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When is the Right Time to Harvest Winter Squash?

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Wondering when to harvest your winter squash?

If you’re still wondering when to harvest those winter squash and pumpkins, you’re not alone. Knowing when to harvest winter squash can be a stumper! But we’ve got some simple tips to help you know when your winter squash is at its peak to harvest.

harvest winter squash like butternut

First, let’s clarify the term “winter squash”…

Winter squash actually grows at the same time as summer squash. But winter squash is usually harvested at the same time as (or just a little later than) summer squash. However, the winter ones like pumpkins, butternuts, acorns, delicata, etc… will store for much longer. So you can eat them fresh in winter!

So, I like to think of winter squash as a more hardy-to-store squash than summer squash. For instance, you can harvest an acorn squash or a butternut. Then stick it in a dark drawer or cellar for weeks without having it go bad. But if you tried to do this with a yellow crookneck or a zucchini, you’d end up with a slimy, smelly mush pile of goo pretty soon.

Is it best to harvest winter squash after the first frost?

Many will say that it is best to harvest winter squashes after the first frost. And this can often be true. That’s because a light frost can sweeten up the fruits.  Plus, a frost may help kill the vines. And dead vines may make it easier to see all of your ripe squashes. But this isn’t always the best “rule” to follow for harvesting.

Should you harvest pumpkins & their relatives before a frost?

Sometimes it is better to harvest winter squashes before a frost. And there are a few reasons this can matter.

First, squash plants often begin to suffer from disease like powdery mildew as they age and well before a frost. If this happens, it is ideal to clear out the disease from your garden fast. Sometimes you can remove parts of a diseased plant to keep the plant growing and the squash ripening on the vine. But eventually you’ll probably want to pull out a really sick plant so your garden stays healthy. And that may mean you’re picking those pumpkins a little earlier than frost season.

Second, if a frost isn’t going to happen anytime soon and your squash are ripe, getting them off the ground may ensure critters don’t start gnawing on them. If you leave them in place and they get chewed, your ripe squash might start rotting before you harvest it.

Third, if you’re tired of watering and tending sad, old vines that are on their last legs, harvest what’s already ripe. This might save you on your watering bill. Plus, even if those withering vines are still flowering a bit, its unlikely late season blooms will mature into more ripe winter squash. So gather what you already have and begin to cure them.

How to tell if a winter squash is really ripe?

Winter squash is fully ripe when the skin begins to toughen up. So ideally harvest winter squash when the skin isn’t easy to nick with your fingernail.

And with pumpkins, try thumping them and listen for a hollow sound to be sure it’s fully ripe.

Can I harvest winter squash if the skin isn’t tough?

If your winter squashes don’t have fully tough skin, it may be okay to go ahead and harvest them.

Picking when the skin is still soft isn’t ideal, so save this kind of harvest for “last resort” situations.

For instance, when you’ve got a disease issue or a heavy freeze coming, you may want to go ahead and harvest winter squash with more tender skin. While some of them may still be slightly immature, when you harvest winter squash, you can “cure it”.  Not only will this help firm up the skin, but curing squash helps improve flavor. And it is really easy to do!

So how do I cure pumpkins, acorns, butternuts & the like?

Curing winter squash begins with picking the squash. And when you harvest squash, try to keep some stem attached.

If the fruits are damaged in any way, they probably won’t cure. And they’ll be more likely to rot. So if you find damage that can be cut away, you might want to eat those asap instead of curing them.

To cure undamaged squash, simply store them in a cool location with good airflow for several weeks or months. And try to keep the fruits from touching each other. That’s because
touch points may encourage rot. So always check stored squash regularly. And discard any that go bad.

As they cure, you should begin to see any that were harvested young begin to change to more mature colors with thicker skins.

And in no time at all you’ll have tasty, cured, firm winter squash that’s ready to eat!

5 comments on “When is the Right Time to Harvest Winter Squash?

  1. Alice Eppinga on

    My acorn squash, which I am growing for the first time, are getting quite large in my northern Greece garden, and I wonder if they should be harvested now rather than waiting until the fall. Does leaving them on the vine change the taste?

  2. rhaglund on

    Alice, letting any plant ripen fully on the vine can enhance taste. Acorn squash is a good one to store; if you let it ripen and harden a bit on the vine, this can also help its ability to store into winter. However, if they’re ripe and you want to eat one early, give it a try!

  3. Matron on

    I try to leave my Winter squash on the vine as long as possible to get them properly ripened. I just have to be careful they don’t get any frost!

  4. Lisa Fleck on

    Do you need to keep watering the squash until frost? We are in a drought and I don’t think mine will survive without me watering them. Thanks much!

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