Ask the Master Gardener: Dull, dry rind means winter squash ready to harvest

By: Trish Grenfell Placer County Master Gardener
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Question: How do I tell when winter squash is ready for harvest? Answer: Yum! Winter squash dining will soon be upon us! If you were smart enough to grow your own, here are some hints for harvesting. Pick winter squash such as butternut, acorn and hubbard at the end of the growing season and before the first frost. Some will ripen faster than others; when you see the stem changing from a bright green, growing color to a yellow-green or tan color, that fruit is ready for picking. Acorn squash should be a rich green color, butternut squash will turn from a light tan or beige color to a deep tan color and spaghetti squash will turn from a cream color to a bright yellow. Another test: When mature, the skin (rind) is hard and cannot be punctured by thumbnails. The mature fruit has a dull and dry skin compared to the shiny, smooth skin of immature fruits. Whereas pumpkins need to be cured after picking, butternut, hubbard and other squash types do not need be cured — the benefits are less than that of a pumpkin. If you do choose to cure, do so for only a few days. However, curing is very detrimental to acorn types since it leads to a decline in quality. Note: Curing means to dry them in the sun. Winter squash is a warm-season vegetable that differs from summer squash in that it is harvested and eaten in the mature fruit stage, when the seeds within have matured fully and the skin has hardened into a tough rind. Thin-skinned summer squash — such as zucchini and yellow crook-neck — should be eaten soon after harvest. Their shelf life is much shorter than winter squashes. Note: Immature winter squash may be eaten during the summer, but is normally allowed to mature so that it can be stored for months and eaten in the winter. Winter squash retain their sugar longer when stored at cool room temperature. Chilling degrades the squash. Research conducted at UC Davis and Oregon State University showed that most winter squash preferred storage at 50 to 59 degrees, with low-moderate humidity and good ventilation. Any colder and they went bad rapidly. Acorn types have the shortest storage time of five to eight weeks. Butternut, turban and buttercup types will store for two to three months. It is the hubbard types that last the longest — five to six months. Save some winter squash soup for me! Have gardening questions? Call the Master Gardener hotline at (530) 889-7388.