Different gardeners have different favorite uses for winter squash, so be prepared to experiment with this unique vegetable. Squash can be boiled, baked, or mashed. It can be served by itself as a side or added to soups and stews. It can be stuffed with rice or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Butternut squash can even be baked in pies as a substitute for pumpkin.
Pumpkin is another member of the winter squash group. You undoubtedly know that it has diverse possibilities in baking, but have you considered eating the seeds? When roasted with sea salt, they make a delicious snack.
- Full sun.
- Moist but not soggy soil.
- Soil pH between 6.0 and 6.5.
- Plant outdoors about two weeks after the last spring frost date, when the soil has thoroughly warmed up. In Kansas this will be from May to mid-June.
- Soak the seeds in water overnight if desired. This is not necessary, but will ensure better germination.
- Form one hill for each group of plants, at least three feet apart. A spacing of up to six feet may be necessary if you do not plan to use a trellis.
- Plant four to nine seeds in each hill, one inch deep. Your goal is to ensure that you will be able to thin all but the healthiest plants in the hill.
- Keep the hills well watered until germination, but be careful not to wash the seeds away.
- When the seedlings start to grow, pinch off all but two or three of the healthiest plants.
To save space and keep the vines in peak health, winter squash should be trained to grow up a trellis. Carefully wrap the branches around their supports as they grow. Check the plants periodically to see if any branches have escaped. Also be sure to handle the plants gently to avoid crimping or breaking them.
Winter squash needs quite a bit of water to grow. In the hottest part of summer, you may need to water it deeply every day.
Pests are a major problem with winter squash and pumpkins. To avoid a heavy infestation, you will have to be extremely proactive in your control methods. Check for signs of pests daily. Keep weeds pulled and avoid heavy mulches where bugs can hide. Cut off any wilted, yellowed, or dead foliage that you see. If you take steps to deter garden pests before they arrive, your odds of success will be much greater.
Pests and Diseases
Winter squash cannot be harvested until the first fall frost. Wait for the vine to wilt, but do not leave the squash and pumpkins out in a freeze. Cut them from the vine with a sharp knife, leaving as much stem as possible. Be very careful not to damage this stem or to bruise the skin. Set the squash out in the sun to cure for a few days, but bring them in at night if frost is a possibility. When the squash is finished curing, the stem will feel dry, hard, and woody.
Store squash and pumpkins in a dry place, about 40°F to 50°F. Check them often. A tiny bruise is enough to cause an entire squash to rot.
- Isolate pumpkins and winter squash from other members of the squash family by half a mile, if possible.
- If this is not feasible, you will have to hand pollinate the flowers. Check on them every day as soon as they appear.
- When the flowers are ready for pollination, they will look orange along the seams, and the tips may be just starting to open. Immediately tape them shut with masking tape.
- When the dew dries the next morning, identify the male and female flowers among the ones that you have taped. Female flowers are attached to tiny squash fruits. Male flowers attach directly to the stem of the plant.
- Pick one of the male flowers and pull off its petals to make it easier to work with.
- Tear just the tip off of one of the female flowers.
- Rub pollen from the male flower onto the protruding stigma in the center of the female flower.
- Pick another male flower and pollinate the female flower again.
- Carefully tape the female flower shut again so that insects cannot bore into it.
- Loosely tie a plastic ribbon around the stem of the plant so that you can identify the squash that you hand pollinated.
- Repeat with several more flowers. Squash plants tend to reject flowers that have been damaged, so you will have to be gentle and pollinate many flowers to ensure success.
- Harvest and cure the squash normally.
- Store the squash normally for three weeks.
- Cut open the squash and pick out the seeds.
- Rub seeds in a wire strainer under running water to separate them from any remaining pulp.
- Drain the seeds and let them air-dry.
- Store seeds in a cool, dry, dark place. They should last for up to six years.
The Attack of the Squash Bugs
Winning the war on squash bugs is not easy—here are a few tips to help.
Winter squash diseases are described along with those of melons, cucumbers, and summer squash.