Harvesting and getting the most out of your cucurbits
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When do you harvest your cucurbits? If that sounds like an inappropriate personal question, let me provide some context. Cucurbits include cucumbers, melons, summer squash, pumpkins, gourds and winter squash.
So, what do you harvest when? How do you store it for best shelf life? You should have been picking and eating cucumbers and summer squash for quite a while now, but just for the fun of it, we will discuss them all, except gourds.
Cucumbers and summer squash
Cucumbers, summer squash and Armenian cucumbers (actually a melon) should be harvested before the seeds get large and the skin thickens. The best time for most of them is about three to four days after pollination. The size will depend on the cultivar, but the skin should be very tender. Harvesting young fruit encourages continued production. For zucchini bread, go ahead and let one or two get very large and remove the seed.
The ideal storage is cool (42 – 50⁰F) and humid (90 – 95% humidity). Temperatures below 42-degrees cause chilling damage, which shows up as pits on the skin of the fruit. At 45 – 50⁰F and high humidity, the approximate storage life is 10 – 14 days.
Pumpkins and winter squash
Pumpkins and winter squash need to be harvested when fully ripe. First, watch for the ripe color, which is usually quite different from the young fruit color. Next, the pedicel (fruit stem) will usually turn tan, indicating it is not translocating food into the fruit. Finally, try the thumbnail test. If you can poke your thumbnail firmly against the skin and not break through, the squash is ready to harvest. Pumpkins and winter squash can store for one to six months, depending on the species and cultivar. For optimum storage life, they should be kept at 50-degrees and moderate humidity (50 – 70%). Storing in a cool basement room is pretty good.
Melons should be harvested when fully ripe. Each one has different indicators of when that is. The most common melons grown in eastern Idaho are cantaloupe and watermelon.
Cantaloupe are quite easy. When the net is tan and the underlying skin begins to turn color, you check for what is called stem slip. When the melon is fully ripe the stem will separate from the fruit completely. This is called full slip, and it doesn’t take a hard pull. If you pull hard and the stem only partially separates, you end up with a half-slip or three-quarter-slip—not as sweet.
Where the watermelon pedicel attaches to the vine there will also be a leaf, a tendril and a small, spoon-shaped stipule. When the spoon and tendril are dead and brown, check the ground spot on the melon, which will be yellow rather than white when the melon is ripe.
For melon shelf life of 2 – 3 weeks, humidity should be high, but temperatures vary, depending on species. Full-slip cantaloupe should be stored cold (32 – 36⁰F). Watermelon should be stored warm (50 – 60⁰F). Crenshaw, casaba, and honey dew should be stored cool (45⁰F).
I have two small refrigerators for different temperatures. Once you start eating any of these produce, they should be stored in the refrigerator for food safety reasons. Enjoy your cucurbits.