Winter Squash for Southern Gardens
By Andrea Kjorlaug
I have a confession; I cannot grow summer squash to save my life. Squash like zucchini are plants that most gardeners swear by if you want an easy plant and a large harvest. I’ve tried for several years with a few different varieties. I’ve asked farmers and other gardeners for tips. I’ve tried all the hacks. This past year I had a record harvest of…4 yellow crooked neck squash.
But a few years ago I started growing winter squash and I couldn’t believe how much more successful they were for me compared to summer squash. Forevermore, I will have pumpkins and butternuts in my garden. One of my favorite ways to grow winter squash is to plant one or two vines in my front yard flower beds. As the summer progresses the squash vines meander through the beds. By August the giant leaves and blossoms are playfully cascading around my coneflowers and black-eyed susans as the perfect harbinger to fall.
Summer vs Winter Squash
So, what exactly is the difference between summer and winter squash? Despite their names, both types of squash are actually grown in the summer. The reason we differentiate between summer and winter varieties is because traditionally summer squash was eaten in summer and winter squash was saved for the winter months when most foods were not able to be grown. Summer squash like the yellow and green squash we see in the store are squash that we eat when the fruit of the plant is still young. Winter squash like butternuts and spaghetti squash or pumpkins are left on the vine until the skins harden. In theory you could eat a winter squash while it is still young and green but these varieties were bred to storage. Most winter squashes will last for several months on a pantry shelf if stored in a cool dry space. Some pumpkin varieties can last even longer. We’ve enjoyed fall harvested pumpkins as late as May so if you grow winter squash you can reasonably grow food to last you until the next summer’s harvest.
One of the benefits of growing winter squash in the South is that most winter squash are vines that like to sprawl on the ground. Here in our region. The plants will root in multiple areas along the vines wherever it touches soil. This makes the vines easier to manage during the summer heat and more resistant to pests like vine borers. If branch of the vine is suffering, you can prune it off so that the rest of the vine remains healthy.
Choosing the right variety
Winter squash and pumpkins can be a bit intimidating to a new gardener but watching the vines set fruit and grow larger and rounder is such a wonderful experience. And the joy of picking pumpkins from your own patch is unmatched.
If you have never grown winter squash, this fall is the perfect time to head over to the farmers market or purchase heirloom pumpkins from a local patch. Buying a few different pumpkin and squash varieties will allow you to experiment with recipes so you can decide which squash to grow next summer. You may be tempted to save the seeds of the squash you purchase. While it is always fun to experiment, know that squash plants easily cross with one another, so there is no guarantee that your saved seed will be true to the squash you purchased. And because most winter squash take over 100 days to reach maturity, you won’t be able to start over with another plant if you find out you are growing a hybrid/gourd. So, do yourself a favor and purchase squash seeds to ensure you are growing what you actually want to harvest.
I hope you have fun growing and cooking with winter squash!