Before the cold temperatures of winter come, you’ll want to make sure you’re able to harvest as much of your produce as possible. The first thing you’ll need to do is pull off all the extra flowers, and possibly even some of the smaller, undeveloped squashes, so that the energy of the plant can be concentrated in the squashes that are already developing.
Remember to watch the weather predictions in your area to make sure you harvest all your winter squashes (as well as tomatoes, peppers, annual herbs…) before freezing temperatures hit your area. If freezing temperatures are in your forecast, or it’s going to be under 40℉ consistently for more than a day or two, it’s time to pick your squash. Then let them sit out in full sunlight for a day or two. This hardens the exterior of the squash, which will help them last longer in storage (which is a huge plus when you’re building up your winter larder!).
Don’t let them sit on the ground, though. The ground is often damp during this season of the year, and it won’t ‘cure’ properly. If rain is predicted, pick at least 24-48 hours before the rain hits and let them sit in the sun, then bring them inside and carefully store them on a soft bed of straw or sawdust. Take care while picking and transporting your squashes. If they get bumped, bruised, scratched, or scraped, it could provide an easy entrance for various organisms that could cause the squash to rot. For this reason, it’s also a good idea to leave at least an inch or two between each squash in storage, and avoid stacking your squashes. It minimizes the likelihood of transferring disease from one infected squash to another, in the case that one of them does end up rotting before it can be used.
Is it Ripe Yet?
There are three fairly fail-proof methods of determining if your squash is ripe or not.
First, take a good look at the surface. Young squash have a bit of a sheen to them, but as they grow and mature, the surface color becomes dull (it loses the shiny-ness).
Second, give it a small thump or two. If it sounds hollow, with a low tone (for its size), it’s probably ripe.
Third, for pumpkins, you can check the pumpkin stem… the bit that stays on the pumpkin once it falls off the vine. If it’s hard, then the pumpkin is ripe.
A lot of people like to press on the rind of the squash to see if it’s hard enough… but what if it isn’t? Then you’ve just bruised the surface of your squash, before it’s even ripe. If you use your fingernail (as I’ve seen recommended by other growers) then you may cut right through the skin which isn’t a good idea. It’s best to use one of the other methods.
If the squash hasn’t had the chance to fully ripen on the vine, and develop a tough exterior, it won’t last as long in storage. Just because a vine is dead doesn’t mean the fruit (squash) is fully ripened. The vine may have died prematurely from disease, environmental stresses, or early frost, and the fruit won’t store as well. Let it cure in the sun to give it as good a chance as you can. Once the vine is dead, it’s about the best you can do.
Don’t wash your squash before putting it into storage. Just brush off the dirt. If it must be washed, use chlorinated water, and make sure it’s entirely dry before putting it into storage.
A lot of people don’t have a special storage cellar for storing squashes and other vegetables over the winter. A garage will do, but it would be best to place the produce on shelves as close to the main house as possible. The temperature in a garage may drop below freezing during the winter, but right next to the walls of the home is likely to stay just a little warmer.
Be aware, however, that even prolonged exposure to temperatures below 50℉ (10℃) can cause damage to your squash. Try to find a storage area that stays between 50℉ (10℃) and 55℉ (12.8℃) and is well-ventilated. A gardener knows that he/she is likely to lose some produce, at any stage of growing and harvesting, and it might be that you’ll just have to plan on losing some of your squashes to rotting or temperature stress. Some of them will likely still be in pristine condition by the time Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, to add delicious flavor and color to your holiday spread, so it’s all worth it in the end.
Here’s a quick storage reference, assuming they’re being stored at the optimal temperature range of 50-55℉, and 50-75% humidity in a well-ventilated area, having been picked ripe, hardened in the sun, and stored well, without any bumps, scratches, or scrapes:
- Pumpkins will store well up to 2 or 3 months. Do not store with apples. Apples give off ethylene gas, which will ‘ripen’ a pumpkin, and cause it to go bad sooner.
- Acorn squash happens to be my favorite of these four, but unfortunately, it only stores up to 6-8 weeks. That give you an extra month or two, but it won’t store through the winter. So it’s probably best to use up all your acorn squashes within the first few weeks.
- Butternut squashes last for between 2-3 months. Not much longer than Acorn squash, but still, that’s an extra 2-3 months of winter squash eating! (The one advantage butternut squashes have is that they’re a little more sturdy when picked prematurely, so even young butternut squashes are likely to store pretty well).
- Buttercup squash is basically the same as butternut: 2-3 months of storage.
- Hubbards are the best storers of them all. They can be stored up to 5 or 6 months! That means if you pick it in October, it’ll last you right through the winter until March or April! And some of them have great flavor.