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Harvesting and storing winter squashes and pumpkins

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10/22/2001
Harvesting and storing winter squashes and pumpkins

Probably no other crop symbolizes the fall harvest as much as this group of vegetables (fruits, technically), with their cheerfully bright and winter-defying colors. But although their tough skins and hard flesh would make you think otherwise, pumpkins and the like are surprisingly fragile. Successfully keeping the winter squash tribe through the winter requires very careful storage and handling.

Unlike potatoes and apples, which tend to just progressively shrivel during winter cellar storage, winter squashes are very likely to develop fungus on their skin that causes them to rot. To prevent this from happening, follow these simple practices.

First, make sure to get your squashes in before the first frost. Although the damage may not be immediately apparent, even light frost can damage their integrity. So, keep the frost off your pumpkins. If you can't manage to get them to shelter before the first frost, at least gather them into a group and cover them with several layers of old blankets and some plastic. But remember to remove this covering during the day, as you don't want the squashes to heat up beneath the plastic.

Second, always harvest them with a length of stem attached to them. Any fruits with stems broken off should be used as soon as possible, as fungal rot is sure to set in at the stem juncture.

Handle your winter squash carefully. They're not as rugged as they look. Be extra gentle when moving the fruits about. Never throw them or dump them out of a wheelbarrow, for instance. Doing so will bruise them and again, allow the nasty spoilage fungi to get a toehold in the damaged tissue.

Some people say that wiping them or washing winter squash with a bleach solution prolongs their life by killing superficial spoilage organisms. But the year I went through the trouble of doing this, I didn't notice any difference in the spoilage rate. My theory is that there are so many fungal spores floating around, that if conditions are right (see below), there will be plenty present to cause spoilage.

Store your winter squashes in a dry, well-ventilated space with a steady temperature of around 40 to 45 degrees F. Extremely cold temperatures, such as those used for apple storage, significantly diminish the storage life of winter squash and pumpkins.

Most important, ensure circulation around all surfaces of your squashes by storing them on shelves or better yet on a slatted surface. (Note the storage of the squash harvest at the Potager du Roi or King's Vegetable Garden at Versailles, in the photo above.) Nothing spells spoilage faster for winter squashes than storing them on a damp cement or earth floor. Slatted wooden crates are ideal for both moving the squashes about and for storage, as they allow air to circulate fully around the fruits.

Finally, don't forget how wonderfully decorative the fruits of pumpkins, winter squashes, and gourds are. In Paris, even the poshest florists offer them in rich variety. Just an assortment in a their simple wooden storage crate, placed next to your front door, makes a wonderful display, richly evocative of the bounties of the season.

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