Arguably the vegetables that most epitomize autumn are squash, pumpkins, and gourds. Growing your own is immensely satisfying. Whether you plan on carving your pumpkins or eating them, displaying your gourds or enjoying a butternut bisque, proper harvest and storage techniques are crucial.
When The Time Is Ripe
The secret to long-lasting fall produce lies in proper harvest. This means harvesting your squash, pumpkins, and gourds at the right time and using the right methods.
Determining Pumpkin Ripeness
It is easy to determine when a pumpkin is ripe. The fruit, green until now, becomes uniformly orange when it is fully ripe. The rind is hard and the vine is dry and brown. Green fruit or a green vine indicates that the pumpkin is not ready. Harvest after the first light frost. Sometimes a hard frost occurs before your pumpkins are mature. Pumpkins do ripen during the curing process in a worst case scenario.
To harvest, cut the stem with shears or a sharp knife. Leaving three to six inches of stem prevents fruit rot pathogens from developing and helps preserve the pumpkin during storage. Don't be fooled by the convenient handle. Pumpkins are heavy and the stem breaks off easily beneath their weight.
Avoid cutting, dropping, bruising or otherwise damaging your pumpkins during harvest as this attracts pests and disease to your fruit. Wash dirty pumpkins with water to remove excess dirt. Using soapy water and rinsing with a bleach solution of ten parts water to one part bleach kills soil borne pathogens, according to the Illinois Extension agency.
Determining Winter Squash Ripeness
Winter squash do not have the same tell tale orange hue as pumpkins. They come in a variety of colors. The best way to determine if a winter squash is ripe is to test it with a fingernail. A ripe squash has a hard rind. Your nail is not strong enough to break the surface.
Another way to determine the ripeness of a squash is the appearance of the rind. Immature squash are shiny and smooth. Mature, ripe squash are dull and dry in comparison.
Unlike pumpkins, squash do not require a long stem. Stems longer than an inch puncture their neighboring fruits during storage. Using a sharp knife or shears, leave a stem no longer than an inch on all squashes except Hubbard types. Remove the stem completely from your Hubbards.
Wash your winter squash after harvest the same way you wash pumpkins. Be sure to dry the fruit thoroughly.
Determining Gourd Ripeness
The thumbnail rule does not work for gourds. A dent in an unripe gourd lowers its quality. Instead, check the stem. Gourds are ripe when the stem turns dry and brown.
Gourds, like pumpkins, benefit from a stem. Leave a few inches for decorative value and do not handle the gourd by the stem. Wash the gourds if they are dirty and dry with a clean cloth.
Curing And Storing Squash, Pumpkins, And Gourds
Curing squash helps the fruit heal minor surface wounds, cuts, and abrasions. The curing process consists of keeping the fruit at a certain temperature for a certain period of time. This allows the fruit to form a protective layer and lengthens the shelf life. Slightly immature fruit especially benefit from the curing process. A natural curing occurs in the field. Immature fruit do not undergo this process and are therefore more vulnerable.
Curing And Storing Pumpkins
Pumpkins are cured between 80 and 85 degrees with 80 to 85 percent relative humidity. Keep your pumpkins in this range for ten days. Ideal curing conditions are difficult for home growers to achieve. If you do not have access to temperature controlled rooms or storage facilities, try leaving your pumpkins in a greenhouse or a sunny window.
Once cured, store your pumpkins in a cool, dry place. 5O to 60 degrees is ideal. Keeping your pumpkins at 50 to 70 percent humidity eliminates moisture from forming on the fruit and causing rot. If you notice a rotten pumpkin, remove it from your storage area.
Store the pumpkins in a single layer on shelves or pallets. Do not store them directly on a concrete floor. In ideal conditions, your pumpkins should last about 2 to 3 months. Pumpkins carved and stored on your front porch have a much shorter shelf life.
Curing And Storing Winter Squash
Winter squash do not require curing like pumpkins unless the fruit is immature. Curing actually damages Acorn squash, which has the shortest shelf life of the winter squash family at only five to eight weeks. Hubbard squash, on the other hand, lasts the longest. These squash retain freshness and flavor for five to six months. Butternut, Buttercup, and Turban type squash keep two to three months in optimal conditions.
Store Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, and Turban squashes at 50 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 50 to 70 percent. Store Hubbard types between 50 and 55 degrees at 70 to 75 percent humidity.
Curing And Storing Gourds
For best results spread the gourds on shelves lined with newspaper in a well-ventilated room or shed. Turning the gourds and changing out damp newspaper daily for one week hardens the skin and gives the gourd time to develop its signature surface color.
This process is not necessary for beautiful gourds. After the one-week drying process place the gourds in a warm, dark, dry area for three to four weeks. This is the real curing process. After this, decorative gourds keep for three to four months. Adding a coat of wax or paint extends the life of the gourd an additional two months.
The Secret To Storing Squash
Storing winter squash, gourds, and pumpkins is all about paying attention to detail. Harvesting at the right time with the right tools and the proper method eliminates damage to your produce. Curing your pumpkins, gourds, and immature squash allows them to form the protective covering that keeps them fresh during storage. Storing your bumper crop at the right temperature and humidity provides optimum storage conditions for a long lasting harvest.
This fall, enjoy your harvest all winter long by storing your pumpkins, squash and gourds the right way.