By Bonnie Kirn Donahue

Extension Master Gardener

University of Vermont 

Fall brings many great things that come in beautiful shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. Pumpkins and winter squash are among the most wonderful of these.

Fall's fluctuating temperatures and the threat of frost bring challenges to growing these in your garden. Here are some ideas to keep in mind for a great crop this year.

Pumpkins and winter squash generally are ready to pick when they have fully changed color, and the skin is tough. A common test is to scratch the skin with your fingernail. If the skin is soft and breaks, it is not ready to pick. If it is hard, the fruit could be harvested. 

Vine health also is an indicator of when the fruit should be harvested. If the vines are healthy, green and disease-free, you could let your fruits ripen in the garden longer. If the vines are turning crispy, yellowing or dying, consider harvesting.

Both leaves and fruits are sensitive to frost, which complicates the approach of waiting until the fruit is ripe to harvest. A hard frost can damage the skin of fruits as well as kill the plant leaves and vines.

If a hard frost is forecasted, it is probably a good idea to harvest your pumpkins and squash. Luckily, if you have to pick these before they have fully changed color, they will continue to ripen off the vine. How much green is left may shorten their storage lifespan, but a shorter storage life is better than a squishy rind from frost damage.

If your patch is small, another option when frost is predicted is to cover the area completely with blankets, bed linens or drop cloths, using small stakes to prevent the material from touching the foliage. Weight down the outer edges of the covering to prevent cold air from getting in, and be sure to remove the next morning when temperatures rise.

When harvesting, cut the stem cleanly using a knife or clippers, about 3-4 inches from the fruit. Avoid picking up the fruit up by its stem. A broken stem will mean that the fruit will not last as long in storage.

After picking your pumpkins and winter squash, place them in a warm, dry and ventilated place, such as a covered or sun porch, garage or shed, to cure for 1-2 weeks at about 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Curing helps the fruit heal over any cuts or scratches, and seals the stem. Without curing, these openings in the skin or stem can shorten the storage life of the fruits, making them rot faster.

If temperatures remain warm, you can cure pumpkins and squash outdoors for a few weeks before storing, but keep in mind that squirrels and chipmunks may feast on your harvest. Orange varieties can be cured in the sun, while white varieties should be cured out of direct sunlight. After curing, store your pumpkins and winter squash in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place with temperatures of about 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Different varieties may have different harvesting and curing requirements, expected length of storage and best time timing for eating. Therefore, it's a good idea to double check the seed company's website or talk with the experts at your local greenhouse to get recommendations for the specific varieties you are growing.

Here's to a fall and winter filled with the sweet, orange and yellow sun-warmed memories of summer.


Master Gardener