Harvesting squash and pumpkins: get them while they’re good
Avoid frosted or frozen squash and pumpkins by taking the right precautions, paying attention to the thermometer and knowing when to harvest.
For many home gardeners, the gardening season is rolling to a close and many delicious fruits and vegetables have been harvested and enjoyed. But there are still a few that need to be picked and it is important to pick them at the correct time.
Right now, winter squash and pumpkins are maturing before harvest. To store well, their skin or rinds need to be strong and tough. If stored at the right temperature and humidity, many winter squash can be in good condition until early spring. Because pumpkins do not have a rind that becomes as hard, they are usually beginning to experience decay problems after the winter holiday season.
The biggest worry is frost or freezing temperatures. Some leaf vegetables, like Swiss chard, kale and collard greens, are actually made tastier by light frosts. Others, like beets, carrots and turnips that are below ground, will not notice a temperature dip. But those with rinds that need to be strong and tough for a long winter’s storage can be devastated.
Squash and pumpkins that have frosted or frozen begin to decay as soon as they have thawed. They may not be usable shortly after a heavy frost and certainly cannot handle prolonged storage with their protective skins compromised. The smart gardener keeps an eye to the thermometer and the weather reports. If frost is expected, covering winter squash and pumpkins can make the difference between harvesting and composting. Any temperatures that are projected to drop into the mid-30s should make a gardener’s frost alert kick in.
Squash and pumpkin plants can be covered with old sheets, blankets or quilts. Newspapers that are weighted down or broken-down cardboard boxes could also be used to cover plants. The one thing that will not protect and could cause worse damage is covering with plastic. Plastic sheeting or tarps create moisture vapor below the covering and plants freeze under the supposed protector. If the temperature drops lower than 32°F, it may be almost impossible to protect the squash and pumpkins. Picking them is the only option left open.
If frost is not an issue, winter squash or pumpkins can be harvested when the plant’s leaves die. When the plants are done growing and leaves have shut down, fruit can be removed at any time. They should be removed sooner rather than later if the soil they are resting on is damp or wet.
Be sure to cut the fruit loose with a section of stem attached at the top. Those squash that have stems broken flush with the top can decay in this area. If pumpkins are not being stored for very long, this may or may not be an issue. But harvest them correctly and enjoy the fruits of your labor with lots of butter.
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