WINTER SQUASH – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Fall starts this month and we should get a break from the August heat and also get a bit more precipitation. Fall is also the season for winter squash.
Squash is native to the Western hemisphere and in fact the word squash is derived from the Massachusetts Indian word “askutasquash”. Squash was a familiar plant in much of the Americas and was often grown in a mixed planting with corn and beans. This mutually beneficial grouping of plants was known to the indigenous farmers as “The Three Sisters”.
Winter squash, like most of its relatives in the cucurbit family (summer squash, melons, cucumbers) likes growing in warm temperatures. Summer squash are harvested while immature and the still delicate skin and seeds are consumed along with the flesh. Winter squash are generally harvested mature after the skins have hardened and the seeds are fully developed. Most often only the flesh of mature winter squash is consumed although squash seeds can be roasted and eaten like sunflower seeds. That said, many winter squash can be eaten like summer squash if harvested while quite immature and tender. Squash blossoms – both winter and summer – are edible and delicious as well. Winter squash come in a wide range of color and size from the somewhat diminutive 1 pound acorn squash to the large 20 pound Hubbard varieties and up to the gigantic pumpkin varieties that can exceed 2000 pounds. Interestingly, the name pumpkin comes from an old French word “pompion” – loosely translated as “cooked by the sun” – meaning to be harvested when completely ripe.
Squash vines typically grow 5 to 8 feet long and need considerable space. I plant squash in a single row 2 feet apart in our 4 foot wide raised beds. The mature vines will completely cover the bed and drape well into the paths and shade out most weeds. To save space, the vines can also be grown on a trellis. This is a warm season crop with the first plantings going in once the soil temperature gets to about 70 – usually mid to late Spring. Squash is most often direct seeded but can be started indoors and transplanted to get a jump on the season if desired. Additional plantings can be made through early August for harvesting before our first freeze in November. Most winter squash need 90 to100 days to mature from direct seeding. Squash like well drained moderately fertile soil and consistent moisture for a good fruit set. Like other cucurbits, squash have their fair share of fungal problems and pests including squash vine borers, squash bugs and cucumber beetles – all controllable with suitable pest and fungal controls. Rather than applying pesticides, some gardeners fence out the pest problem by growing squash under row covers which then requires hand pollination since pollinating insects are also fenced out. Hand pollination is pretty straightforward. The male flowers have a long skinny stem and the female flowers have a stem the resembles a tiny squash. Pick a male flower, strip the petals off and dab the male stamens on the female flower pistil. There, you are now an honorary honey bee.
Of the hundreds of winter squash types available, we’ve settled on mostly growing 4 different types: butternut, acorn, kabocha and spaghetti. These are all moderate sized and appropriate for a single meal. Harvested when mature the kabocha and butternut squash will keep for 3 to 4 months. The acorn and spaghetti squash usually need to be consumed within a month or so of harvest. Mature winter squash will have a fully developed color, a very tough skin and a dry hard stem. It’s best to cut the squash off of the vines with a pruner and leave an inch or so of stem attached. Squash keep best at temperatures in the mid 50’s and with fairly high humidity – like in a root cellar. Since we don’t have a root cellar, we keep our storage squash at cool room temperatures and away from direct light or drafts.
Spaghetti squash is usually baked and then shredded into strands similar to regular spaghetti and then sauced like its namesake. The other squashes are great in a range of savory and sweet dishes including soups, stews, breads and pies. We often roast peeled and cubed squash pieces in the oven until they caramelize – a wonderful side dish that is somewhere between sweet and savory. My wife also always freezes a good deal of butternut squash soup to break out on those really cold and wet winter days.
Good and good for you with a long history of cultivation in the Americas – whether you grow your own or pick some up at the market, winter squash is a wonderful heritage vegetable to enjoy.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor