The Island Garden
This time of year pumpkins are appearing in stores in the annual run up to Halloween, but there are far more varieties of tasty winter squash than just pumpkins. For example, butternut, pattypan, acorn, spaghetti, and hubbard squashes can be quite tasty. As an added bonus, squash is easy to grow. All you need is a patch of fertile soil and some seeds.
Plant the seeds in spring and wait. The plant starts with two fat cotyledons and then puts out the first two true leaves. After that, stand back. Some squash vines can grow 20 or 30 feet in a summer and pump out a whole lot of squash.
The best soil, frankly, is the compost heap or a place where piles of horse manure have been left to rot. Squash needs lots of nutrients and water and when it gets them there is no limit on the number of flowers and fruit that it will set.
If you plan on growing pumpkins for Halloween (it’s far too late to start now!), you should probably grow Connecticut field pumpkins. This plant gives a lot of fruit that are up to 20 inches diameter. If you want larger pumpkins, you might want to try Atlantic giant, but to get a truly huge pumpkin requires a lot of dedication. You’ll need to cut the vine immediately beyond the pumpkin, and fertilize and water just about every day. Frankly, that’s more work than I really want to put into a pumpkin that doesn’t taste that great anyway.
The best tasting pumpkins are, in my opinion, Jaune Gros de Paris or Rouge Vif d’Etampes, both French varieties bred for the table. You can also grow banana or candy roaster for a slightly different large squash taste.
For table growing, I prefer butternut squash. In fact, it is this squash that is often put in cans labeled “pumpkin.” (Next time check the pumpkin can label.) Butternut can be used in just about any squash recipe including pies. You might also want to grow spaghetti, acorn or pattypan squash.
Cooking squash is easy. Simply cut acorn squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and put one or two tablespoons of maple syrup and a pat of butter in the cavity. Bake until the squash is soft. You can also boil squash until it is soft, then puree it and use it for soups or pies.
I find the best way to grow squash is to plant the seeds indoors about two to three weeks prior to planting out in spring. Put one seed in each pot. If you plant more than one, you will damage their roots when trying to separate them.
The plants grow extremely fast given the right conditions so you do not want to start them too early. To get the seeds to germinate, put them in a warm place where temperatures are around 80 degrees. Watch out for roots growing out of the bottom of your pots. If you get roots coming out of the pots, it will slow plant growth. Ideally, you want to plant out when the roots have just knitted the soil in the pot together. If you let them go beyond that, root and plant growth slows and it might take up to six weeks to get them going again. If you do everything correctly, you will find that the first flowers will appear about 40 to 50 days after planting out.
After that your squash flowers will come thick and fast. The male flowers – those that come on a long stalk – can be picked off and stuffed or fried. Female flowers are the only ones that produce fruit. They are the ones with the bulb under the flower. Just leave it to grow and water well.
The biggest pests of squash are the squash beetle and vine borers. A squash beetle is a shield-shaped bug that can kill the plant in almost no time. Vine borers tunnel into the stem and then eat the plant from the inside. The problem with vine borers is that you have to time your pesticide exactly or the borer gets inside the hollow stem and then you’ll never see it until your plant’s leaves droop and it dies.
One organic way to stop vine borers is to wrap the stems of your vines in tinfoil. Apparently the bugs can’t get through the foil and your problems are solved. If the bug is already inside your plant, the only solution is to slit the plant open and inject bacillus thuringiensis into the slit. When the grub eats the inside of the plant, it ingests the Bt and dies.
Squash beetles can be controlled by spraying with Neem solution, which is available from Jamestown Hardware and the Secret Garden. Simply make up a squirt bottle with a solution and walk around your squash patch every few days spraying any squash beetles. It is satisfying when they fall off the plant with their feet in the air.
It takes little effort to grow squash and as long as the bugs are kept under control your rewards will be tastier meals, pumpkins in your own pumpkin patch, and maybe even a competition-winning giant pumpkin for Cinderella.