Earlier this year I visited my friend Camille, a long-time Ojai resident and passionate plant breeder and seed saver. For many years, Camille has been growing and breeding peppers, tomatoes, melons and winter squash. Like me, she is particularly in love with winter squash. In fact, I had visited that day because she wanted to share some of her fruit, as she had more squashes lying around her house than she was able to handle herself.
And lying around her house they were…in excellent shape…in February. Dozens and dozens of winter squash fruits had stored perfectly for four months or more inside her home at a nice, cozy 70˚. This got me thinking…
Winter squash is one of the easier summertime plants to grow, ideally not needing too much attention once established. They can also be generous producers, sometimes yielding 30-50 pounds of fruit per plant. Winter squash is nutritious…it is high in phytonutrients, antioxidants, fiber, and carotenoids.
It turns out that there are big differences in storability between the different species, and even between different varieties of the same species. Generally, the larger, thicker-skinned varieties (Hubbard-type) store the longest, while the thin-skinned, smaller varieties (Acorn, Delicata, Pumpkins) store for the shortest period of time.
By far the longest-storing winter squash are of the Cucurbita maxima species, and within the species, the larger fruits are the clear winners. Hubbards, such as Sweet Meat pictured here can store 6 months or more when harvested and cured properly. Below are some tips to maximize the storage life of winter squash…
- Harvest when the fruits are ripe. Look for the key signs: when the stem is brown, or at least beginning to brown; the skin is hard…you should not be able to easily pierce the skin with your thumbnail.
- Cut the stem 2-3 inches from the fruit with sharp pruners, and if possible, keep the stem intact. If the stem breaks off of the fruit, this can create a “wound” that may invite rot.
- Avoid injuring the fruit during harvesting and transport. Injuries to the rind will greatly diminish storage life.
- Cure the fruits. After harvesting, store the fruits in a warm place (around 80-85˚F is ideal) for 1-2 weeks.
Although the largest C. maxima fruits may store for months on end in a warm home, winter squash should ideally be stored in a place a bit cooler (50-60˚F) with good air circulation.
The rare combination of ease of production, nutrition value, yield potential and storage life make winter squash an ideal – and delicious – subsistence food.