Raise Winter Squash

Rich beta carotene with winter squash.Our family absolutely loves winter squash. We cannot get enough of the rich beta carotene in those deep orange squashes.

What is winter squash?

Okay, my southern friends, this is not something you fry. Everyone I meet south of the Mason-Dixon line tries to fry everything: potatoes, onions, green tomatoes, okra. Winter squash tastes totally different from yellow squash or zucchini, and you serve it differently as well. Winter squash looks more like a pumpkin, but summer squashes resemble cucumbers. Common winter squash varieties include butternut, buttercup, acorn, and Hubbard. One squash we love particularly is the Mooregold variety from the Shumway seed catalog. These folks deliver great seeds with great germination rates.

Where does winter squash grow?

The challenge we’ve had here in Missouri has been to keep winter squash alive through the hot summer months. Winter squash is primarily a northern thing (we are both from the upper United States) because it does not tolerate the heat well. However, with consistent watering, you can help your squash plants survive the summer and produce record crops if you live in a warmer climate.

How do you plant winter squash?

Having tried several methods, we are posting this to tell you what worked and what did not. First, squash needs well-worked soil. Till or dig deeply so that the soft roots can penetrate. If you can get the roots down deeply enough (8 inches or more), the squash can survive the heat better than a shallow-rooted system. However, if you have clay soil like ours, no amount of tilling can solve all your problems. So, we found a useful trick.
Squash feeds heavily, much like corn and other big producers. Winter squash absolutely loves horse manure. It probably loves all types of manure, but horse comes most available around here. Unfortunately, horse manure comes weedy, and even though it has composted, some seeds still survive. Squash, however, only needs weeding for about its first month—after that, the big leaves block out any weeds as it shade-mulches itself. Acorn squash leaves do not grow quite as large, but any healthy plant will produce good size leaves.
The more manure the better! If you pile the compost a foot thick, the plants go crazy. This gives it unlimited nutrition and plenty of room to spread its roots. We have seen vines run 20-40 feet long. I have piled horse and cow manure straight on hard-packed, clay ground and watched the plants thrive. Yes, they do penetrate the soil, too, because this “no till” farming method entices earthworms to work up from the ground into the manure. The worms aerate the soil and till it slowly while I do more important things, like push my daughter on the swing for the hundredth time. The manured plants produce squash ten to one against those planted in tilled soil and watered regularly.
You can start squash in peat pots and transplant early. We have found that grapefruit skins work well as free peat pots, and even the hard shell from last year’s winter squash can work as a biodegradable planting pot. They do not transplant well if you handle their roots like tomatoes or peppers. The fragile taproot can break, and you will kill the plant.

When do you pick winter squash?

Watch to see the vine drying out near the fruit. Here, we seem to have two seasons for our Mooregold and butternut squashes. We have to pick a lot when the hot spell comes on because the plant quits producing and you need to harvest what it has finished. Then as cool weather comes the plant rebounds (provided it did not die in the July and August heat wave) and will produce fruit all the way to frost. This year we plan to try something we heard on Farmer Boy (by Laura Ingles Wilder) and spray down any leaves that get frost on them. They say if you wet them down before the sun hits the frost, the leaf will survive and the plant will keep producing. We shall see. Leave a comment below if you have used this technique in any of your gardening.

How do you cook winter squash?

We just slice the squash in half and scoop out the seeds to save for next year. Some of these winter squashes have very tough shells on them, so you may need a big knife and a strong wrist, otherwise try a powered knife like they sell for turkey carving. Then, fill a casserole dish with about a half-inch to an inch of water, turn the squash face down, and put it in the oven for about 45 minutes to an hour on 350 degrees. A fork can turn the orange flesh easily when thoroughly cooked. Acorn squash and butternut squash will want butter and maybe even need some sweetener like brown sugar, if you use that. The reason I love Mooregold squash is that it needs nothing. Fresh cooked, I can eat it directly without butter, salt, or anything. God made it for eating, and I could consume it everyday.

How do you store winter squash?

Put it in your cellar. It keeps well in any cool environment and can last for months if kept clean and dry. Watch for mold or rot and clean out any offenders before the whole shelf of produce rots away on you. You may also cook it up and pressure can or freeze it. We have a hard time producing enough to keep all winter since we eat it so rabidly. Add winter squash to your diet and see what you have been missing. Once you are hooked, you won’t want to live on potatoes or rice again. We found it works as a great starch and vegetable, both to fill the kids and nourish as well. Our whole family loves this wonderful, God-given product.

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