| Special to The Capital-Journal
Pumpkins and winter squash begin to mature beginning in late September and continue to ripen into the cooler fall months.
Examples of winter squash include Royal Acorn, Ebony Acorn, Table Queen, Butternut (several hybrid varieties), Improved Green Hubbard, Pink Banana, Striped Cushaw and Spaghetti Squash. Both pumpkins and winter squash can be harvested, cured and stored in similar ways — unlike the harvest and storage of most other vegetables.
As with other fruit (pumpkins and squash are botanically fruit), it is vitally important to make sure your pumpkins or squash are fully mature before harvest. As they develop, a thick skin, or rind will develop. A layer of wax also develops over the skin to prevent the fruit from drying out after harvest. If harvested too soon, the fruit may decompose prematurely in storage.
To test the rind’s thickness, try to penetrate the fruit’s skin with your thumbnail. If your nail easily penetrates, the fruit isn’t mature. If your nail is met with firm resistance, it is time to harvest. Keep in mind that the rind of a pumpkin and most winter squash will likely give if you push hard enough with your nail. You’re looking for firm resistance, not an impenetrable layer.
More: These 9 pumpkin patches near Topeka offer more than gourds. Enjoy corn mazes, hayrides and petting zoos, too.
The second important harvest factor is color. For pumpkins and most of the winter squash, this means no sign of green on the skin. The exception, of course, is those squash whose mature color is green. Fruit that lay on the ground may have a green color where they touch the soil. If beauty is a concern (as with pumpkins for decoration) rotate the fruit as it grows, being careful not to break it from the stem.
Pumpkins and winter squash don’t easily separate from their vines the way many other vegetables do. Instead of pulling by hand, use pruning shears to cut the fruit from the vine. Pulling the stem from the vine often results in the stem breaking, leaving a scar on the top of the fruit. This scar can be an entry point for pests and diseases. After you cut the stem, it will dry on the fruit and act as a protective barrier for the remainder of the fruit’s time in storage.