The wonders of winter squash are all too often overlooked. From a nutritional standpoint, many varieties of winter squash weigh in as superfoods with super flavor. Rich in Vitamin C, potassium, beta carotene, dietary fiber, and carotenoids, these guys are the perfect nourishment to warm up with as the weather cools down. They are fun to grow, and they are easy to store. That makes the winter squash the vegetable equivalent of a diamond in the rough.
About winter squash
Winter squash has been a fundamental vegetable for humans for thousands of years. In North America, squash was one of three primary crops. For one Native American tribe, the Iroquois, squash, beans, and corn were referred to as “The Three Sisters.” Grown together, the corn stalks provided a support for the beans to vine up. At the same time, the beans helped anchor the stalks to the ground and strengthened them against blustery winds. Meanwhile, the squash vined over the ground to provide a natural mulch for the beans and the corn. The squash vines also provided weed control, and their spiky nature protected all three crops from intruders. For more on the history of winter squash, visit http://blog.americanhistory.si.edu/osaycanyousee/2011/11/from-the-victory-garden-american-history-told-through-squash.html.
Today, the all-star of winter squashes is the pumpkin. Traditionally used as a fall decoration, the pumpkin also takes center stage as a delicious holiday dessert. Also popular are the butternut, acorn, buttercup, and spaghetti squashes. Butternut squash makes wonderful soups and purees. Acorn and buttercup squashes are great for baking and enjoying alone or as a yummy side dish. The stringy inside of the spaghetti squash makes a delicious gluten-free alternative to pasta.
Winter squashes are not to be confused with their relatives, the summer squashes. While all squashes grow during the summer season, summer squash is harvested in an immature state and consumed shortly thereafter. Winter squash, on the other hand, grows to full maturity on the vine and can be stored for months. For more information on the differences between winter and summer squash, visit http://www.ozarknaturalfoods.com/2013/05/winter-vs-summer-squash/.
How to grow winter squash
Winter squash is not a cold tolerant plant. For best crop results, wait to plant your seeds directly when your soil is a warm 70 degrees F. Plant 4 to 6 seeds in a hill, and thin each hill to 1 or 2 plants per hill. Plants should be spaced 4 feet apart in rows that are spaced 6 feet apart. Or you can plant your winter squash in a grid pattern 5 feet apart.
When you prepare your hills before planting, concentrate some compost and vegetable fertilizer a foot deep into the hills. Winter squashes are heavy feeders and will love the extra treat.
For short season, northerly locations, don’t try to plant your seeds directly. Start them inside three weeks before your last frost date, and transplant the seedlings when the ground has warmed to that 70 degree mark. Don’t let your seedlings grow too big though. They don’t like their roots disturbed, and they won’t produce as well the older they get. For more tips on how to start winter squash read http://www.finegardening.com/plants/articles/secrets-of-winter-squash.aspx.
Choose a sunny spot for your squash. Like the Native Americans from years gone by, you can plant squash between corn stalks, but the squash plants will produce more when they are not shaded by other plants. Provide healthy, nutrient filled soil for your seeds or transplants.
For the sweetest squash, make sure your squash plants get an inch of water per week. You may have to help Mother Nature out with that job if you live in hot and dry areas. For more on how to grow winter squash, visit http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/growing-winter-squash-zmaz10jjzraw.aspx
Winter squash vines can be unruly. They will stretch out across your garden and possibly beyond, so plan on giving them plenty of elbow room. If space is a problem, they can easily be trained to stay out of the way. The vines can gently be turned back in the same direction they came from. Or, once the vines have produced a few squash, snip off the fuzzy tips. The vine will stop crawling, and the produce will mature faster.
Another way to manage winter squash vines is with a trellis. This works especially well for small varieties. The produce from larger varieties can be supported with slings. Check out http://www.ourhappyacres.com/2013/08/in-a-sling/ for more on trellising and slings. And for ideas on semi-bush and other small and compact varieties of winter squash visit http://www.finegardening.com/plants/articles/winter-squash-for-tight-quarters.aspx
Winter squash takes more patience than other veggies. While you plant your winter squash at the same time as the rest of your vegetables, your winter squash will not be ready for harvest until late fall. Depending on the variety, from the time you plant to the time they are ready to be picked is usually between 80 to 100 days. They are well worth the wait, though. When you are finally able to harvest them, they come perfectly packaged in their own protective shell.
Pests and problems
Once your vines start to produce, your winter squash will have to lie on the ground for a long time before it is ready to be picked. That can sometimes cause your squash to rot. Put some mulch underneath your squash to resolve the problem. Or, try sliding a piece of wood or plastic under the squash to keep it off the ground.
The most common pest for winter squash is the squash-vine borer. If a nice long vine suddenly dies and jeopardizes the health of the fruit, use a knife to make a lengthwise slit down the vine. Try to locate the little white grub and remove it. Bury that section of vine to re-root and to help the fruit continue to grow. To learn more about how to manage the squash-vine borer read http://urbanext.illinois.edu/vegproblems/vineborer.cfm
How to harvest winter squash
Let your winter squash mature on the vine. It will not continue to ripen if you are hasty with its harvest, and you will miss out on the full flavor. A general rule for picking winter squash is to wait until the vines die. Some can be picked when the stems turn dry. Another gardener’s tip is to stick your fingernail into the skin, and if you can’t break the skin, that’s a good sign too.
The best way to know for sure that your squash is ready for the taking is to compare yours to the picture on the seed packet you planted from. If a picture is not available and you’re still not sure whether your winter squash is ready or not, the old-fashioned trial and error method will do.
If a frost is forecast, pick your mature squash and cover the unripe ones with mulch or a blanket. Remove the covering when the threat has passed so they get the sun they need. For more information on harvesting your winter squash, visit http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/winter-squash
Cut your squash from the vine with a knife. Leave a two inch stem. Try to prevent the stem from breaking off to prevent disease, rot, and pests from sneaking in. Wash the outside of your squash with 10 to 1 bleach to water solution. Let the squash cure in the sun or in a warm room for two weeks. Move your crop to a cool basement area for long-term storage. Most winter squash will keep for at least two months.
Now that your winter squash is safely stored, the best is yet to be. Visit http://whatscookingamerica.net/squash.htm for scrumptious winter squash recipes. Happy harvest!