Yard and Garden: Harvest and Store Fall Produce

Harvesting vegetables at the right stage of maturity results in nutritious, high quality products. This article provides information for harvesting and storing winter squash, pumpkins and gourds. Growers with more questions can contact the Iowa State University Extension horticulturists at hortline@iastate.edu or call 515-294-3108.

What is the proper way to harvest and store winter squash? 

Harvest winter squash when the fruit are fully mature. Mature winter squash have very hard skins that can’t be punctured with your thumbnail. Additionally, mature winter squash have dull-looking surfaces. 

When harvesting winter squash, handle them carefully to avoid cuts and bruises. These injuries are not only unsightly, they provide entrances for various rot-producing organisms. Cut the fruit off the vine with a pruning shears. Leave a 1 inch stem on each fruit. 

After harvesting, cure winter squash (except for the acorn types) at a temperature of 80 to 85 F and a relative humidity of 80 to 85 percent. Curing helps to harden their skins and heal any cuts and scratches. Do not cure acorn squash. The high temperature and relative humidity during the curing process actually reduce the quality and storage life of acorn squash. 

After curing, store winter squash in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location. Storage temperatures should be 50 to 55 F. Do not store squash near apples, pears or other ripening fruit. Ripening fruit release ethylene gas, which shortens the storage life of squash. 
When properly cured and stored, the storage lives of acorn, butternut and Hubbard squash are approximately five to eight weeks, two to three months, and five to six months, respectively. 

When should I harvest my pumpkins? 

Pumpkins can be harvested when they have developed a deep, uniform orange color and the rind is hard. Mature pumpkins can also be left in the garden/field until the vines are killed by a frost or light freeze. 

When harvesting pumpkins, handle them carefully to avoid cuts and bruises. Cut the pumpkins from the vines with a sharp knife or pair of lopping shears. Leave several inches of stem attached to each fruit. A pumpkin with a 3 to 5 inch stem or handle is more attractive. Also, pumpkins with stems are less likely to rot. Do not carry pumpkins by their stems. The stems may not be able to support the weight of the pumpkins and may break off. 

After harvesting the pumpkins, cure them at a temperature of 80 to 85 F and 80 percent relative humidity for 10 days. Curing helps to harden their skins and heal any cuts and scratches. 

After curing, store pumpkins in a cool, dry place. Storage temperatures should be 50 to 55 F. When storing pumpkins, place them in a single layer where they don’t touch one another. Good air circulation helps to prevent moisture from forming on the surfaces of the fruit and retards the growth of decay fungi and bacteria. Placing pumpkins in piles generates unwanted heat, which may result in the rotting of some fruit. Promptly remove and discard any pumpkins that show signs of decay. 

When should I harvest gourds? 

Harvest gourds when the stem attached to the fruit begins to dry and turn brown. Since the rind or skin is susceptible to bruising or scratching, handle the gourds carefully. Cut the gourds from the vines with a hand shears, leaving a few inches of the stem attached to the fruit. After harvesting, gently wash the gourds in warm, soapy water to remove any dirt. Then wipe the gourds with a soft cloth dampened in a household disinfectant.  The disinfectant should destroy decay organisms which could lead to fruit rot. Finally, dry each gourd with a soft cloth. 

Dry or cure the gourds by placing them in a warm, dry, well-ventilated location, such as a garage or shed. Place the gourds in a single layer on clean newspapers or shelves.  Space them so they don’t touch one another. Turn the gourds frequently and promptly remove any which show signs of decay. Large gourds also can be dried by hanging them from beams or rafters. Drying or curing will take several weeks. Approximately one to two weeks will be required for the outer skin to dry and harden. Internal drying will take several additional weeks. The gourds have been adequately dried when the seeds rattle inside. 
PHOTO: Harvest bounty, photo credit to Kelly Norris.