Deliciously soft, smooth, butternut squash is a winter vegetable that ripens on the vine. It produces a rewarding crop that you can store for several months through winter. Growing butternut squash isn’t difficult, and harvesting it is even easier.
But the trick is to know exactly when the best time to harvest butternut squash is. First and foremost, butternuts must be mature before you harvest them. If you can dig into the skin with your fingernail, it’s not ready to harvest yet. The key is to watch for the vines leaves to start dying back.
How Do You Know When Your Butternut Squash Is Ready to Harvest?
Expect to wait a good 3-4 months before the butternut squash you planted in spring is ready to harvest. But if you do it the right way, and store what you don’t want to eat in the next few weeks, you’ll have a stock of butternut to eat for another 3-4 months.
It’s a no-brainer to check the seed packet for days to maturity for the butternut you are growing. Then you just need to keep track of the days.
At the same time, bear in mind that butternut, like other types of winter squash, is a warm-season crop. Butternut squashes grow in full sun and are sensitive to temperatures below 45°F (7°C). This means it is essential to harvest it before or immediately after the first fall frost.
At the same time, butternut should ideally be left of the vine until the fruit is mature. This way it will taste better and its storage life will be longer.
If you leave it on the vine for too long in a cool climate, the unripe fruit will surely freeze.
You can eat immature butternut, but it won’t be as sweet as a fully mature squash. Some people think it tastes more like summer squash when it isn’t ripe!
That said, the skin will be softer, but light green, and you won’t be able to store butternuts picked early for any length of time.
If you get an early frost, your best bet will be to harvest your butternut squash carefully and then use the curing technique to improve the storage life.
Indicators That Show When Butternut Squash Is Ready to Be Picked
Most indicators that will let you know when butternut squash is ready to harvest are visual. They include:
- Skin color
- Feel and appearance of the skin
- Stem color
- Hollow sound
The skin color of fully mature butternuts is orangey-beige. The color will deepen from green to beige as the fruit ripens. At first, you will notice green lines on the skin, but these will soon fade.
Some varieties develop bronze highlights. Check the seed catalog or packet to see how they describe the mature color.
According to horticulture specialists at the South Dakota State University Extension, it’s best to harvest butternut squash at the end of the growing season, 2-3 weeks after they have turned their mature color. This maximizes the eating quality of butternut.
The skin shouldn’t be shiny. It should have a dull appearance. If you can pierce the skin with your fingernails, it’s still too immature to pick.
Also, the stems turn brown as the vines die back. But it should be firm. So don’t leave it too long.
Another check is to knock the fruit before you pick it. The skin should be hard, and knocking it should produce a hollow sound.
What Happens If You Don’t Harvest Butternut Squash?
Any butternut squash you leave on the vine will eventually rot. If you harvest it too late, it will likely be mushy.
If you leave the rotten fruit on the ground, the seeds might survive and they could sprout the following spring. But there’s no reason not to harvest all your butternut squash.
Rather than waste the fruit, even if it is fully mature, commit the squash to curing to make it last longer.
If you have too many butternuts, you can always give them away to friends, family, and neighbors.
How to Harvest Butternut Squash?
It’s not difficult to harvest butternut, but it’s important to handle the squash carefully. Use hand pruners or a sharp knife to remove the fruit from the vine. Don’t be tempted to try and twist or pull the butternut off or the end of the stem is likely to rot.
Many experts recommend leaving an inch of stem on each squash. They reckon that this is the secret to successful storage.
Some people go so far as to say that they will rot quickly if you cut the stem any shorter than two or three inches. They generally suggest eating any without at least an inch of stem very soon after picking.
However, the experts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment’s Extension Vegetable Program disagree. They warn that removing the stem from butternut squash decreases fruit spoilage of commercially grown butternut. This is because the stems often puncture adjacent fruit, which promotes infection and wastage.
But, since store-bought butternut always has at least an inch of stem at the end of it, this is probably the way to go with your homegrown butternut.
Should You Wash Butternut Squash after Harvesting?
Advice about whether or not to wash butternut after harvesting is mixed. Probably the best advice is to wipe off the dirt before curing (see below) and then rinse before storing winter squash. That’s what we do.
Curing results in harder skin, which will wash off more safely without the risk of damage. But there’s no doubt that the fruit must be 100% dry before you store squash of any kind.
Research information from the Oregon State University Extension Service suggests that wiping, rather than washing, winter squash gently with a solution of household bleach mixed 1:10 with water is beneficial.
They suggest doing this before storing winter squash to sterilize the fruit. Remember to dry it thoroughly.
Can You Eat Butternut Squash Immediately after Harvesting?
You can eat butternut immediately after you have harvested it, even if the butternut is not fully mature. Immature butternut won’t taste as good, but if the fruit has matured on the vine, it will definitely be delicious.
Should You Cure Butternut Squash Before Storing It?
The question of whether to cure before storing butternut squash really depends on how long you want the storage life to be. Curing does help to harden the peel of butternut squash and it also helps to heal minor cuts and scratches on the skin.
It also helps to ripen the butternut. This is one reason why it isn’t necessary to cure well-matured butternut.
How to Cure Butternut Squash
Butternut can be cured for 10 to 14 days in a small heated cabinet or even in the corner of your garage partitioned with plastic. Keep the temperature between 80 and 85°F (about 26-30°C) and the relative humidity at around 80-85%.
How to Store Butternut Squash
Good quality butternut squash can be successfully stored for as long as 2-4 months in the right conditions. Choose a well-ventilated room or cupboard with storage temperatures of around 50-55°F (10-12.7°C) and relative humidity of 75%.
Iowa State University’s Extension and Outreach program warns that ripening fruit releases ethylene gas that shortens the storage life of butternut and other winter squash. So, avoid storing your butternut crop anywhere near ripening fruit like apples and pears.
If any of the squash gets soft or show signs of decay, remove it and discard it immediately.
Mature butternut, or fruit that has been properly cured, will have a storage life of about 2-3 months.
You shouldn’t try to store squash that has been damaged for any length of time. It simply won’t last. Keep it in your refrigerator and you’ll be able to cook and eat it within about 14 days.
Butternut is a delicious winter squash that will be ready to harvest before winter. And a successful crop will see you storing winter squash for up to four months.
While you can eat butternut before it is fully mature, by leaving it to ripen on the vine, you will get the best results in terms of flavor. So, it’s important to know when it’s reached this stage.
Our 2023 planting guide has some invaluable tips that will help you to identify exactly the right time to harvest your growing butternut squash. These range from the length of time butternut takes to mature to several visual clues that will help you.
We also offer lots of other advice that relates to harvesting your butternut crop. How can you resist not growing butternut squash?
With our help, you’ll know exactly when it’s ready to be picked and how to cure and store it. All you have to do is master the harvest techniques, and then cook it in whichever way appeals to you. These range from mashed butternut with butter, salt, and pepper, to butternut soup, and unbeatable butternut fritters.