Winter squashes are one of the ultimate growing pleasures, in my experience, because:
- They produce big yellow flowers
- They attract pollinators
- There are so many different flavors and uses (pies, stuffing, salads…), and…
- They store very well for several weeks to months, giving us a bit of summer color and flavor, right through the winter.
For some of you in the northern states, you’ll be picking your winter squashes soon, if you haven’t already. If you’re holding off as long as you can, trying to get your winter squash to grow just a little bigger, whether it’s your butternut squash, pumpkins, acorn squash, or a giant hubbard, there’s something you can do to ensure maximum growth, and get just a little more delicious sunlight stored inside those creamy yellow and orange packages.
Most varieties of winter squashes originally come from tropical or sub-tropical areas, meaning that it never frosts. So the plants would normally produce until they’ve lived out their life span, and then die. In the northern hemisphere, where the climate is temperate and we experience frosts every winter, it’s the cold that usually kills the plant. But until it gets cold, your winter squash doesn’t know its time is up. So it’ll often keep producing flowers until temperatures dip below 60℉ (15.6℃), and stay there consistently for several days . By the end of August to mid September, your winter squash plants will have its hands full, trying to ripen the squashes that are already growing on the vine before frosts hit. So the best thing you can do to help it is to pull off any flowers if there are any, helping the winter squash plant to concentrate its energy into the squashes that are already formed and growing. The winter squash likely won’t have time to turn those flowers into a squash that’s mature enough to use, let alone store, so it’s best to divert that energy to the ones already on the vine.
Take a basket with you, though, because those flowers are edible. They have a very light, squashy flavor and they are such a beautiful addition to a meal (or sometimes they can even serve as the main course). If you want some great squash flower recipes, visit this Pinterest board by Andrea Doria for a lot of ideas! ➙
If you pull of those extra flowers, you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing the squashes that are already growing become as big and flavorful as possible because the energy of the plant is now concentrated on fewer squashes instead of having to divide its energy among so many developing fruits and more flowering vines.
(This is the same process that champion winter squash (mostly pumpkin) growers use. They choose a single flower to develop into their prize squash, pulling off all other flowers throughout the summer, usually daily. This allows the plant to put all of its energy into growing a single humongous pumpkin.)
For some great winter squash recipes, check out this pinterest board by Marcee Pentelute! ➙
Remember to watch the weather predictions in your area to make sure you harvest all your winter squashes (and 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. Pick the squash before inclement weather/temperatures, and 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. Don’t let them get wet, either. 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 minimize 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.
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. But some of them will 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-length 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 (my favorite is the giant candy roaster).
P.S. While writing this article, I couldn’t decide if the plural of squash is ‘squash’ (like the plural of moose is moose), or if it’s squashes… In my opinion it should be squash, but it seems the general consensus is “squashes”. What do you think?