Growing and Enjoying Winter Squashes

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Winter squash, turnips and gourd

Vivid colors, unusual shapes and terrific tastes are just a few reasons to love winter squashes. Despite the name, winter squashes are frost sensitive like summer squashes, and grow in warm-season gardens.

However, winter squashes are “good keepers.” They store several months, providing delicious and healthy meals in the dead of winter. Whether you grow them yourself or pick up a couple at the farmers’ market, winter squashes are a cook’s best friend during the cold months. Above (moving left to right) are acorn squash, butternut squash and spaghetti squash (‘Goldy’), along with purple and white turnips, in front of an old long gourd we bought from a local farmer a couple years ago. At this time of year, we always have a selection of winter squashes to add to meals.

Potimarron Squash Growing

Winter squash typically requires plenty of patience and lots of room. The squashes can take 75 to 100 days to ripen, but the taste is worth the wait.

As you can see from these plants in my friend Elizabeth Dickey’s garden, winter squash can grow more than 8 feet long. If space is an issue, look for compact bush or semi-bush varieties of winter squash, such as ‘Table King’ acorn squash or ‘Tivoli’ spaghetti squash.Plant winter squash a few weeks after the last frost date, and wait until soil temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can start plants indoors a couple weeks earlier, but don’t disturb the roots when transplanting. I typically sow squash seeds directly in my garden beds.

Potimarron squash in the garden

Both winter and summer squash thrive in full sun with rich soil that’s well-amended with aged manure, compost or worm castings. Winter squash is often grown in prepared hills six feet apart. Keep soil moist and well-drained, but avoid wetting leaves to reduce fungal diseases – water deeply at roots instead. Harvest winter squash when the rind (skin) is hard and can’t be punctured with a fingernail.

Above is a ‘Potimarron’ squash (Cucurbita maxima), growing on long sprawling vines in Elizabeth’s garden. As education director at Idaho Botanical Garden (IBG), Elizabeth decided to grow this old French heirloom after I mentioned it during my talk at IBG’s 2010 Rethinking the Idaho Landscape symposium. So, I was excited to see the beautiful squashes in her garden this summer.

Close up of Potimarron squash

The pear-shaped ‘Potimarron’ tastes like chestnuts, which attracted Elizabeth to this old type. In fact, the squash’s name derives from potiron (pumpkin) and marron (chestnut). Growing a manageable 3 to 4 pounds, these squashes are excellent for baking, grilling and roasting. The pretty variety ripens in about 85 days and stores well too.

Pruning acorn squash

Acorn squash (Cucurbita pepo) is a more common type of winter squash, often found in gardens and grocery stores. The small squashes are shaped like acorns, and add a healthy, nut-like flavor to cool-season meals.

Above is a thriving acorn squash plant, growing in my friend Judi Brawer’s kitchen garden. She makes her own compost and feeds her garden beds with it. When I visited her garden in August, her acorn squash grew happily alongside watermelons, summer squashes and green beans, not to mention, some of the biggest, juiciest blackberries I’d seen all summer. Learn more about composting, including the best and worst things to throw in the compost pile.

The dark green acorn squashes with orange splashes tend to be very prolific. However, acorn squashes don’t store as long as other winter squashes; only about one to two months if you grow it yourself. Estimate less time if you bought it from the store. Three other winter squashes:

Butternut Squash(Cucurbita moschata): These delicious squashes are very high in vitamin A, and grow up to a foot long with tan skin and orange flesh. The sweet, nutty taste is similar to pumpkins. This type of squash is often used in soups, because it isn’t stringy. This squash will store two to three months.

Spaghetti Squash(Cucurbita pepo): Ranging 2 to 4 pounds, this type has a mild, nutlike flavor. The squash gets its name, because the flesh looks like spaghetti pasta when cooked. Larger, golden squashes are more flavorful than small, whitish ones. Uncut squash can be stored at room temperature for about a month.

Turban Squash(Cucurbita maxima): This hard-shelled squash comes in colors like bright orange, green and white. The orange-yellow flesh is reminiscent of hazelnuts. Cut the top off, cook and then fill with an autumn-inspired soup or dip. The attractive squash is often used in holiday decorations. Store this squash about a month.