Is there anything better than winter squash grown on vines in your backyard? Absolutely not. Acorn, delicata, and kabocha are all lovely, however, they do not compare to the delicate flavor of butternut squash. But how do you know when to harvest butternut squash?
There are a few key things that indicate a squash is ready for harvest. You’ll have to pay attention to the season to know the right time to harvest. The vine itself also gives you an indication of when fruits are ripe for picking. To top it off, there’s a drying and storage process too.
Harvest butternut squash correctly, cure it, and you will find that you can save seeds for squash gardening in the future. You can even harvest slightly green butternuts and eat them. Follow the tips here, look for the signs and wait for the right time. You’ll have a consistent supply of butternut squash for soups, purees, and sides.
At this point, you’ve got the butternut squash gardening down. Now, let’s talk about harvesting your plants!
When Should I Harvest Butternut Squash?
Typically, butternut squash is ready to be picked in late fall or early winter. However, if you plant your squash early enough, they could be ready in the summer. So, use other methods to tell whether you have a mature squash. It’s possible you could be harvesting at a different time.
Timing varies depending on when you have butternut squash growing. In general, butternut squash takes about 100 to 120 days from planting time to mature. So if you’re growing butternut squash and you planted seeds in late spring, you’ll begin harvesting by late summer.
Expect some variation as different environmental conditions can speed up or slow down crop production.
Frost is a huge indicator of when it is time to remove butternuts from the vine. Even if they’re unripe the day before the first frost you’ll need to remove them from their host plants to prevent frost damage.
Butternut squash can still be eaten even if it’s unripe, and you’ll save seed for next season in the process. That first frost will cause damage to your fruits and ruin your harvest so keep your ear to the ground when it comes to weather conditions.
Examine the stem of the squash vine. When the butternut squash is ripe for harvesting, the tips of the stems dry and turn brown. This is because the vine no longer needs to feed nutrients to the fruit, and the squash is ready for picking.
By cutting off nutrients to the fruit, your winter squash vines can produce more for harvesting down the line.
Skin and Rind
Check the rind to tell if butternut squash is ready for harvesting. If you’re able to pierce the skin with a fingernail, it’s not time yet. If the rind doesn’t yield to your finger, you likely have a ripe squash on the vine. Couple that with a browning stem, and you know it’s time for harvesting.
Ripe butternut squash is completely tan. That means one color of tan all around the fruit. This refers to the most common butternut squash varieties. Green on these crops is an indication it’s unripe.
However, color may be a difficult mode of detecting ripeness in winter squash varieties that are striped. So use this in conjunction with other signs if you are growing less common varieties.
Weight is another way to tell if your squashes are ready to be harvested. Butternuts typically weigh two to three pounds. If you’re growing a different variety than typical butternut, check the seed packet to see if the squash should be larger or smaller. Just as color can vary, it’s best to use this method to check in conjunction with other indications.
Overall, if you notice butternuts have stopped growing, it’s time. Keep an eye on them throughout the growth period and you’ll have a good idea of when harvests should occur.
How To Harvest Butternut Squash
It’s important to harvest squash carefully, as improper harvests damage the rest of the plant in your vegetable growing area, and the butternut you took care of for so long. Use garden shears to clip the stem tips at about one to five inches from the top of the mature fruit. At least 2 inches is necessary.
Why Keep the Stem?
Squashes without a stem do not store for very long and should be consumed immediately. But sometimes squashes fall from the vine. This is normal. Keep an eye out for these, and cook them up as soon as you can.
Winter squash varieties like butternuts rely on a healthy bit of stem at the top to keep out different bacteria that causes mold and rot. Even a stem that is too short won’t store well sometimes. So try to keep at least a few inches of stem on winter squash, butternut especially.
When you are harvesting your butternut squash, look out for other squash fruit in your garden that has brown bruises, cuts, nicks, and damage. Harvest these and consume them as quickly as possible.
Rot occurs in damaged butternut squash, so remove them to prevent crop loss. Harvested tan and early, unripe butternut squash are both excellent when used in different dishes. No need to fret if you have to use unripe butternuts in cooking.
Give the Vines Some Space
Don’t harvest butternut squash too close to the vines, because this can damage the rest of the plant. If you accidentally damage the vines, it is possible to prune off the damaged area. Simply leave tips a few inches from each of the fruit growing there.
To keep production going, try to leave at least three fruits behind on the vine unless they absolutely need to be harvested.
Curing Butternut Squash
After you’ve harvested ripe butternut squash, cure them for storage. The curing process allows fruits to be stored for longer periods. Curing hardens butternut squash skin even more and slows respiration which causes rot.
Curing winter squashes also dries the skin and protects the fruit’s inner flesh. Cured winter squash (butternut included) also has a sweet and more pleasing flavor than uncured butternuts.
If you have damaged squash that sat on wet soil for too long because they fell off your trellis posts or lines into the soil, sort these out of your harvest. They can’t be cured and should be cleaned and used right away. Save the seed in these for next year. Then tend to the other squashes by carrying out the curing process.
Begin by wiping the surface of your squash skin with a dry cloth to remove any dirt that remains from your vegetable garden. This reduces the possibility of bacteria or fungal pathogens that can attack the rind.
In the same vein, try to keep the squash as dry as possible throughout the entire process from harvest to storage.
It is possible to cure slightly unripe, green squash, although it’s better to keep the drying process to mature fruits. However, if the first frost looms, it’s best to harvest all the squash on the vine. Harvesting before the first frost is absolutely essential to save your butternuts from frost damage.
The right temperature and humidity are key for drying and storing winter squash like butternuts. Provide a space for ripe squashes that is relatively cool at 70 to 85 degrees with humidity at 80 to 85 percent.
Make sure there is good air circulation around the mature, ripe squashes by curing them on a rack. As you cure them, give them a quarter turn daily to properly harden the rind.
If you don’t have an area with the proper humidity and temperature, set up one in a cupboard with a space heater. Keep in mind the space heater should have an exact thermostat on it. If it gets too warm the squash cell structure will change. Check the squash frequently.
Similarly, if you don’t have a rack, create one with posts and chicken fencing or taut, thick wire lines. Weave the wire in a cross-hatched manner to prevent damage to mature squash. This keeps you from losing the result of all that hard work you did from gardening to harvesting.
Wait a week or two to remove the squashes for storage. By drying butternut squash you ensure the stem is completely hardened. Hardened squash stems keep the potential for bacterial growth out of drying and storing.
When your mature winter squash is drying, if you notice any brown spots on the fruits’ rind, promptly remove them from the area and consume them after removing the damage with a knife. Brown spots on squash are signs of the potential for bacterial growth.
Do not cure winter squash in an area where other fruits are ripening, because gasses released from other fruits in the ripening process can damage winter squash like butternuts. These gasses cause forced respiration.
How To Store Butternut Squash
Store butternut squash in a refrigerator or cool cellar at about 40 to 50 degrees. Stack winter squash no more than two deep on a rack that provides proper air circulation. Winter squash that is properly cured and stored in conditions such as these will keep up to six months.
You may also store butternut squash on a rack at room temperature. The only kicker here is that you won’t be able to store the mature, ripe squash as long as you would if it were cured. If you don’t have the storage to keep them in a cooler area, no problem. They’ll keep for up to three months this way.
If you’d like to keep squash you’ve harvested for even longer, you can freeze them and store them in a freezer. Simply peel the squash skin off, cut it in half, remove the seeds to clean and store for future squash gardening, and dice the squash into one-inch pieces.
Place them in an airtight glass container or plastic bag and store them in the freezer for up to 8 months. Alternatively, you can store diced squash in the fridge for up to one week.
If you’d like to, blend the diced raw squash into a puree. Pureed squash will keep in the fridge for 7 to 10 days. In the freezer, it will keep for 6 months.
Dice squash just as you would for the freezer, and dehydrate them at 145 degrees for two hours. Then reduce heat to 110 degrees for eight to ten hours. Dehydrated squash keeps in an airtight container for up to two years.
If you think that’s a long time, consider freeze-drying squash harvested from your garden. This is the best way to preserve it long-term, green or ripe.
Outside of the long-term shelf life, you’ll have dried pieces that are very sweet due to condensed sugars that concentrate in the drying process. And this sweet diced goodness will keep for up to 25 years!
To dry squash in this way, follow the same preparation process you would for freezing. Then place diced or pureed squash on a tray and set it in the freeze dryer until the sensor detects adequate dryness.
Then store the pieces or puree dust in an airtight container like a mason jar. This gives you butternuts in summer, fall, winter, and spring for many years to come.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Should you wash butternut squash before storing?
A: Avoid using moisture on your butternuts, as this can promote the growth of bacterial and fungal pathogens. Instead, use a dry cloth to wipe them down before curing or consuming them.
Q: How can you tell if butternut squash has gone bad?
A: If the rind has dark spots, and you cut open the squash and find dark spots or mold your butternut has gone bad.