Thursday, August 27, 2009

Winter squash and pumpkin fun

As summer moves into fall, peek in your neighbor’s gardens and see what type of winter squash and pumpkins they’re growing. They are often standouts for their color and size. I ran into this pumpkin and Turks turban squash arbor (photo) that looked like a space saver. Grow vines vertical rather than horizontal! The centuries old, flat, French “Cinderella” pumpkins (Rouge vif d'Etampes) are also fun (see photo). Now is probably the time to remove any new fruit set on winter squash and pumpkins so existing fruit can mature.

These vines need lots of space to have the many leaves needed to produce enough energy to grow these large fruit and generally require 90 to 120 days to grow. The gardener in this photo is fighting to keep her window wells from being covered by a pumpkin vine. Certain winter squash do come in bush or semi-bush varieties (acorn, butternut, delicata). Vine tips can be pinched to keep vines in bounds but will limit production and quality. It’s better to find a spot with room such as this streetside gardener (photo).

Winter squash differs from summer squash in that it is generally harvested and eaten in the mature fruit stage. Vegetable spaghetti (photo) is probably an exception often being harvested in a semi-mature stage (harvest when the skin turns from green to buff). Pick most winter squash when the skin has hardened into a tough rind not easily dented with light fingernail pressure. The seeds within should have matured unlike the young tender seeds in summer squash. When ripened to maturity, fruits of most varieties can be stored for use throughout the winter.

Winter squash are harvested in September or October, before heavy frosts. Carefully cut squash from the vines, leaving two inches of the often-woody stem attached if possible. Avoid cuts and bruises to the fruit when handling. Fruits that aren’t fully mature, are injured, have had their stems knocked off, or have been subjected to heavy frost won’t keep. Use as soon as possible or compost (watch for seedlings in the compost).

Squash are best stored dry at a temperature between 50 and 55°F. Don’t pile squash more than two fruits deep. Single layers that don’t touch prevent rots from spreading through fruit.

Don’t forget that squash and pumpkin seeds can be dried in a dehydrator or roasted for a healthy snack. When scooping out seeds to use the fruit, wash clinging fibers from the seed and dry or roast.

Photo credits: Squash arbor, Turks turban squash, Cinderella pumpkin, Pumpkin vines over window well, streetside pumpkin garden, vegetable spaghetti squash – Carl Wilson


  1. What do you recommend when we have a hard frost coming early for the winter squash. Our rinds haven't fully hardened, and the vines are not yet dying, but I'm reading that they should be pulled in before a hard frost. Is this correct? Thanks!

    1. Erecting a low frame and covering with plastic (more waterproof than fabric which gets heavy when wet if rain/snow is expected) may help. The frame keeps leaves and vines from being broken by the cover. If using a lightweight cover such as floating row cover fabric the frame is not necessary. The covering provides frost protection by trapping heat from summer-warmed soil under the cover so be sure to secure the edges into the soil. If you use plastic it must be removed on following sunny days to avoid heat buildup and cooking the plants (acting like a greenhouse). Covering may gain you some additional growing time to harden the skins so the squash stores better when harvested.