On winter squash

P1010729-1The girl with a pink banana squash while Mary Ellen the rooster looks on

There is a good reason I don’t normally flaunt the harvests around here, and yesterday’s squash post demonstrates why:  I tend to harvest things by the wheelbarrowload.  I kind of don’t like showing off how crazy I am so I try to keep things under wraps.  (It’s probably not working, though.)

I did, however, get a few serious questions about winter squash yesterday.  It has taken me a few years to figure out what makes them grow well, so I thought I would share with you the secrets of a successful harvest.  Barring my local conditions (fertile clay soil, lots of sun, lots of rain) here are my tips:

  • My first tip?  Compost!  Ever since my best harvests of cantaloupe and birdhouse gourds came from volunteers in the compost heap, I realized that compost is a squash plant’s best friend.  Last year I moved the compost pile to a different location and I allowed a few volunteers to pop up in the former location, as well as nutrient-hungry corn and popcorn.  I had never been terribly serious about winter squash before last year, because the squash bugs made sure that there was never a serious SUMMER squash harvest.  Squash bugs are vile creatures, bent on the destruction of any squash plant, but crookneck yellow squash (my personal favorite) is its primary target.  I have always succession-planted summer squash (once when the ground warms, the second once the squash bugs hit) and have usually beaten them that way.  But I never figured winter squash was a viable crop until I literally planted them in compost.
  • My second tip is vigilance against vine borers and the aforementioned squash bugs.  Vine borer damage is obvious, and quick; squash bug infestations are slow but sure.  Daily examination helps both.  I got over my “ick” reaction and began squashing squash bug eggs as soon as I could find them, whether I had gloves on or not.  (I seem to be able to handle any vile thing if there’s a protective layer between me and it.)  As long as any one plant has only ONE colony of eggs on it, the plant will live, albeit in a reduced capacity.
  • My third tip is compost tea and a steady application of new compost, especially where the vining plants dig into the ground again (this happens with pumpkins, not with butternuts).  Compost tea for me is just compost sitting in a bucket of water for 2 days; I pour it and the wet compost onto the plant’s roots and  new runners.  No aeration, no straining, nothing fancy.

Geez this sounds like a lot of work.  And I suppose it could be but the winter squash season is a long one, the bug-infestation season a short one.  For the most part I just stand back and watch them grow.

And as to what I am to do with all this?  Well, we’ll eat maybe one or two squash a week, in various guises.  I tend to tuck puree’d squash into anything (breads, mashed potatoes, soups, pies) but honestly only one dinner a week will feature “obvious” squash (as soup, roasted as a side dish, tucked in with some pasta or in risotto).

11 responses to “On winter squash

  1. Thanks for the tips. Definitely on my list for next year is added winter squash (goes with my less work preservation theme). I did have some luck this year. Someone recommended growing jack-b-littles this year and I had great success–highly recommended for those of us with smaller families and acreage! I had two or three plants and have 20-25 little guys in storage, they are perfect for single-serving side dishes as they bake up in 20 or 30 minutes and are very tasty!

    And they also make good Halloween decorations (bonus!).

  2. I suspected that the secret to squash bugs and vine borers was constant vigilance. While Joshua, my partner, is our prime gardener, I’ve told him that next year I’ll be the person to pick off anything bothersome off our squash plants. I don’t mind the ick!

  3. El, what do squash bugs look like? I’ve had little fuzzy yellow things about the size of a pea on my butternut leaves before. They squish easily. Do they eat the leaves? I don’t have problems with that. I DO know vine borers, from your earlier post.

    I’m going to try actually planting some butternut next year, instead of relying on the volunteers…that come up in the compost pile interestingly enough. ;o)

    Compost tea. I’ve heard of that before. Compost in a bucket eh? I bet you could leave it out in the rain and get that beneficial rainwater too. I’ll try that.

    This is the time of year for greens. I’m finally getting time to think about all that, albeit really late in the season for planting. I need a new winter bed, with lots of sun, because the one’s I have (summer) don’t get any sun at.all. I’ll work on that too.

    I envy your squash harvest, but plan on getting my own next year!

  4. A question for the group: does anyone live in the deep South? If so, how do you store your winter squash? It just never gets very cool, and I don’t really have any type of cellar to store in. If I had a haul this big, I wouldn’t know how to keep it good until we could eat it, besides cooking and freezing. I like baked too much to puree it all. Help!

  5. so weird. i’m not that far from you, but i think we live in different gardening worlds. my soil is sandy, sandy, sandy. the squash bugs attacked my winter squash voraciously, but left my summer squash completely alone.

    we managed to harvest a decent haul of butternuts, pie pumpkins, and spaghetti squash, but nowhere near what it should have been. the squash bugs were HORRIBLE. there’s no way i could keep up.

  6. Thanks for the tips. I would concur that compost is the secret to a bountiful harvest. The compost tea I haven’t tried before but will include it in my pumpkin/squash routine this time.

    I’m planting my seeds this weekend and hoping for a good harvest. Don’t know if it’ll rival yours though! They say we are in for a hot, dry summer. I (try to) look to the positve of good pumpkin, tomato, corn, chilli weather/harvest rather than the other things such a portent signifies.

  7. Oh, you lucky dork. If I get five winter squashes from my two summer plants, I think I’m doing swell.
    I did swell. I got five.
    (You’ve got a packet of seeds coming in the mail.)
    I don’t know why I don’t have predators; we just have wilt. Good thing it’s a small garden and there’s a farmers market nearby.

  8. I have used compost tea in previous years and can testify that it does indeed work. I have never tried it on my squash though and will most certainly do so next season.

    As far as keeping things under raps goes, we are on to you.:) leastwise it is quite apparent to me what a fabulous grower of everything edible you are. Thanks for all the great tips I will keep them in mind for next year…more compost and a bit of tea.

  9. For me, it’s not so much the bugs. Powdery mildew is my scourge. I think maybe earlier planting would help.

    Wheelbarrow loads aren’t showing off; they’re inspiration!

    But I want to know if you’re constantly cooking and scraping and pureeing, myself.

  10. Sara, yeah, Jack B Littles sound good too; we have 3 different kinds of pumpkin plants and one of them spits out tiny little pumpkins, quite adorable. There are other small-vining, small-squash plants out there that you can try. Delicata comes to mind, with the added benefit that you can eat the skin (!!). I have also grown bush acorns in the past. They don’t store very long but they’re tasty. And butternuts tolerate trellising, so don’t rule them out if you’re short on space! I often just use half the squash, cutting off the neck and putting it in the fridge for a later meal.

    Hi Issa! Glad you stopped by. It is quite true, there are little nasties that love squash plants. A collaborative garden is a healthy garden so please do volunteer to do some bug squishing! It makes things go easier for the primary gardener if he has some help. Hey, I should stand by my words and make my husband help me garden. Hmm.

    Poor Jules! Those little yellow fuzzy things sound like bean beetle nymphs, which tunnel into beans, nasty things. You would know squash bugs if you had them: they’re about 3/4″ long, grayish-brown, look like fat stink bugs. In the South you’re lucky enough to get two hatchings a year! They run pretty fast but can usually be found at the base of your squash plants, trying to hide. And compost tea. If you have a five gallon bucket, throw a shovelful of compost (it doesn’t need to be fully “done”) into the bottom and fill water to the top. I stir it a few times a day until it’s all tea-like, then use it on the 3rd day (any longer and it gets nasty). You might need to use it on the 2nd considering how much hotter it is down there. Rainwater is great. Then, just water your seedlings or ailing plants with it, and scoop the compost onto the squash plant roots; they love it. And I hope someone can help you out. Is your kitchen cool enough? Like, in the 70s at least? I tell Tom that he just needs to get over the idea that our house looks like a farmer’s market with all the squash lying around.

    Serina, you were pretty busy this year anyway, weren’t you? I think every year is a bit different. Considering how cool it was this year I am kind of shocked how well the squash did: they like it warmer than it was. Actually, it was a bummer year for my summer squash, but that’s okay. I think it’s amazing the squash bugs left your summer squash alone: hope you saved the seeds or have enough still from this year because those sound like resistant varieties, which are precious!

    Nada, good luck this year! Well, a hot summer will keep you free of mildew at least. Yeah, try the compost tea trick. The only thing I can think it does is deliver the goods more quickly to the roots, but then again I believe we’ll never know the “why” that it works, just that it does. Plus, more compost means more mulch means less watering for you in your water-shy corner of the planet. But yes, it should be a great summer for your tomatoes, peppers and eggplants!

    CC, shhh! Don’t let the word get out that you’ve got no pests! But yes, it sounds like you done good with this year’s bounty. And yeah, glad you figured out when to plant winter squash! You are SUCH a California girl. And looking forward to the pkg. Made sausage recently with (!!) your fennel from 2 years ago! Yumza.

    Mike, aww, shucks. Well, the one thing I can’t seem to grow fabulously well is potatoes. I just need to plant about 2x as many as other people to get what I consider to be a good harvest: my spuds are usually small. The reason I know this is I planted some in the school garden this year and they ALL ended up shoe-sized monsters in that sandy stuff. Harrumph.

    Stef, that sounds like a good plan. I get PM every year too and it usually shows up only on my 2nd crop of summer squash: has something to do with the cool nights and damp weather of our late summer/early fall, I think. I just pull up the plants (but then again it’s summer squash and I usually have plenty of the stuff). Supposedly, you can control the infestation but not prevent it outright with a milk spray (1:4 milk:water) or a baking soda spray (1 teaspoon, 3 drops dish detergent, 1 quart water) as the sprays inhibit the spread. But does it affect your yield at all? It will totally wipe out my cucumbers and summer squash but the winter squash usually sails through fine. And as for the squash loads, my preferred method is to peel and cube. This usually works for most of them except the really goofy ones like Novella’s…which I haven’t eaten yet. In a soup the cubes slowly soften, in the oven they stay firm-ish if I cook them on a Silpat sheet on a tray (don’t crowd). The kid loves her cubes, like potatoes. In a pan, same way: tiny cubes can be sautee’d and then added to the risotto at the last minute, staying slightly in shape, toothsome and lovely.

  11. My space is too small to grow winter squash, but I do tend to store vast quantities from our local farmers like a fiend – it is versatile, keeps easily (no preservation!) and is delicious on a cold winter day. Butternut especially.
    Interestingly, I noticed last year that spaghetti squash did not store as well (not by far) as the others. Any thoughts/info? I love it, but having it go bad in storage seems so sad.

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