Winter squash brings lasting flavor
Winter squash is one of my favorite garden crops. Though store-bought acorn and butternut squash is delicious, you can get a greater diversity of flavors and a longer shelf life by growing your own winter squash.
Thick-skinned winter squash varieties are close cousins to soft-skinned summer squashes such as zucchini, patty pan and yellow crooknecks. But winter squash are excellent for long-term storage, and their flavorful flesh is delicious roasted, mashed or pureed into soup. If stored properly, homegrown winter squash can be enjoyed for many months after harvest.
Winter squash seeds should be sown directly into the garden as soon as the danger of frost has passed. Here in Pennsylvania, that's usually around May 15. Give the vines plenty of room to grow, or train them to climb a fence or trellis.
If you have limited space or garden in containers, try growing bush-types. These small-statured winter squash varieties can be planted just 2 to 3 feet apart, while varieties with a full-size vine need to be spaced 5 to 6 feet apart.
While summer squash are best harvested when the fruits are still young, winter squash needs to fully mature on the vine before harvest. Most varieties require between 85 and 105 days to reach maturity. You'll know they're ripe when their rinds are hard and can't be dented with your fingernail.
When harvesting winter squash, leave 1 to 2 inches of stem on each fruit and allow the skins to cure by putting the harvested squash in a warm, dry location for four or five days. Then, store them at 50 to 55 degrees, with 55 to 70 percent humidity, for maximum shelf life.
Here are six of my favorite winter squash varieties:
“Bush Delicata”: This nice little squash has small vines that are only 4 to 6 feet across. These oblong squash weigh 1 to 2 pounds each and have green stripes on their pale yellow skin. Their nutty flavor is a family favorite. This is a great variety for containers or small space gardens.
“Hunter”: If you want your winter squash 15 days earlier than other varieties, this is the best choice for you. “Hunter” is a classic butternut squash with sweet orange flesh. Highly productive and long storage!
“Sugarbush F1”: This hybrid, acorn-type winter squash is highly resistant to powdery mildew and exhibits very compact growth. Fruits are 5 inches tall and boast a small seed cavity. Expect three to four fruits per plant.
“Burgess Buttercup”: The rich texture and buttery flavor of buttercup squash can't be beat. Reaching 3 to 5 pounds each, the fruits of “Burgess Buttercup” are standouts in the kitchen. Each 15-foot-long vine produces as many as 10 to 12 fruits.
“Gold Nugget”: This bush variety has vines that remain compact, but the fruits are full sized. Expect as many as 10 squash per plant. The thick orange rind of “Gold Nugget” masks golden delicate flesh with knock-your-socks-off flavor. This variety is an All-American Selection winner.
“Sugar Dumpling”: The green and white mottled skin of “Sugar Dumpling” is nothing short of beautiful. This dumpling-type squash has deep orange, creamy flesh and good powdery mildew resistance. Vines produce four to six fruits each.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.
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