Winter squash are fairly large, and there is usually enough ‘meat’ from the squash to use in three or four meals, so more than half of our meals have included squash in one form or another. Since we save seeds from previous squash crops, the cost of growing this nutritious vegetable has been next to nothing.
The produce manager at a nearby supermarket told me that winter squash is not that popular, and he thinks this is because people don’t know what to do with squash. This is a shame, since squash is as versatile as potatoes. It can be simply cubed and steamed, or mashed, or fried into squash cakes, mashed and added to enrich soups and stews, made into fancy ‘squash puffs’ or even used in dessert recipes, such as squash pie.
The health benefits of winter squash are as rewarding as its rich taste. The bright orange color signals an abundance of powerhouse nutrients known as carotenoids, shown to protect against heart disease. In particular, winter squash contains high levels of beta-carotene (which your body converts to vitamin A), identified as a deterrent against breast cancer and age-related macular degeneration, as well as a supporter of healthy lung development in fetuses and newborns. What’s more, with only a 1-cup serving, you get nearly half the recommended daily dose of antioxidant-rich vitamin C.
The health benefits of winter squash are as rewarding as its rich taste
As if this weren’t enough, winter squash may have anti-inflammatory effects because of its high antioxidant content. Incorporating more of this hearty winter staple into your diet could help reduce risk of inflammation-related disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.
Over the years we’ve grown different varieties of winter squash, and we’ve come to find that Buttercup (not Butternut, another common squash) is our favorite – it tastes delicious and, most importantly, it stores well. We used to grow 8 – 10 plants in hopes of harvesting 30 or more squash, but have since learned that it’s easier and conserves garden space to grow just 2 – 3 plants in the richest soil we can provide. Last summer, our three plants yielded 36 winter squash.
Here are our tips for growing your own winter bounty of Buttercup squash.
1. Start by choosing the best seeds.
Over the winter, some squash in storage begin to show signs of going bad. We rotate the drying squash every few weeks and inspect for mold on the bottom or soft spots in the husk. These are the first to be eaten. The squash that last the longest seem to be the hardiest, so we save seeds from the last remaining squash in early spring.
Before planting, pre-soak the seeds overnight in a small tuna can.
2. Choose a planting location with space for the runners.
Squash can be planted in a relatively small garden bed, but since it grows along the ground like a vine, the runners with their large leaves will need lots of room to roam. We position our squash on the north side of grassy areas. This has a double benefit – the runners have the room they need to spread as the plant grows, and the large leaves serve to shade the grass beneath so that the grass does not need to be cut during much of the summer.
Once the plant is established and the runners begin to spread, you can pick the runners up by the end and redirect them away from garden pathways or other garden beds.
3. Plant several seeds in a cluster and give them a heat-boost to aid germination.
Once your garden bed is well prepared, plant six seeds in a circle about the size of a large plate. After lightly watering the soil, a piece of clear plastic is set on top. The purpose of the plastic is to help warm the chilly spring soil to entice the seeds to sprout quickly. After a few days the first sprouts will appear, and the plastic has to be removed right away to prevent burning the young sprout or inhibiting its growth. Once the remaining sprouts are up, simply choose the one which looks the most vigorous, and pull the other weaker sprouts.
4. Apply mulch after the first leaves are formed.
Once the seedling is established and begins to form leaves, put down a layer of mulch. Pull the mulch a few inches away from the stem, since squash is susceptible to stem rot. (Some gardeners will plant squash in a small mound to ensure that water is directed away from the stem.) The mulch keeps the surface soil moist and helps disperse water evenly into the surrounding soil.
5. Pick off new flowers once most of the fruit is set.
As the large leaves spread across the ground you will notice the turban-shaped fruit developing. As the fruit gets large and begins to ripen to a dark green color, you can pick off new flowers which won’t have time to fully develop and ripen. This enables the plant to direct its energy to the ripening fruit.
6. Set a plate under each ripening squash.
The large ripening squash are susceptible to rot as they lay in wet grass, so we’ve taken to setting a plate under any squash that looks to be in a moist location. The plate must be inverted so that no puddle can form. Another option is to set the squash on crossed sticks. Anything that will help separate the squash from the moist ground will help prevent mold from developing on the fruit.
7. Harvest the squash when the vines die back, and store in a warm, dry area.
Squash stores best in warm, dry spots, with good air circulation. We used to store squash in the pantry but the damp air encouraged mold to grow and spoil the stored fruit. Now we store our squash indoors on shelves where it’s easy to access. Every few weeks we rotate the squash to ensure even curing, and this gives us chance to inspect the bottom for any sign of mold. If we do see mold, or feel any soft spots on the husk, then the squash is set aside for eating.
Even if you don’t have a developed garden, a few squash plants can be grown where space allows, and you will be able to enjoy one of the most nutritious winter vegetables with very little effort or expense.
Jan's Hearty Winter Squash and Peanut Soup
This filling soup makes about 3 quarts, but it halves easily, and freezes well. The extra milk at the end can be added when it is thawed and heated, saving freezer space.
- 1 Tb. oil
- 3 c. cut up winter squash, raw or cooked
- 2 stalks chopped celery
- 1 large chopped onion
- 4 1/2 c. water or chicken broth
- 2 c. milk
- 2 large potatoes
- 1/3 c. smooth peanut butter
- 2 Tb. fresh grated ginger or dried ginger powder
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
Cook together the oil, onion and celery. Cover and stir occasionally until onion is translucent. Add remaining ingredients, cover and simmer until veg’s are tender, about 1/2 hr. Puree in a blender in batches. Cool if freezing. Five min. before serving add extra milk or cream to heat. Taste for salt. Pretty topped with dollop of yogurt, sour cream and/or minced chives or parsley.