There are few things better than pumpkins and winter squash to brighten the fall and winter dinner table. Almost nothing is more satisfying than growing them yourself. With the right knowledge, you can turn your harvest into satisfying and nutritious fare for months.
Check for Ripeness
How do you know if your pumpkins and squash are ripe and ready to pick? Mature fruit will be fully colored. Thump them to see if they have a hollow sound inside. Try denting the rind with your fingernail; a mature pumpkin or squash may dent, but it won't puncture easily. The foliage should be starting to turn yellow and decline. The stems should be hard or starting to crack or turn brown.
Immature Pumpkins and Winter Squash
It's best to leave pumpkins and winter squash on the vine as long as possible to ensure that they are fully mature. If frost threatens, go ahead and pick any green ones, leaving a 4" stem. Move them to a protected location. If they are far enough along, you may still be able to ripen them enough for carving. Follow disinfecting and curing instructions below, and expose green areas to sunlight.
Harvest pumpkins and winter squash no later than the 1st or 2nd light frost as fruit can be damaged with prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Fruit should be fully mature before storage, and immature fruits may spoil quickly. When cutting from the vine, leave 2" of stem, but do not carry it by the stem when handling. Many pumpkin farmers leave their pumpkins in the field to let them cure naturally and to open their fields for "you pick" pumpkin patch sales. Mature pumpkins can withstand a light frost that kills the foliage and leaves the fruit intact. However, extended exposure to frost or hard frost can damage the pumpkins, leaving them vulnerable to fungal or bacterial problems that can result in rapid decomposition. Ideally, pumpkins should be harvested when the foliage has begun to turn yellow and dry out and before the first light frost (28-32°F).
Before eating, carving, or storing, cure the fruit in a sunny window or a porch at 75-80°F for 1-2 weeks. This will allow the skin to harden further and scratched or dented areas to heal. To prolong the storage period, kill any surface organisms by dipping or spraying with a 1:10 dilution of bleach and water.
The ideal storage condition is 50-60°F with good air circulation around each squash. This may be in a cool basement, root cellar, garage, or a storage shed, depending on your climate. Keep stored squash and pumpkins away from apples and pears or any other ripe, or ripening fruit, which release ethylene gas and hastens decay.
Average storage period:
6 weeks: Delicata; 1-2 months: Acorn; 2-3 months: Butternut, Buttercup, pumpkins; 3-6 months: Banana, Spaghetti