• sondra bernstein

How to Grow Squash

Growing winter squash of all varieties is relatively simple and very rewarding. Seedlings literally rocket out of the ground when planted in warm spring soil, and their pace doesn’t slow from there. On long summer days you can almost watch them growing right before your eyes.

In our climate, most squash seeds can be sown in early May, however you might wait as late as June to plant them. This works well at the farm project (and in home gardens) because it gives you the opportunity to get a full early-spring crop from a bed before sowing it again with winter squash, thus getting much more productivity from a small space.

Whatever you decide, plan to start seedlings in a protected spot about three weeks before you’re ready to plant them outside – or, just jump right in with direct outdoor seeding in May or June. All squash appreciate a warm, fertile, and sunny spot in the garden. Turn approximately 1 inch of compost into the first 12 inches of existing top soil. You may wish to plant your squash in mounds, but we prefer rows (approximately 3 feet apart, with roughly 18 inches between plants) for easier harvest and irrigation.

Water plants deeply as needed (we find they do not require daily irrigation if the soil is well prepared and has abundant organic matter). As they develop, you may choose to remove the “male” flowers that develop to use stuffed or in other preparations.

Squash plants are susceptible to certain pests and plant diseases, but I’ve found that if the plants are vigorous and well-nourished they’ll produce abundantly even if you do have some pests, a little powdery mildew, or the like. Essentially, feed your soil well and you won’t need to fret!

We’re so fortunate at the farm project to have an immediate outlet for produce as it becomes ripe. If ever there is a crop that’s too plentiful, we’ll use pickling or preserves to put it all to good use in our busy kitchens. However, for the home gardener, keeping up with bumper summer harvests can be challenging, sometimes even exhausting (I’ve reached the point at being mad at zucchini), which is why I’ve come to love growing winter squash: nature’s own shelf-stable storage system.

Someday I’ll make a list of plants for the lazy gardener, and winter squash will be at the top. I’ve had some of my best squash harvests grow from “volunteers” in the compost heap with almost no assistance from me. So – plant early, watch it climb all over your yard through summer, and you’ll be ready to harvest come fall.

The most important thing to know about harvesting (and curing) any winter squash is to be sure it’s fully mature before picking. You can tell when they’re fully colored, the stem is withered/dying, and the skin has hardened so that when pressed with a fingernail it will dent but not pierce.

Now you pick – but be sure to harvest with about 4 inches or so of stem remaining on the plant. (This will create a complete seal.)

Curing is as easy and straightforward as everything to do with growing squash; once harvested, your beauties will need a dry spot with good air circulation to cure for about 2 weeks. If some portion of the fruit is not fully-colored, feel free to expose it to the sun until it does so. This period of time releases some of the moisture and intensifies sugars. It also allows the skin and stem to dry and harden off to allow for long-term storage.

Length of storage time varies, but for the most part they’ll keep well all winter long (hence the name!) – if you’re storing them in a shed or closet, be sure to check on them from time to time for pests.

Durae Hardy

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