When and How To Harvest Your Winter Squash
I love writing this blog for so many reasons. One is that I get to take advantage of this platform and try to make you laugh with tales of my trials, tribulations and mistakes as a farmer. But perhaps a more salient reason is that I get to respond in a more thorough and public way to gardening questions I’m asked by friends and volunteers at Petaluma Bounty.
If I’m particularly stumped by a question and prompted to investigate further, or if I hear the same question asked more than once in any given week, I’ll try my best to respond on this blog! So, folks, this one goes out to Caroline in Petaluma and Christopher in Sebastopol, two enthusiastic growers with banging vegetable gardens who asked me “How do I know when it’s time to harvest my winter squash?
When to Harvest Winter Squash Tip #1: Watch the Clock
The tricky thing about knowing when to harvest winter squash is that many are fully sized-up LONG before they are ready to harvest. So don’t rush it! Most take at least 100 days (check your seed packets), and when in doubt, leave them out on the vine longer. Plan out your anticipated harvest date long in advance, and slowly taper off watering the plants a few weeks before that date. Then, they should sit there on the vine with no water for one or two weeks.
When to Harvest Winter Squash Tip #2: Stem and Skin
A squash that’s ready will certainly have a thick, woody stem. If there’s any trace of lively looking green-bendy-fleshiness left in the stem, it’s not yet ready.
Try to see if you can make a little indent with your fingernail or if your thumb makes an imprint when pressing against the tough squash skin. You shouldn’t really be able to do either.
When to Harvest Winter Squash Tip #3: Color
The skin on your squash will appear somewhat dull in comparison to younger, immature squash, and the color should have deepened throughout the season. The vines and leaves will be yellowed and fairly dead-looking. This is normal!
When to Harvest Winter Squash Tip #4: Keep an Eye on the Sky
When I say to leave your squash in the field for as long as possible, this extends only to fairly dry and temperate weather. If you’re nearing the end of your wait to harvest, it’s late September or into October and severe weather, heavy rains or repeated, hard frosts are expected, then it’s time to harvest. Even if it’s early! You can sometimes get away with throwing a tarp over your squash plants to protect them from such weather – which can shorten storage time after harvest.
How to Harvest Winter Squash
To harvest your winter squash, use a sharp knife or shears and cut the stem, leaving about least 2 inches. Try not to break the stem during transport – doing so could also compromise shelf life. Once cut from the vine, you can leave the squash outside sitting in place to ‘field cure’ (again, if weather permits), or you can bring them inside and keep them in a fairly warm and dry room for a week or two. After that, you’ll want to store them somewhere darker and cooler – a basement or closet works great. Some varieties of winter squash store longer than others.
Types with thin skins – delicata (my favorite!), acorn, and spaghetti should be eaten within two months of harvest, whereas butternuts and hubbard types can store for anywhere from 4 – 8 months. Most varieties will not be sweet unless you really do allow for at least a few weeks to a month of curing. Delicata is one notable exception – it should be eaten pretty soon out of the field for maximum flavor. Here’s a cool chart from Johnny’s that details when to cut and eat some key varieties.
If you didn’t grow winter squash this year, at least get out and eat some! Check out what Andrea from Quarter Acre Farm here in Sonoma has to say about her squash varieties this year. They’re to die for and all pictures used in this post are courtesy of her farm!
Next time on the blog I’ll be talking all about garlic – just in time for you to plant some in your garden. Until then, find a great recipe for winter squash and share it with your friends.