Colorful, unique, and easy to grow, winter squash is one of the most popular types of vegetables grown in gardens all over the world. A nutritious and delicious crop, winter squash has a long storage life, allowing you to keep it with minimal care for many months without having to worry about spoilage.
Luckily, growing winter squash is easy. With so many varieties to choose from, you’ll want to try them all so that you have tons of options all winter long.
Health Benefits of Winter Squash
Winter squash is nutritious and tasty, preferred by growers all over the world. It contains impressive amounts of beneficial ingredients, including immune-boosting vitamins A and C, as well as plenty of dietary fiber, manganese, potassium, copper, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B6, K, and B3.
Winter squash has a low calorie count, coming in at only 76 calories per cup. It contains plenty of water, too, helping you stay hydrated and boosting your digestive functioning. Winter squash is a starchy vegetable, with healthy carbohydrates to give you plenty of energy.
Because of this high nutritional value, winter squash is excellent at treating and preventing a number of common diseases. It can help to improve digestive functioning, as well as to stimulate the immune system and strengthen the bones.
It can regulate your metabolism and eliminate inflammation in your body. It can also work to prevent certain cancers and to lower cholesterol levels, while also reducing blood pressure and regulating blood sugar.
Is there anything that this miracle vegetable doesn’t do?
Varieties of Winter Squash
There are dozens of different cultivars of winter squash, and it is often confused with other types of squash, like summer squash.
The key difference between winter and summer squash is that winter squash is harvested only once the squash is fully mature, while summers quash can be harvested at any point. As a result, winter squash which have a much harder rind that winter squash, and won’t be ready for harvest until September or October.
Winter squashes grow on the vine and produce hard, inedible seeds. Because they produce a rigid rind, they tend to store much better than summer squashes, lasting for months at a time without refrigeration.
Although there are dozens of varieties of winter squash, from pumpkin squash to turban squash to butternut squash, we have detailed only a sampling of the most popular varieties below.
Butternut squash is one of the most popular varieties of winter squash. This squash is shaped like a bottle, and has a smooth texture and rich, velvety flavor. It can store for well over six months and has a light brown rind. Butternut squash is highly resistant to squash bugs as well.
Buttercup squash has even more flavor and productivity than butternut squash. Producing dense crops of fat, green fruits, these squashes store for about five months. Acorn squash, on the other hand, are ribbed fruits that mature quickly – with many varieties ready for harvest in just three months. They can be either yellow or green in color.
Hubbard squash, also known as kabocha squash, can grow quite large, producing dry flesh with a nutty flavor. These squashes are less resistant to certain pests, like squash vine borers, but can store for roughly five months as well. Hubbard squash needs lots of room to grow, with vines that develop supplement roots.
Spaghetti squash are a favorite among pasta lovers, producing stringy strands of fruit that can easily be substituted for spaghetti in most dishes. These fruits grow in an oblong fashion and have yellow or tan flesh. They can store for up to six months.
Cushaw squash is the final type of winter squash. These squashes produce large, bulb-shaped fruits with firm, sweet flesh. These massive fruits, growing up to forty pounds in weight, have hard rinds and tend to be resistant to most pest problems.
They need a longer, hotter growing season than other kinds of squash, but can store for a minimum of four months after being harvested.
Preparing for Planting
Winter squash can be started from seed indoors, but many gardeners prefer to wait until the ground has warmed enough outside before preparing to plant. Winter squash requires plenty of space to grow, but can be started from seed if you have a short growing season.
Most varieties, like butternut squash, take about 120 days to mature and require soil temperatures between 50- and 90-degree Fahrenheit. If you choose to start seeds inside, make sure you give them plenty of bright, direct light (a grow light might be necessary).
If you start seeds inside, do so about four weeks before the last average frost date. You can sow them in biodegradable peat or paper pots, which will allow you to plant your squash plants with minimal damage or disturbance to the plants.
You can intermittently plant winter squash if you live in a warm area – such as Zone 6 or hotter. This will allow you to receive a continuous harvest of winter squash, but you should stop planting about fourteen weeks before the first expected fall frost.
Otherwise, wait to plant winter squash until the last frost has passed. You can plant seeds directly into the ground as soon as the danger of frost has passed. You do not need to wait for the ground to warm up, but if you want to get the seeds into the ground and germinating as quickly as possible, a good idea is to plant into a sheet of black plastic.
If you lay down plastic early in the spring, even before the frosts have ended, your ground will warm more quickly and you also won’t need to worry about weeds.
Winter squash takes a long time to ripen, so the most important thing is that you get the seeds into the ground as early as possible. The seeds need rich, well-drained soil, ideally in hills. They will vine and spread out, so make sure you give them lots of room to sprawl.
Winter squash prefers warm, sunny locations. The soil should be well-drained and fertile, with an ideal pH between 6.0 and 6.5. You will want to prepare large planting hills, generally those that are about three feet wide with six feet in between. Make sure you loosen the soil in the planting sites, providing an area of at least twelve inches in which to plant.
Make sure you work in plenty of loose compost or another organic fertilizer, as this will add beneficial nutrients and necessary structure to your soil. You can also add manure, but if you do this, make sure you provide plenty of time before planting to allow the nutrients to break down in the soil – otherwise, you risk burning your young crops.
You can also grow squash in containers, but it will take you more time and you can only do this with bush-type winter squashes. You can sow two or three seeds in the center of a ten-inch container, then thin to the strongest seedling once they are about four inches in height.
Growing in a container allows you to move it inside if the growing season is cut short, but you will likely need a cage or trellis to support the plants.
Planting Winter Squash
When you’re ready to plant, set out seedlings or seeds in raised beds or hills. To plant in hills, simply mound the soil up around the base of the seed or seedlings. Plant one seedling or six seeds per hill, poking seeds about an inch deep into the soil.
These plants need a lot of room. They will grow about two inches in height and can rapidly take over anything else you have planted. Make sure you allow for those outward growth.
In addition, keep in mind that you may need to train the vines once they start growing, moving them to more convenient spots so that they don’t overtake the rest of your garden. Some people prefer to train their squash vines to crawl up a small A-frame or a trellis, which can be as tall as eight feet.
Once the seeds have germinated, which usually takes about ten days, you can thin seedling to three per hill. If you are planting a variety of winter squash that is more vulnerable to pests like the squash borer, you might want to also consider installing row covers immediately after planting. This will reduce the plant’s vulnerability to those pests.
Tending To Winter Squash Plants
Winter squash plants must be kept in soil that is evenly moist. This is where a heavy, thick layer of mulch can come in handy. On hot days, squash plants will require more water, and may appear to wilt as they use up water more quickly than the roots can supply. However, as long as you apply consistent, deep watering, your plants should liven up as the day cools.
Provide several inches of water per week, ideally using a soaker hose or other method of steady irrigation so that you don’t have to worry about your plans drying out. You can add compost or other organic fertilizer, such as manure or compost tea, to help keep your plants well-fed throughout the summer.
A good rule of thumb is to apply compost tea every two to three weeks during the growing season. Avoid nitrogen-only fertilizers, and instead aim for a more balanced ratio of nutrients.
Winter squash have separate male and female flowers. Male flowers will appear first and will not produce fruit, while female flowers appear later and are pollinated by the male flowers. You will usually need the help of insects.
If it’s growing later in the season and you have not seen your plants set fruit, you may need to help with pollination by using a soft-bristled brush to dust inside the male flower and then inside the female flower.
Winter squash plants tend to be resistant to many pests and diseases, but you do have to worry about squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and squash vine borers in your winter squash garden. These pests love feeding on winter squash plants, with certain varieties more attractive to the pets than others.
You can keep them at bay by shielding your plants with row covers, which can be held up with stakes or hoops until your plants have started to produce blossoms. At this point, you will need to temporarily remove the row covers so that the flowers can be pollinated. Some methods of mechanical control may also work to keep these pests at bay.
Crop rotation, in which you plant different species in each area in each growing season, can also be effective, as can isolating plants of the same family (such as squashes, cucumbers, and pumpkins) that tend to attract the same pests.
If you have a squash borer or bug problem, you will likely see them on your plants. You may also notice small holes in the stem or unexplainable wilting.
Powdery mildew is a common problem among winter squash plants, too. This disease can be prevented by growing resistant varieties, or by spraying them with a homemade spray. A mixture of one-part milk to six parts water can help prevent and eliminate powdery mildew if it is applied every two weeks during the second part of the summer.
Mosaic virus is another common disease. This is spread by aphids, so removing aphids from your garden and getting rid of any affected plants can help eliminate an outbreak. This virus causes your plants to experience stunted growth and to develop a mottled yellow appearance.
Blossom end rot is also common among members of the squash and cucumber family. This disease causes your fruit to rot, starting with the blossom end first. This is caused by fluctuations in soil moisture, so maintaining even and regular watering, as well as mulching, can help keep this disease at bay.
Planting squash plants with companions like bush peas, bush beans, and nasturtiums can help improve their yields and health. Since they are so low to the ground, you should avoid planting squash with tall plants. In many cases, however, you can get away with planting squash with corn, as it will climb up the rigid stalks.
Harvesting Winter Squash
Winter squash is ready for harvest when it has passed the fingernail test. To do this, press your fingernail into the rind of the squash. If you cannot pierce it with your fingernail, it is ready to be plucked. You should avoid storing immature winters quash, because plants without well-developed, well-hardened rinds will not store well and will instead rot soon after they have been harvested.
Unless your plants are threatened by pests or a bout of freezing weather, wait to harvest until the vines have started to die back. At this point, you can rest assured that your plants are ready to harvest. When you harvest, you can expect to receive about three to five squash per plant. Use sharp, clean pruning shears to cut the fruits from the vine, and make sure you leave at least an inch of stem attached.
Brush away any dirt from the plants using a soft cloth, and let the fruits cure for two weeks in a spot that’s at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit – a back porch will work just fine. Once the squash have cured, store them in a cool, dry place, such as a basement. Check them every couple of weeks for spoilage, but rest assured that, once properly harvested, cured, and stored, they will last throughout most of the winter months.
You can also save your winters quash seeds if you have a variety that you would like to replicate in the following growing season. To save seeds, all you need to do is rinse, dry, and collect the largest seeds that you find when you are cutting open your vegetables. If you store these seeds in a cool, dry place, they can remain viable for up to six years.
Preserving Winter Squash
You’ll likely have a large yield from your squash plants – typically one or two squash plants will suffice to feed a family member throughout an entire year. As a result, you’ll want to read more about the many methods of preserving and using winter squash to help you make the most of your harvest.
These fruits will store for months on their own, but you can also preserve it so that you don’t have to worry about it going bad at all. While winter squash can be canned using a pressure canner, you need to be careful in doing this, as it is sometimes too dense to allow for safe heat dispersion.
However, pureed or cubed winter squash freezes quite nicely, and can also be dehydrated. Left unpeeled, whole winter squash can be kept at room temperature for at least three or four months.
Adding a on oil buff to your squash can also help improve its longevity. To do this, dry your squashes completely, and then place small amounts of oil on the squash before buffing it to a shine. You must make sure you work the oil carefully into any crevices.
Frozen and then cooked winter squashes are great to use in pies, muffins, soups, or other tasty recipes. They can help you make squash pies from scratch or provide a rich, nutty flavor to any entree.
To freeze winter squash, simply cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Bake the squash at 400 degrees until the flesh is completely cooked (usually about an hour). Let it cool, and then freeze the sections whole or puree them in a food processor before storing in freezer bags.
To dehydrate winter squash, for use in soups or as snacks, you should first blanch the squash for three minutes. Then, spread squash slices on a dehydrator tray, leaving space between them so that air can circulate. Dry at 125 degrees until the pieces are brittle, then store in airtight containers.
Winter squash is a tasty addition to stir fries, soups, or pastas, and also tastes great as a side or main dish on its own. It can even be baked in desserts or finished off with a delicious sweet glaze, making it a staple for any meal in your day.
Whether you plan to grow butternut, spaghetti, or acorn squash – or one of the many other delectable varieties of this plant! – you should know that winter squash is both easy and fun to grow.
All you need is a little bit of space and a lot of patience while the plants are getting started, and you will be rewarded with a bountiful harvest of long lasting, great-tasting plants to last you the entire winter long.