Your Guide to Growing Winter Squash

There Are Two Main Squash Varieties to Grow: Summer and Winter

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Your Guide to Growing Winter Squash

Winter squash, like summer squash, melons and cucumbers, are part of the gourd family. Growing, harvesting, and keeping winter squash is, to me, among the easiest in home food production. There are several varieties, all of which are nutritious and delicious.

The biggest difference between summer squash and winter squash is winter squash isn’t harvested a little at a time as it ripens and continuing to bloom and produce. Winter squash is left on the vine until all the fruit is fully ripened. They are generally left in the garden until the first frost arrives, then they are harvested and stored. You must be careful, however, to never let winter squash freeze. They will immediately be spoiled.

My favorite winter squash is pumpkin. When the boys were little, we used to scratch their names in a green pumpkin. By barely scratching the skin with your pocket knife or spoon handle, the pumpkin will heal over the scratches making raised scars in the rind in the shape of the letters. When they were ready to harvest, the boys had great fun looking for the one with their name on it while we harvested. They never knew they were really working.

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The most popular varieties of winter squash are butternut, acorn, pumpkin, spaghetti, hubbard, buttercup and turban. Although turban can be used like you would butternut and acorn squash, it is usually used as a decorative winter squash.

Winter squash is more nutritious than summer squash. It is high in Vitamins A and C, and high in fiber. Among the other nutrients found in winter squash are calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, copper, potassium, vitamin B2, vitamin K, vitamin B3, and omega-3 fats.

Planting and Growing

When to plant squash depends on your gardening zone, but then doesn’t all gardening. The thing is, winter squash requires a long growing season. The growing time varies between the varieties which range from 80 to 120 days. Pumpkins for instance take 100 to 120 days. Now that I live in growing zone 5b/6a, I will have to be careful to provide cover for my winter squash. I will do this long before I would have harvested them in growing zone eight where I always gardened.

Know your gardening zone and plant when you have the required number of days before your first frost. Remember, frost dates are estimates based on weather history averages. Because of their meandering vines, winter squash don’t make a good choice for growing squash in containers. Many summer squash varieties, zucchini and yellow squash for instance, do make good choices for this.

If you keep a garden vegetables list of what you want to plant, take available space and space requirements for different varieties in to account. Plant your winter squash seeds about an inch deep. I usually put three to four seeds in a hill. The old adage, “One for the mole, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow,” comes to mind every time I plant. There are many variations of this saying, do you know another one?

Your hills should be 4 to 6 feet apart depending on the variety you plant. We plant butternut, spaghetti, upper ground sweet potato and pumpkin, for winter squash. We make certain the hills are planted 6 feet apart. We do this to allow plenty of space for the vines and fruit. Some people swear by four feet. Decide what you have space for and go with what suits your needs.

winter-squash

They will sprout within seven to ten days of being planted. Be sure to keep your winter squash well watered, especially once they start producing fruit. Their water requirements are high while growing and ripening fruit.

Remember, squash will cross pollinate within the same family. If you choose members of the same family, allow two to three weeks between plantings and allow adequate room between beds to prevent cross-pollination. I’ve never had a problem with cross-pollination, but our garden has always been large enough to accommodate.

If you don’t have a lot of space, separating the planting time is a good option. You can also use raised beds which are spaced far apart. Best estimates to prevent cross-pollination are ¼ mile or about 1,000 feet, but I’ve had them closer without any problems.

Harvesting

Like we said, you leave winter squash in the field until the first frost comes, but not until freezing temperatures move in damaging the fruit. The vines will be dried up and dead when they frost, if not before. Cut the squash from the vine at least 1” away from the fruit.

In gardening zone eight, I left them in the garden up to two weeks to allow for curing. I have to learn how to do this here. Luckily, I have found a local old-timer, who has taken me under her wing to learn the secrets to gardening in this growing zone.

Curing is important to insuring winter squash are ready to be stored for the winter. If you can’t leave them out to cure, bring them in to the warmest area you can in your home or heated outbuilding for two weeks. Warm temperatures, especially 80-85 degrees F, will allow the rinds to get hard and heal of any superficial cuts.

If you have any deep damage to the fruit, be sure to use those first. Do not store damaged fruit with those you plan to overwinter. They will cause the others to rot as they decompose.

You could, as we do, share the damaged or otherwise undesirable fruits with your livestock. From chickens to pigs, most all livestock enjoy winter squash. Cut the squash into pieces, I have used a machete to do this, and feed them to your livestock. They will all appreciate it!

In the old days, many farmers grew winter squash for their livestock to feed on during winter. This was especially true of those who couldn’t grow grain or enough grain to feed livestock through the winter months.

Storing

Storing winter squash is the only “difficult” part for some homesteaders. This is because of the space required for their larger or more numerous produce. When storing winter squash there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Don’t let them freeze. When the fruit thaws it will be mushy and inedible for humans.
  • Don’t store in damp places, like your root cellar, unless you have a high tech humidity controlled one. Attic spaces or lofts are often used for this purpose as heat rises.
  • It’s best if the fruits don’t touch each other; where they touch, they rot first
  • Do check your stored fruit regularly. Immediately use or remove any fruit that shows signs of going bad
  • Consider every available inch of space you may have on your homestead to store them. As long as they won’t freeze or won’t be exposed to moisture, store them there

Many people spend the winter canning or drying their winter squash. Some people freeze it. We don’t use a freezer for food preservation because of loss experienced with power outages in the past. I personally use them as we go.

Freeze drying is also a good option for preserving your winter squash. They will keep for years and maintain their nutritional value as well.

The winter squash we plant have been excellent keepers and are still good for our use in early March. We use a great deal of them to supplement the winter feed for our livestock. When it’s especially cold out, I like to cut one in half, bake it and give it to the chickens and turkeys for breakfast. Of course, I let it cool off some first.

winter-squash

Saving Seeds

Saving seeds doesn’t get any easier than with winter squash. We practice selective breeding in our livestock and in our garden. This means we keep seeds from the healthiest plant and fruit for ensuring the best crop.

When you cut open the ripe fruit, remove the seeds. Place them in a quart jar and fill with water. Let it sit on the counter for about 24 hours. The pulp will separate during this time and be easily removed.

Fertile seeds will sink to the bottom and incomplete seeds will float with the pulp. Remove pulp and floating seeds. Rinse the good seeds and lay them out on a towel, in a warm area, to dry. I turn mine every now and then and allow to dry for a couple of days.

Store in a cool dry environment. I keep mine in natural seed envelopes and glass jars with tight lids. They have been good up to seven years.

Use

Well, we’ve already talked about livestock, but what about people. My goodness, the recipes are endless. They can be baked, boiled, mashed and fried. They are good in everything from pies and soups to casseroles and stuffings.

Their seeds are highly nutritious and a personal favorite around our house. I have a Pinterest board dedicated to just the pumpkin, my favorite winter squash.

winter-squash

Upper Ground Sweet Potato

I wanted to make special mention of this particular winter squash for several reasons. The main reason is that the upper ground sweet potato is dying out and will be gone if we don’t preserve it. We started growing these in our garden several years ago. All of the instructions for winter squash apply to it.

The upper ground sweet potato gets its name because the flesh, when ripened, is a color and similar texture to a sweet potato. It does have a sweetish flavor, but isn’t truly sweet. They have a mild flavor which makes them perfect for casseroles and dressings.

The squash may reach up to 15 pounds! I have had a few 11 pounders. We like them because of their excellent keeping quality and productivity.

The rind requires some muscle to cut. We often split it with a machete because my kitchen knives are too small and its rind too hard for me. While we do eat upper ground sweet potato squash ourselves, we grow them largely for livestock, including poultry. Because of their excellent keeping, they ensure a nutritious food source all winter.

Like other winter squash, they spread out greatly. They’re able to survive under conditions most squash could not. Poor soil quality, lack of water (not drought), mildew and bugs all try, but don’t keep this champ from producing its round to bell shaped large fruits. Please consider growing this dying variety of winter squash and save the seeds. I purchased mine from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Do you have a favorite winter squash? How about a favorite winter squash recipe? Please, share your tips for growing and storing them with us.

Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack

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