Harvesting and Storing Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Pumpkins are one of the fun crops in the vegetable garden. Pumpkins make delicious pies and other desserts. The fruit can also be painted, carved into jack-o'-lanterns, and used in fall decorations. Winter squash (acorn, butternut, hubbard, etc.) can be steamed, baked, or broiled.

To insure a long life, pumpkins and winter squash must be harvested, cured, and stored properly. Immature fruit are poor quality and can not be successfully stored. Mature fruit that have been removed from the vine are still alive. Proper curing and storage slows the rate of respiration and prolongs the storage life of the fruit.

Harvest pumpkins when they have developed a uniform orange color and have a hard rind. Mature winter squash have very hard skins that can't be punctured with your thumb nail. Additionally, mature winter squash have dull-looking surfaces. Harvest all mature pumpkins and winter squash before a hard freeze. A light frost will destroy the vines but should not harm the fruit. However, a hard freeze may damage the fruit.

When harvesting pumpkins and 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 3- to 4-inch handle on the pumpkins and a 1 inch stem on the winter squash. A pumpkin with a 3-to 4-inch handle is more attractive. Also, pumpkins and winter squash are less likely to rot when they are harvested with a portion of the stem attached to the fruit. Do not carry the fruit by their stems. The stems may not be able to support the weight of the fruit and they may break off.

After harvesting, cure the pumpkins and winter squash (except for the acorn types) at a temperature of 80 to 85ûF 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 pumpkins and winter squash in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location. Storage temperatures should be 50 to 55ûF. Do not store pumpkins and squash near apples, pears, or other ripening fruit. Ripening fruit release ethylene gas which shortens the storage life of pumpkins and squash. (Actually, the best storage temperatures for most apples and pears is 30 to 32ûF.) 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. Periodically check pumpkins and winter squash in storage and discard any fruit which show signs of decay.

Properly cured and stored pumpkins should remain in good condition for 2 to 3 months. The storage life of acorn, butternut, and hubbard squash is approximately 5 to 8 weeks, 2 to 3 months, and 5 to 6 months, respectively.

The transformation of the perfect pumpkin into a spooky jack-o'-lantern, the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked pumpkin bread, and a Thanksgiving feast complete with baked winter squash are all rewards of the proper harvest, curing, and storage of pumpkins and winter squash.

This article originally appeared in the September 14, 2001 issue, p. 110.

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