow.
Depending on the type of winter squash you plant, you can expect anywhere from one to ten fruits per plant. Small-fruited types like Sweet Dumpling yield up to ten fruits per vine, while large-fruited Blue Hubbard often produces just one to two fruits per plant.
Small space or urban gardeners often shy away from growing winter squash which has a well-earned reputation for being a space hog in the garden. That said, there are some outstanding bush-type squash that can be grown in the smallest of spaces or in containers like fabric bags and still yield a respectable harvest. I’ve had great success with bush varieties like Butterscotch PMR. For more information on the incredible diversity of winter squash, be sure to check out the excellent book, The Compleat Squash by Amy Goldman.
Don’t be in a rush when harvesting winter squash. Harvest at the right time, handle with care, cure the fruits, and store them properly. When you follow these simple steps, you’ll be enjoying your homegrown winter squash until spring.
When to harvest winter squash
Immature squash don’t store well and will be susceptible to rot. When harvesting winter squash, look for these five signs that the time is right:
- The ‘days to maturity’ listed on the seed packet has passed.
- It’s been at least 50 to 55 days since fruit set.
- The rind has turned the mature color. For a winter squash like butternut, that means the rind has turned from the light green of summer to a burnished golden-tan. Not sure of the mature color? Check the seed catalog or website.
- The rind is hard and the fruit sounds hollow when gently tapped.
- Before the first frost. Don’t wait until the plants have been killed by a frost. Frost damages the fruits as well as the plants and will reduce storage quality.
Invariably, there are always a few fruits on the vines in late summer that are not yet mature. To speed up their growth, I trim the growing tips of the vines back to the closest stem a few weeks before the first expected frost. But even if you didn’t trim the vines back, you can still eat immature winter squash. Just be aware that they may not be as sweet as a fully mature, cured squash and they won’t last in storage. Put them in the kitchen where they can be used as soon as possible.
Harvesting winter squash
It may come as a surprise, but the first step to successful storage starts with harvesting winter squash the right way. Careful harvesting can mean the difference between fruits that last for a month and those that last for a year. And after spending a summer tending the vines, you don’t want to damage the fruits when it’s finally time to harvest.
Here are four tips to keep in mind when harvesting winter squash:
- Cut the fruits from the vines with a pair of pruners or a sharp knife. Don’t try to pull or twist the fruits from the vines. Trust me.
- Leave at least two to three inches of stem on each squash.
- Don’t rush it – handle each squash carefully to avoid bruising or damaging the fruits. Never hold or carry a squash by its stem.
- If you do accidentally damage the fruit or break off the stem, use that squash soon. Don’t place it in storage as it will be more prone to rot.
How to cure winter squash
Your just-harvested winter squash may look ready to eat, but to achieve peak flavor and sweetness, most types need to be cured first. Butternut squash, for example, reaches optimum flavor after one to two months of storage. But small-fruited types like Delicata, Acorn, and Spaghetti are fine to eat right away.
Curing is a simple process and not only deepens the flavor, but also thickens up the skins prolonging storage life. Properly cured winters squash can be stored for three to six months, with some types maintaining quality for up to a year.
To cure, leave harvested fruits in a sunny part of the garden for seven to ten days. The exception to this is if frost is in the forecast. In that case, bring the squash to a greenhouse, polytunnel, or indoors to a warm, dry space. Once cured, it’s time to store the fruits.
How to store winter squash
For the longest life, store winter squash in a cool room or root cellar where the temperature falls between 50 and 60 F (10 to 15 C). Ideal humidity is 50 to 70%. I keep mine in my cool basement, but I do know some gardeners who store their winter squash in a closet with good results. As long as they are properly cured, even temperatures of 68 F (20 C) are fine for storage.
Don’t pile them up in a basket or box. Store squash in a single layer and check them every few weeks, removing any that show signs of rot.
Are you going to be harvesting winter squash this autumn? If you need more inspiration on how to cook winter squash, this handy bulletin, Cooking with Winter Squash and Pumpkins is packed with ideas!
For more information on both winter and summer squash, be sure to check out these articles:
- Zucchini problems and how to overcome them
- Pollinating squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins
- Prevent squash vine borers organically
- Recipe idea – stuffed squash