The summer squashes are the ones we grow to eat soon after harvest; they are not “storage squashes” like pumpkins and butternuts. For most purposes, we want to harvest the summer squashes while they still have thin skins, tender flesh, and soft seeds.
To achieve this ideal, a gardener needs to pay attention to the garden. Squashes can reach the perfect point for harvest one afternoon, then have zoomed past it by the next morning.
However, bringing good food into the kitchen is an essential part of gardening, so a little vigilance can be worth the effort.
Smaller squashes are often best
Some gardeners plan to eat their summer squashes raw. The veggies may be added to salads or sliced to use in scooping up dips. If “raw” is the goal, then harvesting squashes while they are small is a good practice.
As the squashes grow, they become tougher, the skins thicker, and the seeds chewier. But how can we know when the turn to toughness happens?
Some seed packets, for some varieties, provide information about when-to-harvest for the best flavor, but not all do. The guidelines below, for many kinds of summer squashes, are pulled from University Extension Service publications (from Clemson, NCSU, UGA) and from seed packets.
Yellow summer squashes, straight-neck and crookneck
Most of these will have the best quality if they are harvested before the fattest part gets more than one-and-a-half to two inches across, and while the squashes are still shiny. The first yellow squashes are usually ready for harvest about a month and a half after planting.
As the squashes mature, the skins turn dull and thick, the seeds harden, and the flesh loses its buttery tenderness. The sign that is easiest to see besides size is the loss of gloss from the skins. This doesn’t mean that larger, duller squashes are not ok to eat! However, it does mean that preparing them for use in cooking may need another step or two beyond simple slicing.
If the seeds seem tough, scoop them out before using the fleshy part in cooking. If the skin has turned weird (it happens), peel the squash before using the rest of it in your recipe. The result may not be the same as for a squash harvested at the “peak of perfection”, but it can still be good food.
If you leave larger squashes on the plant for more than a few days, the plant will slow down in making more squash. This is a good reason to check your squash plants often!
Most varieties of zucchini should be harvested before they grow longer than about eight inches. I usually grow ‘Black Beauty‘, which gets mixed reviews from other gardeners, but it has excellent flavor, and I like the contrast of the dark-green skins with the pale inner flesh.
Round zucchinis like ‘Ronde de Nice’, ‘One Ball’, ‘Eight Ball’, or ‘Tondo di Piacenza’ should be harvested before they get any larger than a baseball. These little veggies are great for stuffing, and the smaller sizes, at two to three inches in diameter, seem to work the best for that purpose.
A reviewer on Baker Creek’s catalog website says that ‘Ronde de Nice’ survived squash vine borers and squash bugs longer than other squashes in his Arkansas garden. I haven’t tried this variety yet to find out whether the same is true in my garden in Georgia.
Many scallop-type squashes, also called pattypans, should be harvested when they are between two and four inches across. However, the recommended harvest-size for ‘Scallop Early White Bush’ is much larger, at six-to-eight inches across.
This variation in recommended harvest-size is a good reason to save your seed packets, so you will have the information handy. If the seed packet is already lost, or doesn’t include the information, check your seed catalogs for best size-at-harvest for the variety, or search online.
When what a gardener really wants is a green “baseball bat”
Years ago, it never would have have occurred to me that a gardener might actually WANT an enormous, super-tough zucchini. My experience had been that we all ended up with a couple of these, even in small gardens, because zucchini plants can be huge and finding the squashes can be difficult.
When I find one of these green baseball bats in my own garden, I scoop out the seeds, then grate the rest to use in zucchini bread or croquettes. However, huge zucchinis have never been my main goal. Then I met a couple of gardeners who let their zucchinis grow to hugeness on purpose.
They wanted the big, tough vegetables to make mock-apple pies. When they first explained their goal, I was skeptical, but I found several recipes online, which meant that these gardeners were not the only ones using zucchini in sweet pies.
To find out what I was missing, I used one of their big, tough zucchinis to make a pie (an example recipe is linked here) and took it to work to share with my co-workers. Everyone was amazed by the similarity to actual apple pie.
The texture of the big zucchini was a near-perfect match for the texture of cooked apples, and the cinnamon, sugar, and lemon were enough to match the flavor.
If your squash plants are not doing well
Here in the South, it is common for summer squash plants to last for only part of the summer. By mid-summer, they may have been attacked by pests and diseases that they cannot survive.
For help with problems that summer squashes can experience in the South, like squash vine borers, squash bugs, and mildew leaf diseases, see the article Summer Squash in the Southern Garden.