If you’re a first-time gardener, you may not realize how big squash can grow if you let it. However, with garden vegetables, bigger does not always mean better. In fact, the tastiest produce is harvested before it grows too big in length.
You should let your squash grow between 4-12 inches (10.16-30.48 cm) long, depending on the type of squash. Zucchini is typically ready to pick between 5-7 inches (12.7-17.78 cm) and butternut squash between 8-12 inches (20. 32 cm-30.48 cm). Texture and rind hardness are also crucial factors.
Below, I’ll talk about the crucial harvesting characteristics of squash in general. Then go in-depth about the best harvesting practices for summer squashes—zucchinis in particular.
When Should You Harvest Squash?
With different squash varieties, harvesting squash isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some types of squash taste better when harvested early, while others taste better when harvested late. And as I previously mentioned, squash does tend to continue growing even when it’s past its prime harvest date.
You should harvest squash when it has reached the right size, texture, and firmness. Winter squash is ready to harvest if the skin feels firm and appears dull and dry rather than glossy. Summer squash varieties should ideally be harvested when the skin is tender and glossy-looking.
If the rind of winter squash is easy to pierce with a fingernail, the fruit needs more time to mature. But if it’s hard to puncture, the fruit is ready to pick. The winter squash family includes butternut, kabocha, and spaghetti squash.
On the other hand, summer squash is ready to pick—and eat—as soon as the rind is tender and easy to pierce with a fingernail. That means you harvest these squashes when immature. Summer squash varieties include zucchini (courgette), crookneck, and pattypan.
Since the optimal harvest length varies from squash to squash, the fingernail test is a more straightforward way of determining whether or not squash is ready to be harvested than squash size.
Types of Squash
Generally, there are two categories of squash: summer squash and winter squash. The squash category indicates when they’re to be harvested, NOT planted. Summer squash is planted in spring, while winter squash is grown in the fall.
The varieties of squash commonly grown by most gardeners are:
- Zucchini (summer)
- Crookneck (summer)
- Acorn squash (winter)
- Butternut squash (winter)
- Spaghetti squash (winter)
Squash belongs to the Cucurbita genus, which also includes pumpkin and gourd. Though they all are from the same family, each is distinct. They all have different colors, shapes, and sizes.
Below, we discuss the ideal harvesting characteristics and times for the five most common garden squash varieties.
Zucchini is a long, green squash popularly used in sweet and savory dishes.
Zucchini is ready to be harvested at six inches (15.24 cm) long when the skin feels fine and appears waxy, and the body of the zucchini has reached an optimal firmness. If the squash feels squishy, then it’s likely rotting or has been left on the plant for too long. Another indicator that zucchini is ready to be harvested is when the flowers have flowered. Wait 2-3 days after flowering to harvest.
Crookneck squash is commonly found at the store under simply “squash” and is likely what most people think of when they hear the term. This squash is yellow with a crooked neck, hence the name.
Check whether the fruit is ready to harvest within four days of the plant flowering. The fruit should be between 4-7 inches (10.16-17.78 cm) long. If the crookneck feels too hard or too soft, it’s either past or nowhere near its harvesting time.
Acorn squash, a winter variety, is known for its acorn-like shape. Like zucchini, you can eat acorn squash in sweet and savory dishes. Typically, because this is a winter variety squash, you’ll plant it in the summer and harvest it in the fall or winter.
You’ll know it’s time to harvest your acorn squash when it develops a rich, green color. And due to its thick, hard shell, you can store the fruit through the winter.
The YouTube video below by Plant-Smart Living w/ Farmer Fred Detwiler explains how to know when your acorn squash is ready to harvest:
Butternut squash is a classic fall harvest crop commonly roasted or blended into a soup. It is a large, beige squash with a bell-like shape, featuring a long neck and a round bottom.
Being a winter squash, you grow it in the spring or summer and harvest it in late fall or early winter. When mature, i.e., ready to harvest, butternut squash has a hard shell and is uniformly beige.
Spaghetti squash is one of the trendier squashes, primarily because of its usefulness in low-carb or keto diets as a substitute for pasta. When you cook the squash, it produces spaghetti-like strands that you can scrape out using a fork.
It’s low in calories, at just 42 calories per cup, hence popular among pasta lovers on keto. Like other winter squash varieties, spaghetti squash is ready to be picked when its rind is hard. And for this particular squash, the skin should be a golden yellow or a dark yellow color.
When Should You Harvest Your Zucchini Squash?
Zucchini is a relatively versatile squash. You can grate it and add it to a cake, use a vegetable spiralizer to make zoodles, or prepare it as a roast side dish. The length of zucchini at the time of harvest affects how it tastes, so harvesting the squash at the right stage of maturity is crucial.
You should harvest your zucchini squash when it’s 4-7 inches (10.16-17.78 cm) long, has waxy-looking skin, and feels firm. If squishy, that means the squash is overripe and may soon rot. Most people prefer the taste of unripe zucchini to ripe zucchini.
While harvesting zucchini at the length of 4-7 inches (10.16-17.78 cm) is a good rule of thumb, you can experiment with different sizes and textures to find the best fit for you.
Why Zucchini Size Matters
Zucchini is usually blooming and ready to harvest 45-55 days after planting.
When harvested small, zucchini is tender and less bitter, hence ideal for roasting and savory recipes. But if you leave your zucchini on the plant for too long, it’ll grow large and have less flavor. You can still eat large zucchini—however, owing to being bland and having less moisture, it works best in bread recipes.
Observe the Texture of the Zucchini Rind
In a previous section, I explained that summer squash is ready to be harvested when you can puncture the skin with your fingernail. Having a waxy, glossy coating on the outside of the fruit is also an indicator that zucchini is ready to pick.
How To Harvest Zucchini Squash
When your zucchini is the right size, texture, and firmness, it’s time to start harvesting.
Start by cutting—NOT pulling—the zucchini from the plant with about ½ inch (1.27 cm) or 1 inch (2.54 cm) of stem still attached. Doing this tells your zucchini plant you want it to keep producing through the summer. While pulling the fruit straight off the plant can damage it, leaving the plant unable to give you more fruit. So I’d suggest investing in a pair of pruning shears.
Additionally, bruises, cuts, or other injuries inflicted on zucchini during harvest can significantly reduce its lifespan. So consider wearing gardening gloves when harvesting zucchini and other summer squash.
Zucchini plants are annual plants, which means they only live for one growing season and then die. The life expectancy of the fruit they produce is even shorter.
If you harvest your zucchini according to the guidelines discussed in the previous section will help the fruit stay in peak condition for longer.
Store zucchini in the crisper drawer, where it can keep for up to a week. I wouldn’t recommend storing them in a bag as it prevents air circulation.
But what if you had a big harvest? You can also store zucchini frozen. Summer squashes can last for up to 8 months in the freezer. The following YouTube video by The Kitchen Garten shows how to preserve zucchini pieces in the freezer.
If you have some zucchini bread or zoodle recipes you’d like to try, shred some of the zucchini and freeze them in a freezer bag.
Additionally, you could always share part of your garden’s bounty with friends, family, and the needy in your community. Or you can set up a booth at your local farmers’ market and make some extra cash.
Both varieties of squash have different indicators of when they are ready to be harvested. For winter squash, it’s when the rind is so hard that your fingernail can’t puncture it. For summer squash, it’s when the fruit is firm, not squishy, but still pierceable by your fingernail.
Additionally, size is an excellent way to tell when your squash is ready to harvest.
You can read my other article on growing zucchini vertically here: The Complete Guide to Growing Zucchini Vertically