I Love Winter Squash – Harvesting, Storing, & Curing Winter Squash

When I was a little baby, I have been told, I loved winter squash so much that it was fed to me so often that I got sick of it, and then I refused it for the next 25 years – “The Lost Years”. Then when we moved to Vermont and started working on farms, it was winter squash this, and winter squash that, blah blah blah winter squash. Quite frankly, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But, because as adults we have to try new things, I vowed to give them a try in the fall. Turns out they were pretty tasty. It was the Delicata that brought me back into the Fold of the Lovers, but now I like them all, and look forward to them all summer.

We end up spending a lot of real estate on squash, and although the return isn’t as high as some other crops, the labor that we spend on them is less over the course of the season. We use plastic mulch to hold down weeds and give our soils a little more heat. All of our squashes are transplanted, and the same day that we plant them we cover them with a light weight remay. We don’t use hoops, as the upright leaves keep the fabric off the growth center of the plants. The remay does a few things. It keeps the wind off them, which helps them to find their legs, but more importantly it keeps striped cucumber beetle away. This beetle transmits a wilt, but can also destroy a young planting just by feeding on the leaves. We leave the remay on for a few weeks, until we see some flowers; typically the males are produced first to bring in the pollinators. We have also taken to purchasing a small hive of bumble bees to aid with pollination. A female squash blossom is only open for one day, and if the honey bees aren’t flying, you don’t get a second chance. Bumble bees are a lot more rugged, and will leave the hive when the others stay home.

I grow a fair amount of winter squash on our farm, and the quality of the fruits has a lot to do with what happens in the fall. Harvest them too soon, and the flavor won’t be there, wait too long and you can lose storage potential. In Vermont, we are looking at the patch with an eye towards harvest beginning in August. Typically the pepos, such as the acorns and delicatas, are good indicators; they set earlier in the season and are some of the first to be ready. When they are ripe, there is an orange spot where they are in contact with the ground. It’s important to be careful when you rotate the squash so they don’t separate from the plant. The final days on the plant are important; all the last remnants of goodness are being sent to the fruits to mature the seeds. I cut them from the vine close to the fruit, and am careful with them from this point on; I don’t want to pierce neighboring fruits.  The maximas: kuris, buttercups, and hubbards, also have the color contrast on the ground spot, but sometimes it can be subtle. The hubbards, for example, have a lighter grey spot. The place to pay close attention to is the peduncle. It’s not really a stem; let peduncle be your word of the day! There will be a change from green and fleshy to more corky and dried. It’s important again to give the plant the opportunity to get everything it can to the fruit. I cut them close to the fruit at harvest.

As the summer draws to a close, I am also on the lookout for sunscald, which looks like a bleaching of the fruit; the intense late summer sun and decreasing vigor of the plants’ canopy make this more of a problem for the pepos, but I have seen it in all of the varieties on occasion. There comes a point when there is little to be gained by leaving the fruits in the field. I try to bring them in before it gets too cold at night, and I also like to bring them in dry. There are plenty of diseases that use surface moisture to get a hold, and I want to avoid all of them. I make a point of inspecting the fruits as we harvest them, and if I see a problem on a squash, it doesn’t come in with the others. I bring them out of the field for the hens if it’s really bad.

We harvest directly into bulk bins in the field and then bring them into the greenhouse to cure for a week or two; the curing process sweetens the squash and helps the skin to set. We use our greenhouse because it’s convenient and warm; if we have to we can light the boiler and heat it at night. I am mindful of the temperature, and I open the greenhouse if it gets too hot. Later into the fall, we are heating to control moisture. If the squash gets cold, when the greenhouse heats up in the light of day, water can and will condense on the fruit, which will lead to a premature rot. Once the economics of heating the greenhouse wane, we move the squash into another storage setting; dry and 50 is ideal. I also take the time to space them out a little bit; good air circulation is the key to storage.

Invariably, our squash starts to show some softness later into the season. We are mindful of their condition, and just process them when they start to turn. There’s never a bad time for pie, after all.

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5 Responses to I Love Winter Squash – Harvesting, Storing, & Curing Winter Squash

  1. Yes, I love Winter Squash too but we have a BIG problem with “stink bugs,” (vine borers). They totally destroyed our squash. I never had a problem with them until a few years ago. I looked them up on the internet and it said they came from China about 10 years ago. The only Winter Squash they don’t like is Butternut. What can I do organically to control them? I use Neem and Phyrethon and that helps somewhat…………

    • High Mowing Organic Seeds says:

      Hi Cynthia,

      Great questions! First of all, squash vine borers (Melittia cucurbitae) and stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) are two different species, and it is important to identify which one you are dealing with. Stink bugs have become a major problem in the US only recently, while vine borers have been around for ages.

      Stink bugs are large with shield-shaped bodies (much like squash bugs), feed on a wide variety of crops by sucking their juices, and exude a compound that smells similar to cilantro. Like squash bugs, they can be controlled by keeping your squash plants covered with row cover until they start flowering, then hand-picking the beetles (with gloves on) and dropping them into soapy water. The green, barrel shaped eggs are laid on the underside of the leaves and should be destroyed as well. Commercially available pheromone traps are also a good tool for monitoring and reducing the population – place traps every 20 to 30 feet around the perimeter of the garden during the summer, and in trees and shrubs to catch the mating bugs in the spring. You can attract the natural predators of stink bug eggs (ladybugs, lacewings) by planting French marigolds and sunflowers, or you can try planting an early trap crop of okra, amaranth or sweet corn just outside your garden, then destroy the plants when they become infested. Even organic pesticides are not recommended for stink bugs because they are highly mobile, aren’t usually affected by toxins of the surface of plants, and dying populations are quickly replaced by new ones. Organic pesticides can also harm the natural enemies of stink bugs. Insecticidal soap can be effective when sprayed directly on the bugs, but only as a last resort.

      Squash vine borers are very different. They look like black and orange wasps at their adult stage, but the white grubs are most harmful. If your plants are attacked by vine borers every year, you can stop their entry by wrapping the vines around the base of each plant with nylon stockings or aluminum foil. Check the base of squash plants every day, first for the tiny red-orange eggs laid around the base of the stem, then to monitor for holes in the vines and “sawdust” on the ground from the grubs chewing their way in. If you find holes or wilted vines, don’t panic! Your squash can still be saved. The key is to locate the borers’ point of entry and use a razor blade to open the vine lengthwise at that point and remove the grubs. Then bury the cut part of the vine with soil, and several other parts of the vine as well, to encourage rooting. This way even if the vine at the base of the plant dies, the plant can still grow and mature squash.

  2. Thank you for the great tips! I will be buying the remay this year and hope to have a lot more success with my squashes this year. Last year I lost a bunch due to beetles.

  3. Tracy says:

    I always have an abundance of winter squash…I’ve always canned the extra but am wondering if there is a way to store it safely without canning or freezing, without a cold cellar?

    • High Mowing Organic Seeds says:

      Hi Tracy, Winter squash is best stored at 50-60 degrees and 50% relative humidity – so actually, a cold cellar wouldn’t be the ideal place for it. The key to getting them to keep is to cure properly before storing. Be sure to harvest your squashes when the stems are starting to turn corky/woody, and skin is hard. Cure for a week or two in a warm, dry, airy spot (about 75-85 degrees) before storing for the winter. For best results, make sure your squash never get below 50 degrees!

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