Winter squash are making a comeback. Years ago, the hard skinned vegetable was pulled from the field and stored in piles in the cold cellar, and a family could feed off it for the entire winter.
Hearty and filling, squash kept many a pioneer family and stock from starving.
The cost of squash varies with location and time of year, from $1-$2.70 a pound. The weight of a medium acorn type is around 3 pounds.
Think of the money you can save at the grocery store if you learn how to grow this fabulous fruit (yes, technically it is a fruit).
How Much do You Need?
Depending on how much space you have, you might be limited to the number of vines you can grow.
And some varieties are much more prolific than others. Acorn squash for example can produce 6-8 three pound fruit per vine, while butternut only delivers two to four.
Some experts recommend that instead of just throwing all the seeds in the ground, that you grow fewer plants, but grow them better.
Prepping the Spot
Traditionally squash are grown in hills, or in the last row of the garden, where they can sprawl away from the more well behaved vegetables.
I like hills because you can locate them willy-nilly – near a fence or by a trellis OR an abandoned soccer goal in the back yard.
Locate your hills within reach of your garden hose and where your plants will get full sun.
Once you’ve picked the perfect location(s), it’s time to develop your hills. A hill should be at least 24″ in diameter and the hills should be 4′-6′ a part for your bush-type and 8’10’ for the more traditional vining variety.
Squash are pretty tolerant of the acidity in their soil, from 5.8-7.0 pH. They want soil that is rich in humus, medium in texture and has good drainage.
All of these issues can be taken care of at the time you start working the soil.
Dig the hill about 18″ deep. Because tare pretty big feeders, you’ll need to add plenty of nourishment. Shovel in at least 6″ of rich compost into the bottom of the hole. Alternate back and forth between soil and compost until your hill is not only filled but mounded 6″-8″ high.
The hardest part about learning how to grow squash is choosing the right seeds that suit all your family’s needs.
Squash comes in a huge variety of sizes, shapes and colors. In most hardware stores, feed stores and catalogs (both print and online) you can find tried-and-true varieties such as Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, Hubbard, Spaghetti, Banana, Marblehead and Cushaw.
Or you can go international. Try Japanese varieties such as the Chiriman (which is green and very warty), Kuri or Shishigatani (the fruit is shaped like a bottle).
Or what about the Italian examples like Piacentina and Marina Di Chioggia. The French offer up traditional examples like Galeux D’ Eysines and Mosquee De Provence.
Even Australia has its favorites in the Queensland Blue and Jaharradale.
Planting the Seeds
Because squash need 70-100 days to mature (depending on the variety and the weather), some of you may need to start your seeds inside.
I always found that starting seeds inside was an excellent way to introduce my kids to the whole concept of growing your own food, and responsibility.
Are your children clamoring for a puppy?
See if they can learn how to grow a plant first.
If you opt to start your seeds, use either peat pots that can go directly in the garden or a pot that you can easily tip out into your hand.
Or try making your own starter pots from newspaper. Whichever method you chose, remember that squash do not like their root systems disturbed.
Start your seeds indoor two to four weeks before the last frost day. Some growers like to soak the seeds overnight because it softens the outer seed covering and allows for faster and easier germination.
Plant the seed 1″ deep and on its side, with a narrow edge facing up. Cover the seed lightly with soil and then water. Take care that you don’t wash the soil away.
During the sprouting process, I like to water with a turkey baster. It allows a lot of control.
Water every two to three days until you see the little green sprouts appear. Germination should take place in 7-10 days.
When it’s time to move your darlings out to their hills, remember to plant them at the same level they are growing inside. If you bury them too deep or two shallow you’ll kill them.
You can sow squash seeds directly into the garden after the last frost.
Plant four or five seeds per hill, 1″ deep, with plenty of space between seeds. After germination, thin the plants to the healthiest looking two or three.
Squash have delicate root systems, so use scissors to snip them off rather than yanking them out. That way you won’t disturb the roots of the remaining plants.
After your first year learning how to grow this bountiful plant, you’ll probably want to grow it next year as well.
According to Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, squash seed is viable for four years, if you store them in a cool dry place.
Once the seedlings are 3″-4″ tall, it’s a good idea to mulch around them. Mulching keeps the weeds down and helps the soil retain moisture.
From the time of germination until the fruit has appeared, water slow and deep, but not constantly. Fertilize every two to three weeks.
To avoid a possible powdery mildew attack, keep the water off the leaves and vines. Try to keep the soil moist (like a squeezed out sponge) but not dripping wet.
Until your vines begin to flower, there is little you can do besides watering regularly and fertilizing every two to three weeks.
An Ounce of Prevention
During every stage of growth it’s important to keep an eye out for all the pests and disease that gravitate toward your vines.
The most important weapon in your arsenal is healthy soil. Squash, like all the cucurbits, have many enemies in the form of insect pests: squash bugs, squash vine borers, striped cucumber beetles, flea beetle and seed corn maggots.
It’s best to avoid letting theses buggers at your vines by using floating row covers.
But once you’ve identified them, you can make your own organic pesticide to nip them in the bud.
Besides pests, squash can be susceptible to diseases such as alternaria leaf spot, septoria leaf spot, black rot, gummy blight and powdery mildew.
We’ll soon be posting an article for a homemade fungicide made from ingredients you probably have in your kitchen and bathroom.
As an organic pest control option, try planting radishes around the perimeter of your hill.
Many pests that love squash, hate radishes, and radishes are a cheap deterrent.
Don’t harvest the radishes, just let them grow tall.
Sex Among the Vines
The first flush of big flowers that open will almost always be males.
If it looks like you have plenty of bees and butterflies around to fertilize your blossoms, it’s okay to harvest some of those blossoms yourself, as they are edible.
You can tell the difference between boy and girl squash by lifting her skirt.
A female blossom has a bulge, a potential squash, between the blossom and the stem, just waiting for fertilization. Male blossoms are on long thin stems.
In order to grow full size, the female blossoms must be thoroughly pollinated. If you don’t see plenty of bees dipping in and out of your blossoms, you might want to try a little match making.
Peek inside your boy blossoms, looking for a blossom that is so ripe, so full of pollen, that if you lightly touch it, the pollen will adhere to your finger tip.
Gently clip the blossom off and carefully carry it to his waiting bride. Touch the male blossom to the female’s sticky stigma in the center of her blossom.
And it’s that fast. Does anyone have a cigarette?
Managing your Vines
If you’re just learning how to grow these wonderful edibles, you’ll probably start to wonder, “What is all this nonsense about vines taking over the garden?”
I’m warning you that they really don’t take off until August, and then you better be ready with a plan.
When fruit begins to appear, cut off the vines’ runners. This will encourage the plant to put its energy into growing fruit, not producing more vines.
Usually squash grow two main vines that head off in opposite directions. Each of these vines will produce a secondary vine, which also produces fruit.
But the secondary vines will sprout “tertiary” vines that you want to remove.
To avoid disease spreading amongst your vines, don’t handle the vines when they are wet.
Some old timers insist that to grow larger examples, you should bury the vines 2″-3″ deep to encourage secondary root growth.
When you move your vines around, only do a little at a time to avoid damaging root systems or knocking off immature fruit.
Remove foliage around the fruit if it is blocking the sun; just remember not to get too carried away. The vine still needs its leaf system to function productively.
Winter squash have very hard skin, but it takes a while for them to fully mature.
Leave them on the vine until you can’t press your thumbnail into the skin, which is usually around the time of the first frost.
Clip your fruit from the vine and (if weather permits) allow them to cure in the field for one to two weeks. Then store at 55-61 degrees in a dry space.
What to do with the all of the produce?
Some gardeners that really know how to grow squash figure that they only need two plants to feed three people, but I’m old school…if I got the seeds, they’re going in the ground.
If you’ve get too many then share your harvest.
Squash can be boiled, steamed, baked and roasted. You can freeze it and you can can it. You can eat it in soup and in casseroles. It can be utilized as an entrée, a side dish or even dessert.
After you’ve used all you can, and passed it around to your neighbors and coworkers, and if you still have some squash left over, it makes great fodder for livestock.
Did you know that squash seeds can be made into lovely salty snacks just like you do with pumpkin seeds?
Extra Blossoms Mean Fine Dining
If the boys have gone wild in your garden, turn them into a tasty nibble.
Harvest the blossoms during mid-day, when they are open wide. Snip the stem about an inch away from the flower. Wash gently and well by filling a bowl with water and swirl them.
They can be kept fresh in the refrigerator in a bowl of ice water until you’re ready for them. Twirl them dry and lay on paper towels.
Blossoms are excellent battered and fried, but they also make lovely little purses that you can stuff with just about anything.
But the best way is with a little garlic and olive oil. Oh Mama!