Winter Squash: Nature's Taste Treat

By: Skip Richter, Extension Horticulturist

Squash is a staple vegetable in Texas gardens. Most gardeners grow zucchini and yellow types, both of which fall into the summer squash group. But what about the winter squash. Despite their many attributes, they are far less common in our gardens than their summer cousins. If you are not growing at least one or two types of winter squash, you are really missing out on one of the tastiest, most nutritious and versatile of the garden veggies.

Let us start by defining the difference between summer and winter squash. To put it simply, summer squashes are those types eaten when the fruit is immature and the skin tender. Zucchini, yellow crook or straight neck, and patty pan, are among the more common summer squashes.

Winter squashes are those types which are allowed to mature before being harvested. They are usually suitable for baking as their flesh is typically hard, fine-grained, and mild in flavor. Unlike their summer cousins, winter squash will keep from two to six months or more depending on the variety and storage conditions. Although pumpkins are a type of winter squash, the term pumpkin usually refers to the types that have drier, coarser textured, stronger flavored flesh.

Winter squash typically need a long growing season, as most take 80 to 100 days from seeding to harvest. Planted in the summer, they will mature in the cool days of fall, just in time for holiday baking, decorating or winter storage. Few vegetables can match winter squash for nutrition, especially when it comes to vitamin A content.

Some of the more common types of winter squash for Texas are: Acorn, Butternut, Buttercup, Delicata, Spaghetti, and Calabaza. Let us take a closer look at these. Acorn squash is a familiar vegetable to most Texas gardeners. It is commonly available in the dark-green fruited form, but also is available in a creamy-white variety called 'Cream of the Crop,' and the incredibly ornamental green, yellow and orange splotched 'Carnival' variety. You may have seen this one in supermarkets last fall.

Butternut types are also fairly common. 'Waltham' is an old standard variety and several new varieties are also available including one called 'Zenith.' These squashes store for a very long time. Their solid stems and vines resist borer damage better than most other types of squash.

Buttercup squash is the type also referred to as Kabocha (the Japanese word for squash). There are numerous new varieties of Buttercup squash including four that have done very well for me, 'Buttercup,' 'Honey Delight,' 'Sweet Mama,' and 'Black Forest.' The fruit are typically about 5 pounds each and dark green with a deep orange flesh. I like to remove the top, clean out the seeds and stuff them with a mix of ground meat, onions and herb seasonings, then top with grated cheese and bake. Ooooooh boy!

'Delicata' is also known as the sweet potato squash. The cream-colored fruits are typically 3 inches wide and 8 inches long with thin green stripes running lengthwise. They are also excellent for stuffing and baking. 'Sweet Dumpling' is a small-fruited squash about 4 inches in size and shaped somewhat like one of the miniature decorative pumpkins, but with markings similar to 'Delicata.' It is also very good for stuffing and baking, offering us a squash in a "single serving size!"

Spaghetti squash are too novel to ignore. A new variety worth mentioning is the All America Winner Tivoli, which has a more contained growth habit. When used instead of pasta, spaghetti squash provides twice the potassium and six times the Vitamin A, but only half the calories. I like to cut the fruit in half lengthwise, clean out the seeds, and place a half face-down in a glass baking dish with 1/4 inch of water. Then cover with a glass lid and microwave until the flesh lifts out easily with a fork.

Calabaza or Cuban Squash is perhaps the most amazing of the winter squashes. This plant loves to grow. Give it a rich soil and it will really run. The year we first grew it we decided that it must have gotten its name from the fact that if you plant it in Texas, by the end of the season the vine has reached all the way to Cuba! It absolutely loves summer heat and outgrows any attempts borers may make on its life.

I have tasted some great "pumpkin" pies made from Calabaza and it can also be baked in various casserole dishes like other winter squashes. When it comes to storage life, Calabaza is king. I once stored one for over eight months without it breaking down. We even carved one and painted it orange to look like one of the most bizzare jack-o-lanterns you have ever seen!

Plant winter squash seed about 1/2 inch deep in hills of three to five plants. Space hills according to instructions on the seed packets as they vary considerably in vigor and spread between types and varieties. When seeds have two true leaves, thin them to three per hill. Fertilize with a complete fertilizer such as 15-5-10 at a rate of one cup per 25 feet of row prior to planting and again four weeks later.

Vine borers are a problem in spring, but tend to not be so prevalent in late summer and fall. They can be controlled with a labeled insecticide if you apply it before the larvae enter the vines. Once inside they are protected from sprays. Most varieties, however are vigorous enough to root at nodes down the vine and quickly recover from damage. Foliage diseases may become a problem in some years. Fungicide treatments will keep these in check. Squash bugs can be a pest. The best solution is to check leaves periodically and destroy their amber eggs, typically laid in between veins beneath the leaves. Once again a labeled insecticide is effective in controlling these pests. Allow the fruit of winter squash to mature before harvesting it. This way flavor will be its best and storage will be extended. Most types are ready when the rind is hard enough to resist fingernail scratches. Harvest by cutting the stem off 2 or 3 inches from the fruit. Most winter squash that are not completely mature will benefit from a two week curing period following harvest. Hold the fruit at about 80 degrees in a humid location. This will give it time to callous any wounds and thicken the skin a bit. Then store the fruit in an area where the temperature can be maintained around 55 degrees for optimum storage life.

Why not try planting some winter squash this summer? They will reward you this fall with table decorations, holiday baking treats and some garden bounty to store and enjoy through the winter.