In The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010) scientist and gardener Carol Deppe combines her passion for gardening with newly emerging scientific information from many fields—resilience science, climate change, sustainable agriculture and more. In this book you’ll learn how to garden in an era of unpredictable weather and climate change; grow, store and cook different varieties of her five “key crops”; and keep a home laying flock of ducks or chickens. Deppe didn’t just write this book, she lives the principles in it every day, and you can, too, with her expert advice. In this excerpt from chapter 10, “Squash and Pumpkins,” learn how growing squash is easy with the right conditions, and how to store and cure your squash harvest.
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Growing Squash and Pumpkins
Squash and pumpkins like rich soil, moderate amounts of water, and plenty of sun and warmth. They are capable of growing in pure compost, in fact. However, they aren’t as heavy feeders as corn. Most varieties do well enough with ordinary garden soil.
Squash succumb to the slightest freeze. So we plant squash or pumpkins after all danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed up. A traditional way to plant a few hills of squash is to work a shovelful of manure or compost into each hill, then plant (or thin to) two or three plants around each hill. Nate and I don’t fertilize the hills specially, and have just one plant per hill. We space smaller plants at 4 feet apart in the rows, with our standard 3 1/2’ spacing between rows. With big viney types, we space rows at 7 feet apart, and put the hills at 6 to 8 feet apart within in the row.
Many people these days start their squash and pumpkins from transplants rather than direct-seeding. I think this practice is partly responsible for ruining the big squash varieties. Plants of big viney varieties have big vigorous taproots that head for the center of the earth as soon as the seed germinates. When the seed is started in a pot, the taproot runs out of pot while the top of the seedling has barely broken the surface of the soil. The root is invariably damaged or broken off during transplanting. The result is that the slowest-germinating, slowest-growing squash plants from each lot of seeds are the only ones that have an intact root system after transplanting. When you save seed from the “best” plants of a vigorous, big-vined variety after starting the plants in pots, you are actually automatically selecting for the plants that germinated or grew most slowly—that is, the wimpiest plants, not the best. Big viney plants started from transplants will never have a root system as vigorous as those started from direct-seeding. I recommend direct-seeding all big viney varieties.
When the variety is a bush or half-bush type, the seedling’s root system is a bush or half-bush form also. So while bush and half-bush varieties can be direct-seeded, they also lend themselves to starting in pots and transplanting. Most summer squash varieties are bush or half-bush types. The bushing pattern is associated with prolific flowering and refruiting, which is just what we want in summer squash. For summer squash varieties, starting seeds in pots in a greenhouse or under lights indoors can mean a summer-squash season that starts a month earlier.
Squash and pumpkins like full sun. Any shade will slow their maturity time. So plant in full sun if you have it. Plant in partial shade only if your region and the variety give you maturity time to spare, or you have sun so fierce that most plants prefer some protection from it. Part of American gardening lore is the idea of interplanting corn, beans, and squash. However, in most areas of the country, squash do better with full sun, not shaded by corn. And big, powerful, viney squash will grow right up the corn and knock it over. Buffalo Bird Woman seems to have grown corn and squash together only in the sense that they were in blocks in the same garden. They weren’t interplanted.
Big viney squash plants can often root at the nodes, thus gaining additional resources to support the plant and fruits. You can get the best out of a big viney squash plant by throwing a couple of shovelsful of soil up on the roving vines at nodes here and there to help the plants form these auxiliary root systems. The rooting at the nodes is one reason why it is counterproductive to put big squash at the edge of a garden and let them spread into the lawn. The vines can’t root in sod. Big viney squash here do better with overhead irrigation than drip, because with drip irrigation and no summer rain, most of the surface of the ground is too dry for rooting at the nodes.
The basic strategy for controlling weeds in squash is to weed very well early in the season, then forget about weeding later after the vines run out into the space between the rows. At that point, if you have spaced the squash appropriately for each variety, you have a pretty solid squash or pumpkin patch that shades out and suppresses most weeds. Weeds that start from seed at that point will just be plowed under when you turn the squash patch under in fall, before they have time to make seeds.
Till in squash or pumpkin residues each fall and rotate your squash patch to new ground that has not been growing cucurbits as a preventive measure against pests and disease. If your pumpkin patch is relatively isolated from others, your pest and disease problems may be minimal. About the only problem we have is a few cucumber beetles and powdery mildew in fall. The powdery mildew here is regular enough so that it usually kills all the plants, but ordinarily only after they have already matured all the squash and the first freeze is already near. For diagnosing diseases and pest damage, see Gail Damerow’s The Perfect Pumpkin. Regional seed catalogs will usually give you information about the specific pests and diseases that matter in your area.
If You’re Short on Bees
These days, because of colony collapse disorder or pesticide use of neighbors, some people have so few bees that squash flowers don’t get pollinated. A few summer squash varieties are parthenocarpic, that is, don’t require fertilization to make fruit. But most squash or pumpkins don’t set fruit without fertilization. With no bees, you will have to fill in. Just pollinate the flowers yourself, using methods similar to those I describe in Seed Saving: How to Save Squash Seeds. However, you don’t have to tape buds or flowers. All you need to do is transfer pollen from male flowers to female flowers in the morning when the male flowers are releasing their pollen. You have to transfer pollen between flowers of the same species. Pollinate pepo flowers with pepo pollen, for example. Unless you are saving seed, it doesn’t matter whether the flowers are from the same or different plants or the same or different varieties, as long as they are the same species.
Harvesting, Storing and Curing Squash
I don’t harvest squash until the vines die down, or the stems on the squash are too dry or dead to be actively transferring nutrients to the squash, or until frost threatens, whichever comes first. Some years my squash season ends when the vines have all succumbed to powdery mildew. Sometimes I harvest the last of the squash just ahead of the first predicted freeze. Exposure to even a light freeze harms the storage life of the squash. Exposure to a serious freeze ruins the squash.
When we harvest, we don’t want to break the fruit off at the stem, because if we do, the moist, juicy stem scar is vulnerable to mold and storage life drops. Instead, we cut or break the stem in between the fruit and vine so that there is a stub of stem on the fruit. Some varieties snap off easily; most, however, must be cut. Garden shears are the easiest way to do it. Most people will tell you to cut so that you end up with a 1- to 2-inch stub of stem on each fruit. I cut the stems to about 3 to 5 inches long initially, then trim them to the final length of 1 to 2 inches after the fruits have been indoors drying out a few days. If the stem is shorter than 3 to 5 inches, I cut the vine on each side of the stem. Most varieties of squash should not be lifted or handled by the stem, because the fruit will break off. However, some varieties do have sturdy enough attachments to allow handling by the stems. There are always occasional fruits whose stems got knocked off in the field. Eat those first.
Books and articles about squash frequently speak in terms of an outdoor curing period. For example, after describing cutting the squash and leaving stem stubs, the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog says: “Cure in the field to dry and toughen skins by exposing fruits to sun for 5–7 days or so, covering in the evening if frost is likely. An indoor method of curing is to expose squash to 80°F–90°F (27°C–32°C) with ventilation for 3–5 days.” The “covering in the evening” assumes that you have cut the squash and consolidated them in a spot at the edge of the field (ready for loading into a cart or truck).
What people actually do with respect to curing, though, has more to do with their region and the year’s particular weather. Here in maritime Oregon, in squash-harvesting season, it is often raining. And when I am harvesting because a freeze is threatening, I want the squash safely out of the field. I don’t have any workable way of covering the amount of squash we harvest. I also don’t have any place that has temperatures of 80°F–90°F for indoor curing, either. My home is usually 60°F–68°F that time of year. That has to do for both people and squash. So the squash are always brought home at once and welcomed in with the people. There is a curing period, that is, a period after harvest in which the squash are allowed to sit and after-ripen before being eaten. But the curing temperature and conditions are the same as the rest of the storage. In other words, my idea of “curing” just amounts to not eating the fruit until it has been stored a certain amount of time.
I handle my squash gently. I never drop or toss them. I place them. I place big, heavy squash such as ‘Sweet Meat’ in a monolayer in the cart or truck, and I use old towels or sheets or rags between them to help cushion them for the ride home. I harvest the smaller squash such as the delicatas and ‘Sunshines’ into stacking crates, stacking them up and filling the crates. It doesn’t seem to hurt most small squashes to be in a crate buried under a foot of other small squash. I place squash in the crate so the cut stems or any pointy ends don’t jab into anybody.
People often suggest washing the squash with water with some bleach in it. I don’t do that. We all come in from the field dirty. My house is dirty. What’s a little dirt among friends? Once home with my squash, I distribute them everywhere. Every room, every empty table, every bookshelf is improved by a diversity of squashes of many shapes and colors. Two walls of a back room lined with industrial-weight shelves take some of the bigger squash. Other big squash are lined up on the floor next to the wall all around the living room and fill every empty corner and replace every doorstop. Any area against the wall where you don’t actually walk should be lined with big squash along the floor. Furthermore, if you put tarps in the corners out of the way, you can make foot-high piles of delicatas there. With this attitude, it’s pretty easy to store a ton or two of squash indoors without much difficulty, even without the shelves. I place each big squash so that whatever spot it sat on in the field is now exposed to the air. The stacked crates of smaller squashes form a wall of squash.
After my squash have been inside for about three to five days, I turn each big squash so that a different part of the squash touches the floor and the first spot gets a chance to dry out. I also trim the stems with sheers to the final length of 1 to 2 inches. And I rearrange the small squash in their crates and stir up the piles of delicatas on the tarps on the floor.
Ideal temperature for storing squash beyond the initial curing stage is supposedly 50°F–55°F with a relative humidity of 50–70 percent. My household conditions of 60°F–68°F and 40–70 percent are supposedly not ideal, but they’re close enough. And perhaps they are ideal. My squash store as long as or longer than anyone else’s. The squash seem to like my methods.
The best squash flavor doesn’t develop until the squash has been fully cured or stored the right amount of time before being eaten. Generally, C. pepo varieties need to sit in my house for two weeks after harvest before they are prime. Most C. maxima varieties should sit at least a month. ‘Sweet Meat’ is best with at least two months. The squash can be eaten earlier, but they aren’t as sweet as they could be, and don’t have as much flavor or as much complexity to the flavor, or as much aroma. C. moschata varieties are said to need two weeks to cure, but I haven’t checked that out personally. It is clear that the curing time is temperature dependent. When my elderly mother was alive, I kept the upstairs part of the house warmer, and the upstairs squash cured and were ready to eat faster. It took the pepos only about a week, and the ‘Sweet Meats’ just a month.
When a squash tastes somewhat starchy instead of sweet, it is usually a curing problem. The squash was probably eaten before its time. When a squash isn’t starchy but has thinner flesh, less flavor, or less sweetness than expected, it is generally because it was picked immature or was poorly grown.
More The Resilient Gardener Squash and Pumpkin Information:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010. Buy this book from our store: The Resilient Gardener.