By: Amy Grant
An underutilized nut, the butternut is a hard nut that is as large as a pecan. The meat can be eaten out of shell or used in baking. If you are lucky enough to have one of these gorgeous white walnut trees, you may be wondering when and how to harvest butternut trees? The following article contains information regarding harvesting and picking butternuts.
Butternuts, or white walnuts, are tolerant of a variety of poor soils but do require well-draining soil. The nuts resemble walnuts and are encased in a sticky husk inside a knobbed shell. Butternuts are richer, creamier, and sweeter than walnuts but are rarely cultivated. They are also susceptible to fungal infections.
The incidence for fungal infection combined with the fact that the tree is difficult to propagate are the greatest impediments to commercial cultivation. Combine these with the great difficulty in cracking the nut, and harvesting butternuts commercially loses economic viability.
Like walnuts, butternuts have significant omega-3 fatty acids, shown to reduce inflammation and reduce the risk for heart disease. Possibly due to their high fat content, butternuts rot rapidly when allowed to fall and sit on the ground. This means that when butternut harvesting, only harvest those nuts shaken from the tree.
Butternuts become ripe in the fall. You can tell when they are ready to harvest when you can dent the outer hull with your thumbnail.
There is no great secret to picking butternuts, just some physical labor. In the fall, knock the nuts from the tree (watch your head!) when the hulls begin to split.
Remove the hulls as soon as you can. There are a several methods to removing the husk and all of them are challenging. You can try to pry them apart with a knife, stomp on them, roll over them with a car, or crack them between two boards.
Wash the nuts to remove any clinging fibers, in a bucket of water. Discard any nuts that float to the surface. These nuts are “duds” and will contain no meat.
Spread the nuts in a thin layer on wire mesh trays or newspaper in a warm, ventilated area out of direct sun. This curing will take several weeks. When the nuts are done curing, you can hear them rattle in the shell.
Store the cured nuts in a cool, dry, aerated area for several months or freeze shelled nuts for up to a year.
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When it comes to harvesting butternut squash, the best way to tell if the squash are ready to be picked is by their appearance. If you pick them to early, the texture will be too firm and the sugars will not be developed. If you wait too long to harvest, the squash will be too mushy.
When butternut squash first appear on the vine, they will have green vertical lines on them. As the squash matures, the lines begin to fade and the rind turns to a pale orange or brown color, depending on the variety.
Most butternut squash matures when it is 8-12 inches long. However, the length can vary depending on the growing conditions and variety. Nutrient rich soil will produce larger squash. Watch the squash carefully every day or so and monitor their lengths. When the squash stop growing, they are almost ready to be picked.
Another good way to tell if it's time for harvesting butternut squash is the appearance of the stem. When the squash is mature, the stem end will turn from green to brown. It will appear that the stem is beginning to dry out. When this happens, the plant slowly stops transferring nutrients into the squash. This is an indication that your butternut squash is ready to be picked.
Finally, test the toughness of the rinds with your fingernail. If they resist being punctured, the squash are ready to be picked.
To harvest butternut squash, use shears to cut the squash from the vine, leaving about an inch of stem attached. Wipe the dirt off the squash with a damp cloth. The squash can then be stored for up to 2-3 months in a cool, dark place such as a basement, crawl space or root cellar. They will also last for up to 14 days at room temperature on a kitchen table or counter.
You can also peel the squash, dice them and boil them until soft. The pieces can then be pureed or mashed and frozen in an airtight container for up to 6 months. Or, you can use the squash to make a soup, which can also be frozen for later use.
After the growing season is over, you can pull the plants from the ground and add them to your compost pile.
Now that you know about harvesting butternut squash, it's time for a few of our favorite recipes.
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Harvesting at the right time is key for all winter squashes. Picking too early means the squash won’t be ripe and sweet inside, and leaving it on the vine too long could lead to rotten squash.
If you planted your butternut squash on time in the summer, it will most likely be ripe in late September or sometime in October.
All gardeners have their preferred method for deciding when to harvest their butternut squash, but it really comes down to three factors:
Another popular trick to tell when to pick butternut squash is tapping on it. Ripe squash (and melons!) sound hollow when you tap on them.
Many fruits and vegetables will continue to ripen even after being picked, but this is not true of winter squashes, including butternut squash.
It’s better to leave your squash on the vine for longer than to pick it too early. Unless you have really rainy weather, fruits are not likely to rot on the vine for a long time. In fact, if left on the plants past ripeness, the skin on your squash will start to cure, making them better for storage.
There are two exceptions to this general rule:
It always amazes me how much conflicting information is online about almost any subject. And that includes when to harvest butternut squash.
Understandably, that can cause a lot of problem for gardeners looking for a correct answer. Especially difficult I would think, for new gardeners who have no experience to help them determine whether the information given is right or wrong.
Just as an example, I read one article on harvesting butternut that sounded good. Only thing is, a lot of the wording could be misunderstood by gardeners who have no experience. At the end the article, they gave a little bio on the author and come to find out she was an attorney and a professional writer. No gardening experience. I couldn’t help but shake my head.
Good Advice from a Friend
Took me 33 years of gardening to discover butternut and grow it. As I explained in my first post on butternuts in 2011, I became interested in growing them because I had friend who had great success with them.
The best part of having a friend who was a successful grower, was being able to ask questions about when to harvest. His advice still sounds pretty good: “They’re ready to harvest when they turn a peanut color and the stem is tan (brown) and cracking. When mature, the outside of the squash will resist the light pressure of your fingernail.”
After growing butternut squash again this year, I’ve decided that as easy as his advice sounds it’s not always that easy to make a decision.
When I grew butternuts last (2011), I cut them as soon as they were the right color and the stem was grey/brown and very hard. They kept beautifully, although I can’t remember how long it was we actually kept them before eating them. At least into the year after harvest. I didn’t “cure” them.
I noticed that the various catalogs talk about “curing for 7 to 10 days in the sun to harden the rind which increases the storage quality.” Since catalogs mention it, I feel it’s something we should consider IF we plan to store our squash through the winter.
For many years I’ve been successful in following my “gut” feelings. You probably have too, if you’ve gardened for any length of time. Somehow, cutting those squash and leaving them in the sun for over a week is not something I feel right about doing.
I just left them on the vines (that are drying) and will harvest the ripe ones today. (It’s been 9 days since they showed all the signs of being ready to harvest, so they should be cured.)
Overlooking the Easiest Way to Determine when to Harvest
Only today did it occur to me to look back on the package (or in the catalog) and find the days to maturity for each of my varieties. The information for the ones I’ll harvest today (Early Butternut from Pinetree) shows 82 days to maturity. The other signs of maturity are right in sync with that information. Now I feel good about going ahead with this first harvest.
I’ve read that these Early maturing butternuts don’t keep as well. Mine won’t be around long enough to concern myself with that.
The two squash on the still-green vines are not mature. Those plants were planted 19 days after the others. By September 1 they should be ready for harvesting.
All except two will be harvested today. Note the brown stem of the large butternut at the bottom. The stems that attach the two large ones to the still-green stems at the top of the picture are not ready to be harvested. The two small light colored squash (one on the right and one on the left) are not hard, but they won’t grow anymore since their vines are withering. I’m looking forward to having them for dinner tomorrow.
My Burpee’s Butterbush Butternut matures at 75 days. Since it wasn’t planted in the garden until June 18th, it still has a way to go.
This one still has a long ways to go.
Other Things to Keep in Mind When You Harvest
I like to consider everything before I make the decision about when to harvest my butternut. But I still think the basic criteria for harvesting this delicious winter squash is summed up in what my friend said some years back.
“They’re ready to harvest when they turn a peanut color and the stem is tan (brown) and cracking. When mature, the outside of the squash will resist the light pressure of your fingernail.”
Before butternut squash is ready to be picked, you will notice a change in colour on the leaves. The plant’s leaves will either dull in colour (resembling a yellow tinge), or they will dry out and go brown. This is usually a good indicator that your butternut is ready.
Be careful not to mistake the cause of drying leaves. Frost, bad soil composition and/or lack of water may also affect the leaves of your plant.
Your butternut squash will have one main vine coming out of the ground. This vine will then network into slightly thinner vines which spread all over your garden area. By looking at these secondary & tertiary vines you should be able to tell if your butternut squash is ready—or at least almost ready.
Towards the end of the plant’s life, the vines will begin to get thinner. They will start to shrivel slightly, which is indicative of enough nutrients being distributed to the fruit. This is a sure sign that harvest time is close by.
The third sign to look out for is the stem that connects the butternut squash to the vine. This stem is usually stiff & supple. It holds the fruit onto the vine and prevents it from breaking off too easily if the plant is disturbed or shaken by harsh weather conditions.
But towards harvest time, this stem will change its colour to brown, soften and even dry out. If this happens, you can be sure that there are almost no more nutrients being sent to the butternut squash itself. In other words, your squash is ready to be picked.
While butternut squash is maturing, it will have a slight green tinge to it. There will also be green stripes along the fruit. If you see any of these characteristics on the squash, know that it isn’t yet ready to be picked.
A harvestable butternut squash is a deep tan colour. That tan colour is the perfect indicator that your butternut squash has ripened.
As mentioned, when butternut squash is given the time to ripen properly, it forms a hard exterior. This is one other way you can test to see when your butternut squash is ready to be picked.
If it’s not quite ready, the exterior will have a slightly soft feel to it. If it’s ready, the skin will be thick and hard. This allows you to store your butternut squash for longer if it isn’t cooked immediately.
Here’s a quick side note from me to you: It’s unfortunate when butternut squash is picked too early. But when it comes to gardening, trial and error plays a huge role.
Consider the following post-harvest indicators that you picked your squash at the wrong time—and try not to make the same mistake with your next harvest.
If your butternut squash was picked too early, the cooked flesh won’t be as tasty as it should be. If you picked it too late, the flesh will also have begun to lose its flavour.
But if your squash was harvested at the right time—as per the indicators put forth above—the flesh will taste rich & nutty. If that’s how your squash tastes, you can safely follow the same pattern next time you harvest.
Picking your butternut too early will prevent the flesh from softening even when it’s cooked. Mashing up your squash will leave it full of clumps which will be annoying to chew.
On the other hand, if your butternut squash was overripe when you picked it, the flesh will be overly soft and extremely watery. Draining this water will do nothing more than remove most of the flavour you so desperately wanted to retain.
Growing butternut squash is one of the easiest vegetables gardening endeavours you will experience. You will quickly learn how to recognise when butternut is ready to be picked.
As you continue to grow this tasty squash, remember to keep a gardening journal so that the signs become clear to you year after year.
Use the above seven pointers as a checklist and watch your butternut squash closely for these signs. The reward will be tasty butternut squash that’s not only tasty, but extremely healthy for you.