Harvest and Handling
Cucurbit yields vary widely depending on plant spacing, production methods (plastics, row covers, irrigation system), and variety. Cucumbers and summer squash often yield 250-300 cwt/acre. Yield for winter squash and pumpkins average around 350-400 cwt/acre. Higher yields are possible in intensively managed systems. Harvest and handling procedures vary with the type of crop grown and possibly with the intended market. Growers need to carefully supervise and train picking crews to prevent damage or losses from improper harvesting and poor crop handling techniques.
Pickling cucumbers require 4-5 days after pollination to reach harvestable size (cultivar and temperature dependent) while slicing cucumbers require 15- 20 days. Maturity characteristics vary by variety so having an experienced harvester is critical for quality cucumbers. Pickling cucumbers are ready for harvest within days of fruit set and fruit sizes vary depending on market requirements. The indicators of slicing cucumber maturity are glossy green rind sheen, smooth fruits, and no discoloration. Cucumbers should show the characteristic color for the variety, be well formed, fresh and firm, and free from decay and damage. Fruits should be “pushed” or twisted from the vine to avoid vine injury. Pulling fruits often damages or breaks the vines or pulls up the plant. Fields are often harvested for 2-3 weeks and may be picked 3-4 times per week.
Pickling cucumbers are ready for harvest within days of fruit set. Maturity size varies with market requirements.
The harvest of summer squash (zucchini, patty pans, crooknecks, ball types) is very labor intensive. For optimum quality, fruits should be tender and have a shiny or glossy appearance. Low quality fruits have a dull color. Fruit size depends on the market, but fruits should never have seed with hard seed coats. Ideally, the crop should be harvested every other day and sometimes every day when temperatures are very warm. When harvesting summer squash, leave a short piece of the stem attached to the fruit. If possible, use cotton gloves when harvesting to avoid scratching and puncturing the fruit and cut the squash from the vine rather than twisting them off. The first flush of fruit (1st week) to be harvested is usually the best quality. Plan to harvest a given planting only 2 to 3 weeks and then start harvesting another planting.
Summer Squash should have a shiny or glossy appearance at harvest for optimum quality.
This will keep quality at its best, allows for a longer marketing season and minimizes low production due to older plants and disease. Harvest crookneck and straight neck cultivars when fruits are 1¼ to 2 inches in diameter. Zucchini fruits should be 6-8 inches long while scallop or ball types are harvested when they are 3-4 inches in diameter. Plant production drops off significantly if fruits are allowed to grow to larger sizes.
For optimum quality, harvest the fruits of winter squash and pumpkins only after the shell (or rind) has hardened completely. If you can scratch the rind with a finger nail, the fruit is still not mature. Care should be taken during harvest not to damage or break off the stem. Most winter squash and pumpkins are cut off the vine and stacked 2-4 fruits deep, depending on their size. When loading out of the field, trucks and trailers should be padded and fruit should not be bumped or bruised. Winter squash intended for long term storage should be washed or dipped in a 10% chlorine bleach solution (1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts water), then dried before storing in a dry, cool place. Storage in the open sun causes excessive spoilage and sunburn.
Take care to ensure that winter squash stems are not damaged or broken off during harvest.
Pumpkins are mature when fruits have achieved normal size, are fully colored, and when the rind is hard. Stop watering 7-10 days before harvest to help dry out the vine and soil. Fruits should be cut from the vine at maturity leaving a 3-5-inch-long stem.
Generally, growers wait at least 2-3 days after harvest to allow time for the stem to cure. When moving, windrowing, or loading the fruits, do not grasp the stem to avoid breaking it off. Fruits can be windrowed and stacked like the winter squash before loading out of the field. Avoid storage in the open to minimize sunburn damage and fruit softening.
Maturity indicators for slicing cucumbers are a glossy green rind sheen, smooth fruits, and no discoloration.