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Knowing When to Pick a Winter (Hard) Squash

When you jump from growing summer squash and zucchini into growing the “winter” squashes (sometimes called hard squash), you have to figure out when they are ripe and ready to pick. Of course, with the zucchini, you pretty much pick them whenever they get big enough that you can see them! You pick your size and go from there.

Winter squashes are a little bit more tricky, just like melons can be a bit tricky. Melons will tend to rot on the vine when over-ripe though, while winter squash and pumpkins generally won’t. I prefer to err on the side of leaving the squash on the vine too long, rather than picking it too soon.

(Just as an aside, winter squash don’t actually grow in the winter. They grow in the summer, but take longer to reach maturity, like pumpkins. They also have hard skins and can be stored in a cool dry place for the winter months. I think that’s probably where the moniker of “winter” squash comes from.

There are 3 ways that I gauge maturity of winter squashes: Rind color, size, and rind hardness. Of those 3, the most important one is rind hardness. I will NEVER pick a winter squash that doesn’t have a completely hard rind. They will not store well without that hard rind, and I don’t think the flesh will be mature and sweet either. Still, I always try to pay attention to the rind color and the size of the squashes, especially when I’m trying something new to help me gauge maturity.

These spaghetti squash are smaller than normal, but I know that is due to the variety we are growing. They have also switched from a rather green-grey color to a creamy yellow color. So far so good. When checking with my thumbnail, I can still make a little bit of a mark in the rind. These can stay on the vine for another week.

The bright scarlet ‘Sunshine’ Kabocha squash and the two little ‘Lil Pump-ke-mon’ ornamental pumpkins, on the other hand, have all reached the expected color and size, as well as exhibiting appropriate rind hardness. For the best eating experience, the squash should be let to cure for about a week at 80 degrees before eating. Curing the pumpkins will help them last longer as well.

As with the melons, there is one giving me fits! Our friend the ‘Fairy’ squash is supposed to be green and gold streaked. Well, we definitely have the green, and the pale streaks are starting to be a little bit of a gold/orangey tone. The rind is definitely hard. We picked this one and sent it home with a Master Gardener to try it and see if it tasted mature after cooking. I think it is probably mature, but as I said earlier, I tend to err on the side of leaving the squash on the vine longer.

Knowing When a Melon is Ripe

If you are growing melons in your garden this year (especially if you are trying them for the first time), it can be a challenge to gauge when to pick them. Even us “experts” struggle sometimes.

First, here’s a quick video that covers the basics on cantaloupe and watermelon:

But what if you are growing a different kind of melon? In the Demo Garden this year, we have 4 different melons planted, and only one of them is a true cantaloupe which will “slip” from the vine when ripe. The other three do not have that characteristic of the stem easily separating from the fruit at maturity.

This is the ‘Honey Orange’ honeydew melon (it is an orange-fleshed melon that tastes like a honeydew). Honeydew melons do not “slip,” making it a real challenge to determine if they are ripe. The two keys are supposedly that the rind turns from a green color to a creamy yellow color. Well…I’d say we are there. The other thing to look for is a slightly soft spot on the blossom end (the end away from the stem). We didn’t actually check this, but in hindsight, we probably should have.

You can see that even though it looked ripe, it obviously wasn’t. The flavor was pretty bland and watery, and the flesh is definitely not the deep orange it should have been. Oh well…sometimes you have to pick a melon to learn what ripe looks like!

These are some very obviously NOT RIPE cantaloupe. Still very, very green and nowhere near ready to “slip.”

This is the other melon I’m struggling with: the ‘Lambkin’ melon. We only have a couple set on the vines (and one walked away this weekend), so I’m hesitant to pick it too early. It looks like it is getting close, but I would like to see just a little more yellow coloration before we go ahead and pick it. Maybe next week?