As autumn settles in and the days grow shorter, there’s one enduring crop that stands as a testament to the bounties of the harvest season: winter squash. These hardy and versatile vegetables, known for their rich flavors and storability, are a cherished addition to any garden and kitchen. We’re delving deep into the world of winter squash, exploring the art of growing, the secrets of a successful harvest, and the techniques for storing them to enjoy their delectable goodness all through the colder months. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a novice with a penchant for sustainable living, we’ll share valuable insights and tips to help you nurture your squash crop from seed to storage. So, put on your gardening gloves and prepare to embrace the joys of cultivating winter squash.
These are my best tips for growing, harvesting, and storing winter squash to help you successfully secure a nutritious winter food source for your family and livestock. With just a little planning, it is one of the easiest crops the home gardener can grow. There are several varieties to choose from and they are all nutritious and delicious.
Unlike summer squash, winter squash isn’t harvested a little at a time as they ripen. They don’t re-bloom and produce until you pull them up by the root because you can’t use or give away any more of them. Winter squash remains on the vine until all the fruit on the vine is fully ripened.
Generally, they’re left in the field until the first frost comes. Once frost has arrived, it’s time to harvest and store them all at one time.
There is one thing to be aware of, you must be careful to never let the fruit freeze. If they freeze, they will immediately be spoiled.
Varieties of Winter Squash
Some varieties are more popular than others. The most popular among homestead gardeners are butternut, acorn, pumpkin, spaghetti, hubbard, buttercup, and turban. Although Turban can be used like you would butternut and acorn squash, it’s most often used as decoration.
Winter squash boasts a diverse array of varieties, each with its own unique attributes and flavors. Among the most well-known varieties are the Butternut, a must-have for our garden, characterized by its sweet and nutty flesh, and the Acorn squash, which offers a mild and slightly sweet flavor profile. The Hubbard squash, with its thick, bumpy skin and rich, sweet flesh, is a versatile choice for both savory and sweet dishes.
If you want a winter squash for a striking centerpiece, the Turban squash’s vibrant colors and slightly sweet taste make it an excellent choice. Delicata squash, known for its thin skin and creamy-textured flesh, is a favorite for roasting.
The Spaghetti squash, a standard in our garden, is treasured for its stringy, pasta-like flesh when cooked. These are just a few examples of the many varieties available, each with its own distinct characteristics that can elevate your winter culinary creations and infuse your garden with a delightful range of colors and shapes.
My personal favorite winter squash is the pumpkin. When the boys were little, we used to scratch their names into a green pumpkin. You barely scratch the skin of a green squash, it will heal over the scratches making raised scars in the rind in the shape of the scratches. When they were ripened in the field, the boys had great fun looking for the one with their name on it while we harvested. They never suspected they were actually working.
You can read more about growing pumpkins and preserving them in our article about it.
Nutritional Value of Winter Squash
Winter squash is more nutritious than summer squash. They’re notably low in calories and fat, making them a healthy addition to any diet. They are an excellent source of dietary fiber, aiding digestion and promoting a feeling of fullness.
They are rich in essential vitamins, particularly vitamin A, providing a significant portion of the daily recommended intake. They offer vitamin C, potassium, and a range of B vitamins including B6, B2, and B3. Other nutrients found in them are calcium, iron, magnesium, copper potassium, vitamin K, and omega-3 fats.
Winter squash also contains antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, which help protect cells from damage and support overall health. Incorporating winter squash into your meals not only adds a delightful taste but also contributes to a well-rounded and nutritious diet.
Planting Your Winter Squash
Like all other gardening chores, planting time for this plant species depends on your gardening zone. Knowing and understanding your planting zone is crucial to gardening success. Winter squash requires a long growing season. The growing time varies between the varieties ranging from 80 – 120 days. Pumpkins, for instance, take 120 days. This is just one of the many reasons to know your gardening zone.
Planting winter squash successfully hinges on timing and suitable gardening practices. To ensure a fruitful harvest, it’s crucial to calculate the number of days needed for your chosen squash variety to mature before the anticipated first frost date. Keep in mind that frost dates are approximations derived from historical weather data, so some flexibility may be required.
Another valuable piece of advice is to avoid planting vining winter squash varieties in containers. Unlike their compact summer squash counterparts, winter squash varieties have sprawling vines that are ill-suited for container gardening. They require ample space in a garden bed to thrive and produce a bountiful yield. Moreover, it’s advisable to avoid planting vining winter squash in containers.
When planting this prolific vining plant, be sure to account for the space you have available and the space requirements for the varieties you’ve chosen to plant. You can trellis winter squash if you need to save space.
To Direct Sow Winter Squash
- Plant the seeds about an inch deep. I usually put 3 to 4 seeds in a hill (each planting spot). The old adage, “One for the mole, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow,” comes to mind every time I plant.
- Your hills should be 4-6 feet apart depending on the variety you plant.
- We plant butternut, spaghetti, and pumpkin in our garden this year.
- Our squash hills are 6 feet apart. We do this to allow plenty of space for the vines and fruit. Other people swear by 4 feet so you have to decide what you have space for and go with that.
- Viable seeds will sprout within 7-10 days.
- Be sure to keep your plants well-watered, especially once they start producing fruit. Their water requirements are high while growing and ripening fruit.
To Start Seeds and Plant Seedlings
Starting winter squash seeds and planting seedlings is a rewarding endeavor for any gardener. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get started:
- Start your winter squash seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden. the last expected frost date in your region.
- Fill seed trays or individual pots with a good-quality seed-starting mix. Make sure they have drainage holes.
- Plant 2-3 seeds per pot or cell, about 1 inch deep. Water thoroughly after sowing.
- Place the seed trays in a warm, well-lit area. Winter squash seedlings need plenty of sunlight, so consider using grow lights if natural light is insufficient.
- Keep the temperature consistently around 70-85°F (21-29°C) for optimal germination. You can use a seedling heat mat to achieve this.
- Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Overwatering can lead to damping-off disease.
- Once the seedlings have a few true leaves (typically 2-3 inches tall), thin them to one strong plant per pot.
- About a week before transplanting, gradually expose your seedlings to outdoor conditions to harden them off.
- Start with one hour on the first day and increase the time outdoors by one hour each day until the day you plant them in your garden.
To Transplant Seedlings
- Dig holes or hills for your seedlings, ensuring they are at the same depth as they were in their pots.
- Gently remove the seedlings from their pots, taking care not to damage the roots. Plant them in the hill and pack soil in the hole and around the plant.
- After transplanting, water the seedlings well to settle the soil and eliminate air pockets.
- Apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plants to help retain moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature.
- We practice deep mulch gardening so we always have 3-6″ of mulch. You can learn more about deep mulch gardening in our article about it.
By following these steps, you can successfully start winter squash seeds indoors and transplant healthy seedlings into your garden, ensuring a bountiful harvest of this delicious and versatile vegetable.
Growing Winter Squash
Like summer squash, winter squash will cross-pollinate within the same family. If the varieties you choose are in the same family, you should practice succession planting.
Succession planting is allowing two to three weeks between the planting of each variety and providing plenty of space between beds. This will help prevent cross-pollination. I’ve never had a problem with the cross-pollination of winter squash, but our garden has always been large enough to allow me plenty of space between varieties.
If you don’t have a lot of space to prevent cross-pollination, succession planting is a good option. Best estimates to prevent cross-pollination are ¼ mile or about 1,000 feet. I have to tell you, mine are nowhere near this far apart.
How to Harvest and Cure Winter Squash
Harvesting winter squash is a rewarding culmination of your gardening efforts. To determine when your squash is ready for picking, look for signs of maturity.
- The skin should be tough and cannot be punctured easily with a fingernail.
- The color should be deep and consistent, depending on the variety.
- Using a sharp knife or pruners, carefully cut the squash from the vine, leaving at least a 1″ stem attached.
- Handle the squash gently to avoid any bruising or damage.
Winter squash can remain on the vine in the field until the first frost. They should never be allowed to freeze! The vines will wilt, dry up, and die when exposed to frost, if not before.
In gardening zone 8, I leave them in the garden up to 2 weeks after cutting them away from the vine. This allows them to cure. If you do this, you must watch the weather closely just in case of a freeze.
Curing winter squash is a crucial step to enhance its flavor, texture, and storage capabilities, whether you choose to do it in the field or indoors it must be done or the fruit will rot.
In the field, leave the harvested squash out in the sun for 10-14 days to allow them to cure naturally. This process helps harden the skin, making it less susceptible to rot and extending the shelf life.
If you have to cure them indoors, place the squash in a warm, dry location with good air circulation. This could be in a well-ventilated room or a covered outdoor area. The temperature needs to be around 80-85°F (27-29°C) and relative humidity between 80-85%.
The curing period typically lasts 10-14 days, during which time the squash develops its full flavor and becomes better equipped for long-term storage. Proper curing ensures that your winter squash will last well into the winter months, providing you with a delicious and nutritious ingredient for a variety of hearty dishes.
Warm temperatures, especially 80-85 degrees F, will allow the rinds to get hard and heal any superficial cuts. If there are any with deep damage, use those first. Do not store damaged squash with undamaged ones that you plan to overwinter. As the damaged ones decompose, they will cause the healthy fruits to rot.
We share damaged or otherwise undesirable fruits with our livestock. From chickens to pigs, almost all livestock enjoy winter squash. We cut them into pieces, I have used a machete to do this, and feed them to the animals.
In the old days, many farmers grew all kinds of winter squash for their livestock as a source of winter feed. This was especially true of those who couldn’t grow grain or enough grain to feed livestock through the winter. We do this for our livestock because we don’t feed much if any grain.
Storing Winter Squash
Storing is the only “difficult” part of raising winter squash for some homesteaders. This is because of the storage space required for their larger size and numerous fruits. When storing, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Don’t let them freeze – when the fruit thaws it will be mushy and inedible for humans.
- Don’t store in damp places – like your root cellar unless you have a high-tech humidity controlled one. Attic spaces or lofts are often used for winter squash storage because heat rises creating a warm, dry environment for them.
- It’s best if they don’t touch each other – they will rot first in the spot they touch.
- Check your stored squash regularly – immediately use or remove any that show signs of bruising or rotting.
- Consider every inch of space available on your homestead when thinking of storage possibilities – as long as they won’t freeze or won’t be exposed to moisture in an area, they can be stored there.
Many people spend the winter canning or drying their winter squash. Some people freeze them. We no longer use a freezer for food preservation because we have experienced great losses with power outages. I personally use them fresh from storage through the winter.
The varieties we plant are excellent keepers and are still good for our use in early March. We use a great deal of them to supplement the winter feed for our livestock. When it’s especially cold out, I like to cut a pumpkin in half, bake it, let it get cool to the touch, and give it to the chickens and turkeys for breakfast.
How to Save Seeds From Winter Squash
Saving seeds from winter squash is as easy as it gets. We practice selective breeding in our garden just like we do with livestock. This means we only keep seeds from the healthiest plant and fruit for ensuring the best crop.
- When you cut open a ripe squash fruit, remove the seeds.
- Place them in a quart jar and fill it with water.
- Cover the jar mouth with a dishrag or towel and let the jar sit on the counter for about 24 hours.
- The pulp will slip away from the seeds during this time.
- Fertile seeds will sink to the bottom and undeveloped, infertile seeds will float with the pulp.
- Remove pulp and floating seeds.
- Rinse the good seeds and lay them out in a single layer on a towel.
- Place them in a warm area to dry.
- I turn my seeds every now and then and allow them to dry for a couple of days.
- Store your seeds in a cool, dry environment. I keep mine in natural seed envelopes and glass jars with tight lids. They have been viable for up to 7 years.
We’ve talked about using this vegetable as livestock feed, but what about for people? My goodness, the recipes are endless. They can be baked, boiled, mashed, and fried. They are good in everything from pies and soups to casseroles and stuffings. Their seeds are highly nutritious and a personal favorite around our house.
The journey of growing, harvesting, and storing winter squash is a testament to the joys of gardening and the rewards of a well-stocked pantry. From the careful selection of varieties and the nurturing of seeds to the anticipation of the harvest season, this journey is filled with both patience and excitement.
Harvesting winter squash at its peak of maturity ensures the best flavor and nutrition, while the curing process, whether done in the field or indoors, enhances its storage life and quality. The result is a bounty of delicious, versatile squash that can grace our tables throughout the winter months.
Whether you’re enjoying a hearty butternut squash soup or a sweet acorn squash dessert, the effort put into growing, harvesting, and storing winter squash is truly a labor of love that pays off in every satisfying bite. So, as you embark on your own winter squash adventure, relish the process, savor the flavors, and bask in the satisfaction of a well-nurtured harvest. Happy gardening and cooking!
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