By: Heather Rhoades
Squash plants are popular with home gardeners, but questions can arise around when to harvest squash. Is the best time to pick squash the same for all kinds of squash? Is the size of summer squash or winter squash a factor in when to pick? Read on to find out.
Summer squash includes any squash that has a thin, tender skin such as:
The size of summer squash can become rather large, but you will enjoy them more if you pick them small. The best time to harvest squash of these varieties is while they are still small. The size of summer squash when it is ready to be picked is around 6 inches (15 cm.) long or wide, if it is the patty pan variety.
Beyond this size, summer squash begins to develop a think skin and becomes bitter. The flavor is not the best for cooking. Frequent harvesting will also encourage the plant to produce more fruit.
Winter squash includes any squash that you can store through the winter. Popular types are:
Winter squash are used when they are fully mature. This means that the best time to harvest squash of this variety is at the very end of the growing season, right around the time of first frost. If by chance your vine is damaged by pests or weather that forces you to harvest early, other indicators of a winter squash that is ready to pick is to tap on it gently. If it feels solid and sounds slightly hollow, than it is ready to be picked.
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Knowing when and how to pick squash is vital. A gardener needs to know when the squash is ripe as well as where and how to cut the fruit off the vine.
Summer squash is harvested in the summer when the fruit is young and tender. They grow quickly, sometimes doubling in size in a day or two. Ideally, they should be picked before the core becomes pithy and develop large seeds. Knowing some facts about each type of summer squash will result in a tastier squash.
Zucchini varieties are at their prime when they reach 6-8 inches, although there are some varieties that are still edible at a length of 1 foot. The zucchini should be dark in color and firm before harvesting. When picking zucchini, use a sharp knife or shears to cut it off the vine.
The many varieties of yellow squash quickly grow to the harvest size of 4-7 inches long. The round varieties are picked when they are 3-5 inches in diameter. Pick young fruit daily. Pulling squash off may damage the plant. Use a sharp knife or shears to take squash off the vine.
Pattypan (scalloped) squash are summer squash that reaches maturity in 45-70 days. The fun-shaped squash can be eaten when the fruit is 2-4 inches in diameter. Check for ripe squash about every two days. Pattypan squash ready for harvest has an even color and a rind that can be easily scratched. Cut squash off with a sharp knife or shears.
Winter squash is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. The many varieties of winter squash have a wide range of maturity days. Generally, when the squash reaches mature size, it can be harvested however, waiting until the vines die back will produce a sweeter squash. Knowing each winter squash variety’s unique characteristics might yield a more bountiful harvest.
Butternut squash is usually mature in 110-120 days after planting. This sweet tasting squash is ripe when the outer rind turns a beige color and the skin cannot be punctured with a fingernail. Cut off the vine with a knife leaving 2 inches of stem on the squash. Cutting too close to the squash can allow bacteria to enter the squash.
Harvest of spaghetti squash is 90-100 days after planting. It is time to pick this squash when it turns a golden yellow or dark yellowish color. A ripe spaghetti squash has hard skin that a fingernail cannot penetrate. When cutting spaghetti squash off the vine, leave about 2 inches of vine on it to prevent bacteria from entering it.
Spaghetti squash growing season comes to a close in the fall or early winter. If a gardener has won the battle with the squash bugs and squash vine borer, their plants are still thriving with unripened fruit. Pick the unripened fruit before the first frost and attempt to ripen it indoors. Here are some tips that may possibly work:
Off the vine ripening only works for squash that was very near maturity. If your green spaghetti squash turns a yellowish color, you have succeeded with ripening it. Use the squash ripened indoors first because they have a tendency to rot quicker than those ripened on the vine.
Acorn squash remains green the entire time on the vine. Most varieties are ready for picking in 75-100 days from planting the seed. When ripe, the shiny green acorn squash will become a dull green plus have a deep orange spot where it touches the ground.
The final ripeness test is checking the toughness of the skin. The acorn squash is ready to be picked when the color is right and a fingernail cannot puncture the skin. To protect your ripened squash from bacterial growth, cut off the vine with a sharp knife or shears leaving about 2 inches of stem on the squash.
Kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin) matures in 85-95 days after planting the seeds. The outer skin of these sweet squash turns from a dark green to a grayish green with some orange spots when they are ready to be picked. Kabocha squash changes from somewhat round to a boxier shape at harvest time. The squash is not fully ripened for another 45 days after harvesting.
Squash harvesting is in full gear merely one and one-half months after planting some summer varieties. The rapid growth of this prolific plant requires daily picking throughout the summer, especially if good disease and pest control is practiced. The squash harvest will be prolonged for the adventurous gardener that also chooses to grow one or more of the winter varieties of squash.
Summer squash varieties such as pattypan, yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck, and zucchini are planted after the last frost. All are harvested before the rind becomes hard and inedible. The different summer squash varieties reach this ideal picking stage at various sizes. Here are the general types of summer squash with their ideal maturity size:
Each variety of summer squash has a unique size at maturity. Check the seed packaging for a more accurate expected growth size. Smaller than ideal size is still totally edible as well. The key is to pick summer squash before the outer skin becomes tough and the inside develops large seeds.
Knowing when to harvest winter squash is slightly more complicated than summer squash. Winter squash days to maturity range from about 75-120 days. Each type of winter squash has unique characteristics that indicate the fruit is ripe and ready for harvest. Here are three winter squash varieties with their unique characteristics:
The delicata squash belongs to the Cucurbita pepo species that includes all the summer squashes however, it is harvested in the fall or winter. It is considered a winter variety because of its harvest season.
Depending on the variety, days to maturity range from 80-105 days. A harvest ready delicata squash rind changes from a whitish color to beige and develops an orange hue. The outer rind will not dent when a fingernail is pressed into it.
Sweet dumpling squash is a small, ivory colored, pumpkin-shaped fruit. The pumpkin-like creases are dark green. Mature squashes of about 1 pound are ready to harvest in 90-100 days or when the squash turns a deeper color. Another harvest time indicator is dried-up brown vines.
Hubbard squash is a true winter squash that is harvested in the fall or winter. Hubbard squash rinds range in color from deep green to gray to blue. The Hubbard True Green Improved Squash variety can grow to an enormous size of 10-40 pounds in about 110 days. The smaller True Hubbard variety takes 115 days to grow to a size of about 10 pounds.
Hubbard squashes are ready to be picked when the rind is too hard to pierce with a fingernail. Waiting to pick the squash when the vines turn brown is a sure way to pick the best tasting Hubbard squash.
Winter squash is a long season crop that takes all summer to grow mature fruit. The seeds are planted in spring as soon as all danger of frost is past. The vines grow, blossoms form, and the plants develop their fruit all summer along the vines.
Harvest fully mature fruit in late summer and early fall. Winter squash does not ripen after it is cut from the vine, so it is important to harvest when mature for the best flavor and storage. Here are ways to tell your winter squash is ready to harvest:
Harvest time will be 60-110 days after sowing and 50-55 day from fruit set, depending on the type of winter squash and the growing climate. Refer to your seed package to be sure the amount of time has past.
Winter squash comes in a variety of different colors. Acorn squash has a green shell, butternut has a pale yellow shell, Hubbard has a blue-gray shell, banana squash has a pink-orange shell, and pumpkins are famous for their bright orange skin.
The shells will change colors throughout the growing cycle and will deepen in color as each one nears maturity. Check the seed package or search online to see pictures of your variety of mature winter squash and compare to yours. The final color should be mostly solid, dull, and with no streaks of green near the stem.
Another way to tell ripeness is to look at the plant’s stem. The stem that attaches the squash to the vine will become withered and brown when the squash is ready to harvest.
A different colored spot often develops on the squash where it touches the ground. It is usually a yellow or orange patch for dark colored squash, and may be white or yellow for lighter skinned squash.
The final test for ripeness is to check the hardness of the shell by pressing your fingernail into the skin. Your winter squash is ready to harvest if it is firm enough to make it difficult to make an impression with your nail.
A light frost typically will not harm winter squash, although it will kill the vines. It’s still a good idea to harvest winter squash before the first frost of fall. If some of the squash seem a little immature for harvesting, they can be protected from a couple of light frosts by placing sheets of newspaper over the vines (be sure to remove the newspaper in the morning).
A hard freeze will damage the squash and they must be harvested before a freeze or you will risk losing the crop.
Many are ready to eat when they’re mature at harvest time, but some do better with time in storage for the best flavor. Remember that the process increases the natural sweetness, so it’s typically recommended that you wait between 50 to 55 days before eating.
Here are some suggestions based on when their flavor is the best!
These fruits can be eaten at harvest, and the best quality for eating is within 2.5 months after harvest.
You can eat spaghetti squash as soon as you harvest them, and they store well for about 2.5 months. That tends to be the peak of their flavor.
This type of squash is often best consumed when you harvest them, and they maintain this quality for up to 3 months after harvesting.
You could cook these right when you harvest them if you picked when they were mature and ready. However, you’ll find that the flavor stays consistent for up to 4 months.
You’ll find they have the best flavor after about 1.5-2 months in storage, but they store well for up to 6 months.
The best time to eat these squashes is two months into storage, but they’ll keep well for up to 6 months. You have plenty of time to enjoy these. Most save them for last!
Welcome to Homegrown/Homemade, a video series from FineGardening.com and our sister site FineCooking.com. We’ll be following a gardener (Danielle Sherry) and a cook (Sarah Breckenridge) as they plant, maintain, harvest, store, and prepare food crops – in this case, squash plants.
Summer squash (zucchini, yellow squash, etc.) have a tender skin and are best eaten when young winter squash (butternut, acorn, etc.) develop a hard skin and will keep for many months after they are harvested. In these videos, Sarah and Danielle are planting summer squash, but the methods shown apply equally well to winter squash.
Summer squash can be harvested when it’s tiny, but the optimum size for oblong varieties is 8 to 12 inches long, and for round types, 4 to 8 inches in diameter. The skin of the squash should be shiny, not dull. Squash can usually be twisted off the vine, but sometimes a scissors helps. Check your squash patch frequently for ripe fruit. The more you pick, the more the plants will produce.
Don’t plant squash seeds too early in the season. It’s best to wait until the soil warms up to about 70°F.
Squash is often planted in mounds (hills), but Danielle shows Sarah a method that makes better sense in terms of watering. Squash need a lot of water, and a plastic pot dug into the soil makes the perfect water reservoir. You plant the seeds around the edge of the pot. When you water the growing plants, you simply fill up the pot, and the plants get water at the roots, where it will do the most good.
Plant four to six seeds 1/2 inch deep and 2 to 3 inches from the pot’s edge. After a week or two, the seeds will germinate. While the plants are young, water them directly, not through the pot, and thin to the strongest two or three plants.
Squash borers, which tunnel into the squash stems and kill them from the inside, are the biggest problem with growing squash. The best defense is to keep them from getting in, and you can do this by wrapping the young stems with a short length of panty hose. If you do notice wilting squash plants, check the stems for signs of borer entry. Squash borers can be dealt with by slitting the stem lengthwise, removing and destroying the borer, then burying the stem in soil. This squash surgery is not for the squeamish, though.
Once squash establishes itself, flowers will appear, followed shortly thereafter by squash. If you notice immature squash turning brown and rotting on the vine, lack of pollination may be the problem. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: you can hand-pollinate the squash. First, determine the difference between female and male flowers. Female flowers have a bulge at the at the base of the flower male blossoms, which are more numerous than female blossoms, have no bulge. Take a male flower, pull off the petals, and use the stamen and anther, which are covered with pollen, as a brush to pollinate the female flowers. Apply the brush to the central stigma of the female flower. Fertilization occurs, and fruit will develop quickly.
Summer squash is hard to preserve. One option is pickling, and that’s best with small squash. To freeze summer squash, grate it, spread it on a parchment-lined baking sheet to freeze, and then pack in a freezer bag. Frozen squash generally has a mushy texture, suitable for soups but not much more. The best method might be grating it and using it in zucchini bread, and in the video, Sarah shows Danielle how to prepare a chocolate-nut zucchini bread.
Grilled zucchini and steamed squash are summer staples, so why not try something a little different? With the aid of a julienne peeler, you can turn your zucchini and yellow squash into strips that look like pasta. A little browned butter and chopped nuts add a lot of flavor to this unusual sauté.
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