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Harvesting and storing winter squash

Winter squash

Harvesting

Winter squash mature and ripen – ready for harvesting – from September to October. It is a bit of an art to tell exactly when they are ready, though a hardening of the skin is a good sign – if your fingernail easily marks the surface, it means the fruit aren’t quite mature. Likewise, the stalks dry out in maturing fruit, while colour changes to the skin are also indicators of maturity: green and grey-coloured fruit, for example, may develop an orange or pink patch where they touch the ground.

To harvest, cut the fruit off the plant with a knife or secateurs, leaving at least 2.5 cm of stalk. As rough and ready as they seem, the fruit are easily damaged and should be handled with care.

Harvesting winter squash

Harvesting winter squash.

Curing

After they are harvested, winter squash fruit should be cured in order to further toughen their skin, help almost-mature ones to ripen, and generally improve storage life. To cure the fruit, keep them in a warm environment for 10 to 14 days – this can be done outdoors if there is a sunny spell and the fruit are protected from both rain and frost. A safer alternative is to keep them in a polytunnel or greenhouse, where it is both drier and warmer.

curing winter squash

Curing winter squash outdoors

curing winter squash in a polytunnel

Curing winter squash on pallets in a polytunnel.

Storing

Once they are cured, the winter squash should be stored in a cool, frost-free spot where the temperature can be maintained between 10 to 15ºC. Avoid the temptation to pile the fruit into a box; instead, spread them out in single layers on a table, bench or pallet so that the air can circulate around them. If there is no danger of the temperature dipping too low, a garage or shed will do for storage, though a cool room in the house might be better.

Mature, well-cured fruit stored under the right conditions can keep for up to 3 to 4 months, though some may last even longer (an extreme example being fruit of C. ficifolia, which can keep for two years). Once they are in store, check the fruit regularly for deterioration – the first signs are soft, watery spots on the skin and around the stalk. Mould growth may also be present. Some cultivars store longer than others, and even within a cultivar, there are differences in durability between individual fruit.

Fig leaf squash

Fig leaf gourd (C. ficifolia) can keep for two years.