Winter Squash For the Keeping

Winter SquashWe’ve had gardens big and small but all of them this time of year were mostly consumed with winter squash vines. Even our smallest gardens hosted a squash plant or two — or maybe pumpkins — and just ahead of the first frost the wandering vines set and their maturing fruit took over. Big garden… no problem. We’d plant a couple types of keepers (as opposed to summer squash, zucchini, patty pan and the like) and hope for a bountiful harvest that would keep us in the fruit’s sweet meat at least until Valentine’s Day. Storing winter squash that long requires some know-how. Here’s what we learned and have garnered from others, books and websites included, over the years.

When are squash ready for the picking? When it’s rind has turned a deep color and is dull, (often) gray and can’t be punctured easily by you fingernail. Be sure to leave an inch or two of stem to prevent rot from creeping in from the top. Do this before the first frost arrives. Hardier brands of winter squash can take a light frost but should be picked at the first sign of vine die-off. Eat these squash first as well as any that are bruised. Those that haven’t completely ripened on the vine can still be eaten. We’ve found them to be not quite as sweet but still delicious. Eat them before the well-ripened ones you’ll want to save for holiday (and beyond!) dinners. Same rules apply to pumpkins.

Storing is easy. If you’re lucky enough to have a root cellar or a basement that’s not too damp, spread them out on palettes or something that keeps them from touching the floor. If space is limited they can be stacked, say one or two layers, but be sure to allow plenty of room for ventilation. We tried covering our squash in the root cellar with a tarp at first, but found that this hindered ventilation. The squash have their own protection in the form of a hard, healthy rind. Check them periodically and take those that show any sign of turning to the kitchen. Here are detailed instructions for harvesting and storing squash.

Saving the seeds of winter squash is easy. Don’t pick squash from the garden for seed saving until their rind is very hard. Then, let them cure off the vine for a couple weeks. You can scoop the seeds out with a spoon after cutting into the squash. Let them dry thoroughly before rubbing off the clinging squash meat and thread. Or you can soak them in a pail for a day or so at which time the threads are easily rinsed away. Then dry. Squash seeds will stay true to type as long as you haven’t planted too many kinds of varying species (there are only four squash species so this isn’t hard to avoid). Pumpkins? Same thing. And don’t be afraid of using pumpkins in cooking like you would a squash. You might even find your kids like them better. Here’s more on harvesting and saving squash. And here’s a recipe that will warm up your family on those cold winter evenings.

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