As the weather begins to cool and the days begin to shorten, we look forward to the colorful harvest of pumpkins and winter squash. These sturdy vegetables are emblematic of autumn, whether for seasonal decorating, grinning Jack-o-lanterns, Thanksgiving pies, or warming stews and casseroles. And with proper harvesting and storage techniques, you can enjoy this vegetable bounty long after cold weather has closed the garden down.
Tips for Cultivating
Of course, a good harvest begins months earlier when these long-season crops are planted. Pumpkins and squash do best in light, fertile soil high in organic matter with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. And they like it warm, so be sure to wait until the weather is settled, the danger of frost is past, and the soil is at least 60 degrees F before planting, usually a week or two after the average date of the last spring frost.
If you garden in a short season climate, you can get a bit of a jump on the season by starting seeds 3-4 weeks before your set-out date. Don't start transplants any earlier than this, however, as older plants don't transplant well. And start seeds in individual biodegradable pots to minimize root disturbance when planting.
Pumpkin and winter squash vines need plenty of growing space, so be sure to give your plants plenty of room to roam. You can plant in hills, sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest plants, or in rows, spacing plants 3-5 feet apart and allowing at least 8 feet between rows. If you're short on space, look for bush varieties that thrive in closer quarters.
Place row covers over newly seeded beds or new transplants to keep pests such as cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and flea beetles from attacking vulnerable young seedlings. But be sure to remove covers once plants begin flowering so that bees can get in to do their pollinating work.
Give your vines consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture. Keep vines vigorous with a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks.
Here are just a few of the many delicious pumpkins and winter squash we carry.
'Early Butternut' Squash (82 days) - The sweet, medium sized fruits of this hybrid can be stored for months when mature.
'Acorn or Table Queen' Squash (80 days) - These vigorous vines are heavy producers of acorn-shaped fruits with sweet, dry, tender, pale orange flesh.
'Butternut (Waltham)' Squash (100 days) - An open-pollinated variety that produces good yields of uniform fruits that keep well and have high cooking quality.
'Howden' Pumpkin (115 days) - An excellent keeper, this variety produces uniform fruits with a deep orange color that average 20 pounds.
'Lumina' Pumpkin (105-110 days) - This large, white, smooth surfaced pumpkin is perfect for autumn decorating.
'Cinderella' Pumpkin (95 days) - A French heirloom variety with a unique, flattened shape and brilliant red-orange rind, it's great for decorating or for cooking.
Harvest and Storage
When to harvest: Winter squash and pumpkins are ripe and ready for harvest when they have reached the mature color for their variety, their rinds are thick enough that they can't be easily dented with a thumbnail, and when the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to pick before the first hard frost or they won't keep well. Cut rather than pull squashes and pumpkins from the vine, leaving 2-3 inches of stem, and don't lift fruits by their stems.
Cure for longer storage: Select only the best specimens for storage. Any bumps, bruises, broken stems, or soft spots will shorten storage life, so eat any less than perfect fruits promptly. For the longest storage and the best flavor, "cure" your winter squash and pumpkins. Curing allows their shells to toughen and dry more thoroughly. Place them in a warm, well-ventilated spot (70-85 degrees F is ideal) for several weeks.
Store cool and dry: After they are cured, store squash and pumpkins in a cool spot (no lower than 50 degrees F, and ideally below 60 degrees) with low humidity. Any cool, dry, dark spot is fine, whether it's in an unheated spare room, a cool closet, or a dry basement. But wherever they are, be sure to check the stored veggies regularly and remove any that are getting soft or showing signs of rot.
Q: I'm growing popcorn for the first time. How do I know when it's ready to harvest and how do I store it?
A: While you want to pick sweet corn for fresh eating when the kernels are still tender, with popcorn you need to let the ears mature on the plant. Leave popcorn in the garden until the stalks and husks are brown and dry, then twist and snap each ear from the stalk. But be sure to do this before frost hits. To prepare popcorn for indoor curing, carefully strip away the dried husk from each ear. The kernels then need to be partially dried or "cured" for long-term storage. Place the ears in mesh bags or spread them out in an area where they'll have warm air circulating around them. After a month of curing, the kernels can be taken off the ears and stored in airtight jars. To check if they are dry enough to store, try popping some as a test. If the kernels crack, but don't explode open fully, they need to be dried a while longer. Whether you're removing the kernels from the cob before storage or just before popping, there's no real trick to it. Simply grasp the ear firmly in both hands and twist until the kernels drop off. Once started, the kernels come off with very little pressure. It's a good idea to protect your hands with gloves when you do this.