Winter Squash and Pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.)
Just about everyone recognizes pumpkins as the round, orange winter squash that we carve into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. If you take another look at the pumpkin group, you’ll also find that they come in colors of orange-yellow, dark green, pale green, white, red, or gray.
I’ve separated winter squash and pumpkins within this section because although both are the same botanically speaking, their flavors and textures are different when it comes to culinary purposes. As far as winter squash varieties, there’s a lot to explore such as acorn, butternut, buttercup, spaghetti, and hubbard.
Pumpkins have a stronger flavor and coarser flesh than the other winter squash, while winter squash varieties have a milder flavor and a finer texture. Winter squash all develop a thick, hard rind or shell (some are harder than others) that’s useful for winter storage. For the vertical garden you’ll be most interested in pumpkins and squash varieties that mature on the smaller side. These fruits require strong supports and slings for the growing fruit.
DIY FERTILIZATION: HAND-POLLINATION
Many a gardener has joyfully spotted a little tiny fruit behind a squash flower only to have their day ruined as the little cuke shrivels up and dies a mere few days later. If this happens to you, don’t label yourself as having a black thumb! The truth is that the “baby” cucumber wasn’t a cucumber at all. Rather it was the promise of a cucumber—if it had only been pollinated.
Squash (or pumpkins, cucumbers, etc) have both male and female flowers. Male flowers make their appearance first and the female flowers follow. When you see a flower with a little fruit at the base, you’re looking at a female. She needs to be pollinated or that little fruit will never develop into something edible.
Something (or someone) has to get the pollen from the male flower to the female flower. Unfortunately, there aren’t always enough bees or other insects around to pollinate your plants. If you want to be certain that your plants are pollinated, you’ve got to step up to the plate!
Hand-pollinating summer and winter squash is a simple technique that comes in handy when the bees and other pollinating insects haven’t done the job themselves. Before you try your hand at this (pun intended), you’ll need to identify the boys from the girls. You can spot the female flower by the small “fruit” (which is really “potential” fruit) that sits just behind the blossom. The male flower lacks any such fruit.
It’s as simple as taking a male flower and gently pulling off the petals. Rub the remaining male’s middle part all over the female flower’s middle part. You now have instant fertilization. You can also use an artist’s paint brush and gently rub the bristles all around the male flower’s anthers.
(Those are easy to spot because they are covered with the pollen.) Then swirl the brush all over the female flower’s stigma.
Planting Winter Squash and Pumpkins
If you’d like to start seeds indoors, plant them 1⁄2″ to 1″ deep, 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. To seed them directly outdoors, plant them 3′ to 4′ apart when soil temps reach 70°F. They enjoy a soil rich in organic matter, and add some well-rotted manure to the area to get them off to a great start.
Tending Winter Squash and Pumpkins
Squash enjoy regular watering and are heavy feeders. That said, if you add compost and some organic fertilizer several times throughout the growing season, your plants should be happy. If you’d like to add plastic over the bed to keep the soil warm (and suppress weeds), lay the plastic down first, secure the ends, cut holes in the plastic, and then plant the winter squash into the hole.
Harvesting Winter Squash and Pumpkins
When the stems of winter squash become dry and shrivel up and you can’t pierce the rind of the fruit with your thumbnail, winter squash are ready to harvest. The only exception is that pumpkin rinds remain a little soft, so don’t press too hard! When you harvest, be sure to leave a couple inches of stem on the squash—they’ll store longer. Winter squash are best stored in a dry area at about 50°F.
Best Bets: Winter Squash and Pumpkin Varieties
Considering the amazing variety of colors, textures, and flavors, winter squash are incredibly unheralded for the home vegetable garden. Even the most popular winter squash, pumpkins, haven’t been explored thoroughly by most people.
If you want to grow something new and interesting, may I suggest planting spaghetti squash (vegetable spaghetti) and preparing it for your family one winter evening. It’s a delicious and fun twist on traditional pasta!
Baby Bear. Pumpkin; high yields of 6″ bright orange pumpkins; great for pumpkin pie; 105 days to harvest
Burgess. Buttercup; 8″ long, 3 lb. to 5 lb., turban-shaped fruit; sweet yellow-orange flesh; 90 days to harvest
Delicata. Delicata squash (also called sweet potato squash and Bohemian squash); 6″ to 8″ long, cream-colored rind with green stripes; sweet potato flavor; 100 days to harvest
Heart of Gold. Acorn squash; 3″ to 5″ fruit, cream- and dark-colored green rind with pale orange flesh; great flavor; 95 days to harvest
Jack-Be-Little. Pumpkin; vines grow to 5′ and produce 3″ pumpkins, both for decoration as well as eating (baked); nice mild flavor; 90 days to harvest