Winter Squash

Winter Squash for Southern Gardens

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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. 

Cucurbita Moschata

The trick to having the most success with winter squash is starting with the right varieties.  There are 3 main families of squash (Cucurbita Maxima, Cucurbita Pepo and Cucurbita Moschata) but the best varieties to grow in our region are squash that are part of the family Cucurbita Moschata.   The plants of in this family of squash are generally more heat and drought tolerant than those of the Maxima and Pepo family.  They also have thick stems which make it difficult for vine borers to penetrate.  This is important because vine borers can destroy a perfectly healthy squash vine seemingly overnight.  If you want to ensure a good harvest stick to only the type of squash that come from Cucubita Moschata. But limiting yourself to one subgroup of squash does not mean you are sacrificing a large selection of plants.  This group of squash includes some of my favorite varieties for soups like Butternut, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin and Musquée de Provence. It also includes varieties that produce a large abundance like Seminole Pumpkin and Tromboncino. When picked young Tromboncino is a great alternative to typical summer squash varieties.  Black Futsu pumpkins are a great roasted pumpkin that you can slice and bake in the oven.  But if you are looking for something sweeter, Dickinson pumpkins are great in pumpkin pies.  The type of same pumpkin is used in Libby’s canned pumpkin.

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!