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When Should I Pick Squash? (When to Harvest Summer and Winter Squash for the Best Flavor)

What is one way to tell that summer is in full swing? When gardeners start forcibly giving away their zucchini harvest!

Summer squash is one of the most delicious and versatile vegetables. Fry it with eggs for breakfast, roast in the oven for lunch, spiralize it for a low-carb pasta dinner option, and shred it and bake it for dessert.

If you’ve ever grown summer squash, you know that it practically grows itself. By midsummer, you want to harvest at least twice a week. Summer squash that’s been left on the plant too long has a reputation for being tough, seedy, and a little bitter; but harvest it too soon and the fruit won’t be as flavorful.

So when is the perfect time to harvest squash? It depends. Generally, you want to harvest summer squash throughout the summer—whenever the fruits are about six inches long. Winter squash, on the other hand, is a one-time harvest that tends to fall on or just before your area’s last frost date. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the differences between summer squash and winter squash and discuss when to harvest each type. Plus, we’ll identify a few of our favorite squash varieties for flavor and harvestability!

The difference between summer squash and winter squash

Summer squash and winter squash are very closely related, but there are some distinct differences between the two types. Both plants are members of the cucurbit, or gourd, plant family, along with cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons. The main difference between these two types of squash is in the name, which has to do with what time of the year these vegetables are harvested.

The summer squash that we enjoy (like zucchini and yellow crookneck) are technically immature fruits that are harvested during summer. These types of squash have thin skin and tender flesh, so they don’t need to be peeled to eat. But because these varieties have such thin skin, they aren’t good storage crops, only lasting about a week in a refrigerator. Depending on the variety, summer squash matures in about 50–65 days and will continue to produce until the first frost. 

Winter squash, on the other hand, is meant to be allowed to reach maturity, which can take anywhere between 60 and 110 days. These varieties (like butternut and acorn squash) produce dense, sugary fruit. Winter squash is characterized by an inedible tough skin that allows the squash to store for up to six months, depending on the variety.

Another difference between the two squash has to do with the seeds. Summer squash has very small seeds that are edible, whereas winter squash seeds aren’t typically edible unless they are roasted like pumpkin seeds. Winter squash and summer squash also have different growth habits—the former is a vining plant that can produce vines ten feet or longer, and the latter tends to grow in a bushier shape. 

Harvesting summer squash

Summer squash will keep producing all season long, and the more frequently you pick, the longer the plants will keep producing. When you stop picking summer squash, the plants slow down and complete their life cycle.

Size is the best indicator of when summer squash is ready to harvest. While you can technically harvest squash of any size, most gardeners agree that summer squash tastes best when it’s between six and eight inches long. Scalloped varieties reach their peak flavor and texture when they are between three and six inches in diameter. Squash any larger than that will have large seeds and thick skin.

As tempting as it is to twist summer squash off the plant, it’s far better to make a clean cut with sharp garden shears. Leave an inch of stem—if you break the stem off the squash will spoil more quickly. Squash plants have sharp hairs that are a bit prickly, so wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid irritating your skin. Try to avoid nicking the skin in any way, as that will shorten the shelf life of the squash.

Store summer squash in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator or in plastic bags to maintain moisture. Summer squash will last about a week under the right conditions.

Harvesting winter squash 

Although you can (and should) pick summer squash regularly throughout the summer, winter squash is typically ready for harvest all at once.

Winter squash needs to mature fully before it can be harvested, and that takes the majority of the growing season. Winter squash gets sweeter the longer that it sits on the vine, so you want to avoid harvesting the fruits too early.

Wait until right around the first frost to pick winter squash. You can wait until after the first killing frost, or you can begin harvesting winter squash when the vines die back on their own.

Look for winter squash vines to die back as a sure sign that it’s harvest time, but you can also judge the maturity of most winter squash varieties by the size and color of the fruit. Much like watermelon, if winter squash feels relatively heavy and makes a hollow thud when tapped, it’s probably ready to be picked. Mature winter squash will have richly colored, thick, and often bumpy, skin.

Like pumpkins, winter squash will need to be cured for maximum shelf life. To cure winter squash, simply cut the squash off the vine and leave them in the field for a few days and the sun will work its magic. If rain is in the forecast or you’re worried about animals, you can also cure squash by laying them out in a greenhouse for a week.

Just like with summer squash, use sharp shears to cut the fruit away from the vine, leaving an inch or two of the stem. Try to avoid carrying winter squash by the stem—should the stem break, the squash won’t be able to cure properly.

10 favorite squash varieties (summer and winter)

We have more than thirty varieties of squash at Seeds ‘N Such, but there are a few varieties that our customers rave about.  

Summer squash

As much as we love zucchini, there are so many more colors and shapes of summer squash. If you’re getting bored with the run-of-the-mill green zucchini, try one of these less common (but just as delicious) varieties. 

Yellow squash is as versatile as zucchini, and Enterprise Hybrid is one of our customer favorites for productivity and ease of harvesting. Enterprise Hybrid matures in about 41 days, has superb disease resistance, and is widely adaptable anywhere.

A fun variation on straight zucchini, Eight Ball produces dense, round fruits that are perfect for a single person. Pick Eight Ball when the fruits are three inches in diameter and prepare it any way you could cook summer squash. This compact, space-saving plant is also one of our earliest, harvestable at 37 days.

This yellow crookneck variety does double duty in the garden if you let it. Immature fruits are deliciously sweet and tender, or let the fruits mature for wart-covered squash typical of fall decorations.

This eye-catching scalloped summer squash is an All-America Selections winner and one of our bestsellers. The compact plants make harvesting easy, and the round fruits are harvestable in 50 days. The golden-hued fruits are as attractive as they are tender and delicious.

How many times have you missed a zucchini because they blend into the plant so well? Bossa Nova’s pale green mottled skin makes it easy to see, so chances are you won’t have any squash slip under the radar. Another AAS winner, Bossa Nova is one of our earlier varieties at 37 days and tends to produce weeks after other varieties are done. 

Winter squash

Winter squash varieties are a diverse grouping with many distinctive flavors.

Enjoy creamy, buttery butternut squash in your favorite fall recipe even sooner with this early variety that matures in 82 days. This hybrid variety has a semi-bushy growth habit and typically produces five to seven hefty squash per vine!

This beautiful deeply ribbed acorn squash has a deliciously sweet flavor that gets sweeter with storage. Mild and nutty, this heirloom is one of our favorites for roasting. Table Queen matures in about 85 days and has an excellent shelf life.

Want the nutty flavor of delicata with a space-saving semic-bush vine? Our customers rave about this AAS winner with its sweet, striped squash. Bush Delicata has good resistance to powdery mildew, so you won’t have to worry about your growing season getting cut short.

One of the world’s most interesting vegetables, the orange flesh of Vegetable Spaghetti winter squash breaks down into noodle-like strands when cooked. Pair with marinara sauce and you have an easy, healthy, and delicious meal! Harvest two to three-pound oblong squash 90 days from transplant.

Chances are you haven’t heard of this squash since it’s a native heirloom to the Southeast and hasn’t gone mainstream yet. An odd, banana-shaped squash with rose-pink skin and blue tips, candy roasters are deliciously sweet (hence the name) and are often used in place of pie pumpkins. Candy roasters easily grow in the 10 to 15-pound range.

Once you understand the difference between summer and winter squash, you can understand how to harvest each variety for maximum flavor and storage potential. In a nutshell, summer squash can be harvested at any time throughout the summer, while winter squash needs to mature fully on the vine before it is cut.

Now, shop our extensive collection of non-GMO winter and summer squash varieties and try out some of these varieties in your own garden!
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