Summer seems to be ending abruptly in my small kitchen garden; I hope that’s not the case for yours. Goodness, when autumn was two days away, the temperature dropped to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C) overnight! There are many clear days forecast, so I expect frost might come early this season.
My home kitchen garden contains no squash this year, but in considering major end-of-season topics, gourds keep coming to mind. By gourds, I mean all the pumpkin-like fruits: winter squashes (acorn, butternut, and the like), pumpkins, and decorative gourds. I’m hearing concern about the shortening season and what to do with under-ripe fruits that are still on the vine. Can you get them to grow larger? Is there anything useful to do with green squash?
Is your squash harvest growing?
In my experience, gourds (like nearly all small kitchen garden plants) simply slow down as the days get short and the nights get cool. I’ve had squash and pumpkins of various stages of being ripe on the vine in mid-September, wishing they were larger and riper. Being obsessive, I’d check each day, hoping to see change, but whatever change might have been was imperceptible.
Of course, if there is water in the soil, and the plant’s leaves are green, then the plant is still packing food into its fruit. So, it’s sensible to leave younger squash and pumpkins on the vines as late in the season as possible. However, late in the season, the rules about gardening change.
When it’s cold in your small kitchen garden
Squash and pumpkins don’t mind a little frost, but you’re taking a chance in the event the frost comes from sustained sub-freezing temperature. When squash or pumpkin flesh freezes, it becomes mushy and won’t last very long—if you were planning to eat it, do so that day… but it isn’t real appetizing to feel a mushy spot on a squash and have it ooze fluid on your hands.
Even when frost isn’t pending, cold nights and warm days lead to uneven ripening: a pumpkin that’s green in mid-September will likely ripen faster on one side than on the other (the lower hemisphere of the pumpkin stays warmer at night, and so continues to ripen while the upper hemisphere cools down and waits until morning).
If it isn’t real cold, but there’s suddenly a lot of rain at the end of a dry summer, the squash can take it in quickly, and it may split. You need to consume split squash quickly, or preserve it so it doesn’t rot.
Finally, even as autumn is upon us, the squash bug population in your small kitchen garden is peaking; leaving your produce exposed to pests for a few more days—or even weeks—provides no significant advantage.
So, Harvest Squash Early
Sure, the conventional wisdom is to leave the fruits on the vines until the vines die. But, when frost is a near-certainty, harvest squash, pumpkins, and gourds. Even harvest the green ones along with the ripe ones! Cut the stems off the vines one-to-three inches from the fruit, clean off any soil, and take them all inside. Stack them out-of-the-way (I put mine in the corner of the dining room… there are still three there from autumn of 2007), and check on them from time-to-time. Consume the ripe ones, and wait for the others to ripen; they will… even rather small ones will.
These gourds have hidden in my dining room for almost exactly a year. They’re in surprisingly good shape, though obviously starting to fade.
Squash and pumpkins store amazingly well. I’ve kept butternut squash in my dining room for six months and found it firm and useable. As the squash ages, it loses moisture, and the meat gradually separates into strands… but if it doesn’t develop an off odor, you can still cook it up without fear.
Ideally, once your squash are ripe, store them in a cool, dry room… around 50 degrees F. Don’t lean them against each other, as one spoiling squash could hasten the spoiling of other squash it touches. If you don’t trust squash to hold through the winter, you can cut it into chunks, blanch it, and freeze it… or cook it down and freeze it. Alternatively, squash dries nicely, so you could cut it into chunks or strips and set them in a dehydrator… or even dry them in your oven on very low heat (three-quarter inch slices will dry in ten-to-twelve hours in a 150 degree oven—place them on an oiled baking sheet, and let them cook until they’re dry).