I love winter squash. On the day when I head into the garden with my giant metal colander to harvest squash I feel like a kid heading out to Trick or Treat with a king-sized pillow case. My love for squash transcends the impressive nutritional benefits (low in sodium, high in beta carotene and fiber if you insist on knowing). I love the heft, the deep orange flesh of the heartiest varieties, the feel of the skin whether smooth or warty. I crave the smell of squash baking in the oven. In short, I love how winter squash makes me feel.
I have been growing winter squash in my garden for close to twenty years. You would think that I would be an expert by now. You would be wrong. Some years my harvest is joyfully abundant (last year) and other years it is disappointingly puny (this year). In October I “hit the books” like I am studying for a mid-term exam to figure out why this year’s harvest is so much different from last year’s. I realize that even if I do discover the secrets to a consistent squash harvest a factor outside of my control (i.e. a new pest from a far-off land) will arise to have me scratching my head again.
My intention with this post is to impart some of the knowledge that I have accumulated over the past two decades of growing, harvesting, preserving, and cooking winter squash. Please note that I live on a steep southwest-facing suburban lot that is not shaded by structures or trees. I have more than the requisite 6-8 hours of full sunlight that is required for growing most vegetables. Conditions may be a bit different where you live.
Squash vines can be veritable real-estate hogs in a prolific year. They will tumble down our dry streambed, climb fences, emerge from the compost pile, and threaten to smother the asparagus patch. Therefore, in the spring my husband asks me where the squash is going to be planted and then he erects wooden posts with sturdy netting to give the squash clear direction as to where to climb.
Each year I give my squash a different (but sunny) part of the garden in which to establish themselves. Squash are “heavy feeders” and if you grow them in the same spot each year they will quickly deplete the soil of nitrogen and other essential nutrients. As well, pests such as squash borers may set up residency and infect next year’s crop.
I have tried giving squash a head-start on the season by starting them from seed indoors under grow lights. I have compared the results with years when I have grown them directly from seed planted outdoors. The end results are the same so now I only grow them outdoors. Wait until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 21 degrees Celsius (a soil thermometer is handy). Alternatively, you can follow my uncle’s advice – pull your pants down and sit on the soil. If it feels warm on your bottom you can plant your seeds. You can hasten the warming of the soil by tossing a black plastic bag over it for 10 days to 2 weeks before you intend to plant.
Prepare the soil by working in about 2 inches of rotted manure or compost. You may also want to work in some granular organic fertilizer if your soil is low in fertility. Make a few low “hills” one to two feet across and about five feet apart. Plant four seeds in each hill. Once the squash plants have emerged and are strong thin them to two seeds per hill. Squash plants are thirsty so give them about 2 inches of water per week (unless it has been raining). Cut back on watering when the fruits are ripening.
Once the squash has formed I put a layer of straw or an old ceramic plate under the fruits that are lying directly on the ground to prevent rotting on the underside of the squash fruits.
I wait until the weather forecast threatens hard frost. This date will be different if you live in the valley bottom as compared to in the hills or near the airport (which is, according to Kelowna long-timers, a “frost pocket”). When removing squash from the vines be sure to preserve an inch or two of stem on each fruit. Put the squash in the sun for about five days to cure the outer skin. I have a portable metal clothes rack that I use for this purpose because it allows for air circulation both between and around each fruit.
After curing the squash make sure that you wipe off any dirt before storing them in a cool, dry, and dark location. Leave some space between each fruit. Do not store the squash in an uninsulated or scantily insulated outside structure because temperatures below 10 Celsius will damage them. Similarly, temperatures that are too warm will cause the starches to covert to sugar too quickly and your squash may spoil. Properly stored squash will keep for 3 to 4 months. If you live in an older Kelowna home built in the 1970’s or earlier you may be blessed with a room in the basement that was purpose-built for storage of food preserves and root vegetables. Ideally this room is on an outside wall and has its own ventilation. Rejoice, you’ve hit the urban homesteader’s lottery.
If you want to preserve your squash harvest for longer than 3 to 4 months then cook it, mash the flesh, and freeze it. If you want to can squash then you must cube it, boil it and then PRESSURE CAN it because home canned mashed squash is not safe. I guarantee that you will be disappointed in the results. In my estimation canning cubed squash is a bit like defacing a picture of Ryan Reynolds (or Blake Lively depending on your orientation) with a permanent marker.
I have tried various ways to dress-up squash for special occasions. Over time I have come to realize that this is unnecessary…. kind of like photoshopping Ryan Reynolds (or Blake Lively). If you really want to keep things simple and your squash is not too big just put the whole thing in the oven and cook it like a baked potato. Use a fork to poke the skin when you think it might be done. I have tried oven temperatures between 350 degrees Fahrenheit and 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The only difference is in cooking time. Once the squash is cooked you can split it open, scoop out the flesh and mash it with butter, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and brown sugar or applesauce. Alternatively, split the cooked squash, take out the seeds and put it on the table along with the butter dish.
If the uncooked squash is big it is best to cut it lengthwise before cooking. Cut a flat piece off the bottom of the squash so that it sits securely on the cutting board. This keeps the fruit from rolling around under the knife which could result in a trip to the emergency ward if you are not careful. Take out the seeds and any stringy or fibrous bits. Put both sides of the split squash upright in a baking pan that has about ½” of water in it. Put a bit of butter, salt, cinnamon, maple syrup or brown sugar in each squash half and pop the pan into the oven at 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking time depends on the size of the squash but check it after 45 minutes. Once the flesh yields to the fork tines the squash is ready to eat. You can cook squash in a microwave but I guarantee that you will be disappointed. The flavour is not nearly as good as oven-baked squash.
There you have it. The ABC’s of squashery (that word does not exist, I just made it up). If you eat so much squash that you turn yellow this fall then do not be concerned. This is called “hypercarotenemia” and although it is cosmetically unappealing it is not harmful. If you see a rather yellow woman walking around town then please stop me and say “hi.” I am usually back to winter-white by Christmas when the squash harvest runs out.