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The leaves that protected them from the heat of summer start fading from photosynthesizing greens to withering yellows and browns, further revealing the beautiful, maturing fruits on the vine. Quite often, these late-harvested crops are among the last of the true fruits gardeners will harvest for the winter season. And, as an added bonus, they constitute one of the longest storing crops for our cellars. Some squashes are ideal for decorating our front entry at Halloween; others (in the gourd group) make beautiful centerpieces for the holidays or even DIY birdhouses. And, of course, there are those that tempt our taste buds and fill our bellies.
Growing winter squash – pumpkins being one of them – can require a lot of garden space. Each plant can easily sprawl ten feet or more in every direction during the growing season, and the more it spreads, the more it is able to photosynthesize. And, the more the plant is able to feed itself, the more fruits it will form.
If you don’t have a lot of room to let squash plants sprawl, keep an eye out for special varieties that stay more compact, like ‘Gold Nugget’. Or, consider growing your crop vertically. Once your plants begin to put on a few leaves along the length of the stem, begin training them upward onto a trellis, sturdy stake or fence. You may need to tie the main stem firmly but loosely to the structure at first, but once the plant begins to send out self-supporting tendrils, it will grab hold and continue to climb toward the sun on its own. And, don’t worry, the plant will strengthen its stems as the fruits form and become weighty. Plus, this will keep your fruits off the ground where hungry pests and disease may do damage before you harvest.
In addition to needing space for the vines to spread out, you’ll need warm temperatures, friable soil, and consistent water. Squash plants need the heat. If you garden in a cooler area, plant your seeds once the weather warms. If they’re planted when it is chilly, squash plants may become stunted and not succeed. Fortunately, most squash plants germinate and grow rapidly from seed in warm weather. So, if your first-seeded plants fail, don’t despair! Just pull them out and re-seed again.
Although squash starts are available from nurseries, many gardeners find they achieve better results from seed. Squash plants have very delicate root systems that are easily broken irreparably during transplanting. Rather than take that risk, purchase a packet of seeds to sow directly into your prepared soil.
To prepare your soil for squashes, cultivate small hills with loose soil well turned with high quality compost. High nutrient soils, through which squash roots can easily travel, are ideal for optimal growth. These heavy feeders and drinkers will require less supplemental inputs during the season if their roots grow deeply into areas where water remains even in drier periods. However, be sure to keep the plants watered well through the growing season, adding a bit of supplemental fertilizer to ensure they receive consistent nutrients all summer long.
Squash plants form two types of flowers – male and female. The male form on longish stems first; the females are more compact with a small fruit at the base. The female flower bases become the fruit we eat. Both male and female squash flowers are edible, but you need some of both for the bees to pollinate in order to get any mature squash fruits. And, any female flowers you eat will ensure that blossom never becomes a squash for your table.
If your squash leaves fall victim to powdery mildew during the hot days of summer, be sure to cut out the diseased leaves daily to keep the disease at bay. Depending on the level of infestation, most plants can replace removed leaves rapidly, ensuring photosynthesis continues and the plant is able to thrive. Also, be on alert for insect pests like squash vine borer, which can take down plants fast!
Once the fruits on your plants begin to turn to autumn colors, test them periodically for ripeness. Once the outer skin is too tough to nick with your fingernail, the squash may be picked. Too, leaving it on the vine through a first frost is generally safe, but don’t wait too long or they may rot where they grow. Once harvested, store squashes in a cool, dark location. Keep individual fruits from touching others. If any have blemishes, use those immediately. Undamaged winter squash will store well for several months, but be sure to check them regularly and dispose of any that begin to decay.
Pasta-Free Squash “Noodles”
When dietary restrictions keep you from eating grain-rich pasta, try steaming a spaghetti squash instead. The interior shreds into a perfect noodle-like form that tastes great tossed with butter and herbs or nestled below your favorite marinara.
1 spaghetti squash
1 t. olive oil
Preheat oven to 375F. Line a baking sheet with foil and coat with oil.
Slice squash in half lengthwise. Remove any seeds. Place sliced side down on baking sheet. Roast in oven for about 45 minutes to steam or until soft but not mushy.
Remove cooked squash from oven. Allow squash halves to cool enough to handle.
Using a fork, rake out the interior of the baked squash into a bowl to use as “noodles” with a sauce or to serve as a side dish. Discard exterior.
Many thanks to Domanico Cellars for supplying photos of their pumpkin patch & gardening daughter, Anna.