Here is a piece of knowledge not everyone knows (whether avid gardeners of beginners). Did you know that winter squash does not refer to one type of vegetable, but rather a group of several different species of squash? They are all part of the Cucurbita genus, and in some countries they are simply referred to as “pumpkins”.
There are many varieties of winter squash: butternut squash, buttercup squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, Kabocha (or Hokaido) squash, Delicata squash, field pumpkin, etc. They all have similar characteristics, and their harvesting times are rather similar, however, there are certain differences you need to take into consideration, based on the species of winter squash you are growing and harvesting.
In this article we will discuss when to harvest winter squash, i.e. when to harvest the various types of winter squash. With this knowledge of when to harvest squash, and other useful tips, you will have better chances of a good harvest and have wonderful vegetables for your daily meals.
Growing and Harvesting Winter Squash
The seeds of the winter squash plants do not develop when the soil is cold. That being said, when the temperature ranges from 70 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, or 21 to 35 degrees Celsius, the seeds of the winter squash develop the best, meaning their growth is the best during spring and fall.
Unlike the summer squash types, which can be harvested from the early stages of their growth (and should not be left to overgrow, too), the winter squash should be harvested when their skin is hard and when their color grows deeper and “more ripe”.
If you decide to harvest winter squash, make sure that you harvest them before frost is announced. September and October are the most optimal months for harvesting the winter squash.
It is really important to harvest the winter squash when they are mature enough – the vegetables that are not ripe enough have the danger of rotting, and thus, cannot be stored for a longer period of time, unlike the squash that was harvested when mature. If you happen to harvest winter squash before it is fully mature, make sure you use them as soon as possible. Also, the immature squash will not have the sweet, full taste the ripe winter squash usually have – so be prepared for this as well.
The usual average time for harvesting is around 50 to 55 days from planting the seed. However, this varies from the species of winter squash, the weather conditions in this period, the temperature of the soil, and other external factors. Still, you should keep this time frame in mind. When you are buying the seeds, make sure to ask about the “days to maturity” of the particular species you are buying. Some seeds packs come with information on them, though.
Now that we have determined the average characteristics on when to harvest winter squash, let’s go over the various types of winter squash and learn something more about them.
When to Harvest Butternut Squash
You can tell your butternut squash is ripe to be harvested when their color is tanned and deep, and when their skin is hard. The easiest way to check if their skin is hard is to try and puncture their body with your thumbnail; if their skin cannot be punctured this way, they are ready to be harvested. The rind that used to be light green should have a golden-tan color now.
Make sure to leave the stems when harvesting the butternut squash – it should be at least a few centimeters (one inch) long.
When stored, the butternut squash can survive from 2 to 3 months. However, make sure it is stored in proper temperature and make sure it is not close to other fruits that are ripening, such as peaches and apples. When they are ripening, they release ethylene gas. This decreases the lifespan of the squash in storage.
When to Harvest Buttercup Squash
Unlike most of the winter squash species, the buttercup squash might need a little bit more time to be ready to harvest – it usually takes up to 100 days for this species, native to North America, to be completely mature and prepared to be harvested.
When the buttercup squash is ripe, it has a dark green and gray/cream color, and when you cut it in half, its insides are orange. Avoid harvesting it if there are still some yellow patches around it. It has a sweet taste, so if you harvest several of your fruits and they are still not very sweet, you might want to wait for a few days more.
Note that the buttercup squash does not ripe after being harvested – so make sure it is fully ripe when removing it from the vine.
When to Harvest Spaghetti Squash
Unlike the buttercup squash, which does not ripe after being cut from the vine, the spaghetti squash will continue to ripe shortly after being harvested. That means that even if you harvest it a bit prematurely, it is still not as serious a mistake. Winter squash farmers usually harvest spaghetti squash prematurely if frost is being announced in the upcoming days.
The ripe spaghetti squash has a dark yellow, or golden yellow color, with a hard and very thick skin. Another sign of a ripe spaghetti squash is the vine being in brown-ish color.
Winter Squash General Care Tips
Winter squash actually grow through the summer months. However, they are called winter squash because of the thick rinds (skin) they develop which helps with their preservation throughout the winter months.
Another distinction between summer and winter squashes is that winter squash has a cavity at its center where all the seeds are stored. In the case of summer squashes, though, the seeds are scattered all over the inside of the fruit.
In terms of taste, winter squash tastes better as it cures and grow. Summer squashes taste better when harvested young.
When growing winter squash, it is very similar to growing summer squash. The main difference is that whatever you have to do for summer squash, you have do more of it for winter squash. Winter squash needs more water, more room, more time and more fertilizer to grow well.
Winter squash actually hates the winter. For it to grow, it needs about three months of frost free time. Both the fruit and the plant itself are frost sensitive. So make sure that you plant the seeds when you are certain that no more frosts will occur.
Winter squash can easily take over a huge portion of your garden. Make sure that you give the plant plenty of room to grow. Direct its vines towards more space, if it tends to crawl towards other plants. You can also train vines to clamber along fences, ladders or arbors to make use of vertical space, instead off just horizontal space.
Winter squash need a lot of water. The fruit is large. It needs a lot of sustenance for optimal growth. The plant needs steady, even and heavy watering. Mulching is also a key technique to keep the soil area around the plant moist. It is important to avoid watering the plant itself, but rather the soil. Getting the leaves and vines wet causes mildew to set in.
The leaves may look wilted during the hot afternoon hours. But when the temperatures cool down, the leaves will actually look fresh again. What the leaves experience is heat-stress, not water-stress. They don’t need watering during those periods.
What Are The Best Uses For Winter Squash?
Winter squash is a versatile and nutritious vegetable that is used in many different types of dishes. Here are some of our favoutite uses for winter squash:
- Soups and stews: Winter squash can be used to make hearty soups and stews. Its naturally sweet flavor pairs well with savory ingredients like onions, garlic, and herbs.
- Roasted dishes: Winter squash can be roasted in the oven with olive oil and seasonings like salt, pepper, and thyme. The roasting process brings out the natural sweetness of the squash and creates a delicious caramelized exterior.
- Casseroles and gratins: Winter squash can be used in casseroles and gratins, such as mac and cheese with butternut squash, which adds flavor and nutrition to the dish.
- Sides: Winter squash can be used as a side dish, such as mashed butternut squash, roasted acorn squash, or spaghetti squash.
- Sweet dishes: Winter squash can be used in sweet dishes, such as pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, or pumpkin muffins. The naturally sweet flavor of the squash pairs well with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other warm spices.
As you can see Winter squash can be used in just about any meal from savory to sweet. It’s one of our favourite vegetables to cook with because it is so simple to use and it’s hard to get anything wrong with it.
Having various species of winter squash, you cannot follow universal rules about all the winter squash out there. Make sure you consult with the seller about the particular type you are purchasing – the conditions needed for growth, the days it needs to mature completely, does it continue to ripe after being harvested from the vine, etc.
The good thing about winter squash is that most of the species, when harvested fully ripe, can be stored for a long period of time, and you can use them throughout almost the entire winter. So, prepare yourself for many soups, pies, juices, and many other dishes and drinks with your favorite taste.
Winter squash do not require too much effort and grooming, and their only “disadvantage” is that the fruits of some of them might require more space in your garden – so you should definitely keep this in mind if your garden has a rather limited space. If you were wondering whether to plant some winter squash next summer, you should definitely consider the option and find the species that will suit you the best.