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    Back to Vegetable Gardening    |   Winter Squash

Squash - Winter - (Cucurbita spp.)

Including: spaghetti, butternut, acorn, hubbard, turban, vegetable marrow


Zones 4 and warmer

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Full sun in a site with good air circulation

Not fussy, grow in almost any type of soil that drains well; pH 5.5 to 6.8

Regular water will increase yield, keep soil evenly moist

Bushy cultivars: 3 to 4 plants per hill, in hills 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) apart

Vining types: 3 to 4 plants per hill, in hills up to 5 feet (1.5 m) apart


Harvest when the shell, or rind, is hard enough that it cannot be dented with a fingernail (except vegetable marrow squash).

Comments: Squash are among the easiest vegetable crops to grow. Winter squash properly cured and stored can retain their flavor and texture for several months. Winter squash tend to be vining plants though some bush varieties are available. The seeds are usually removed either before cooking or being eaten, but the seeds can be saved and then roasted and eaten as well. Winter squashes can be white, yellow, tan, orange, dark green, blue to blue-gray, and some can be striped or spotted. Three of the most familiar winter squash are the dark, ribbed acorn squash; the tan, club-shaped butternut; and the blocky, squatty, dark green buttercup with its gray button on top.

Squash are generally separated into three categories: summer squash, winter squash, and pumpkins. The difference between them all is really just based on how they are used. Summer squash are harvested when young and tender, while winter squash are harvested when hard and ripe. Pumpkins are really just winter squash, but have a distinctive pumpkin shape.

Planting Site: Plant in full sun in an area that has good air circulation. Squash grow best in moderately rich soil, but for best results, plant them in hills enriched with compost or lots of good organic matter like well-rotted manure.

Planting & Growing Guidelines: Squash grow best in warm soil. Winter squash seed should be sown up to 15 weeks before the first expected fall frost (Example: plant in June for September harvest). Sow seeds 2 weeks after the last expected spring frost, or when soil temperatures reach 60° F (16° C). In short-season climates, start seeds indoors in individual containers 2 to 3 weeks before planting, and plant in soil that has been prewarmed with black plastic for a week or two. When the soil is warm enough, remove the black plastic and plant seedlings.

Plant seeds 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) deep, in predampened hills, for bushy cultivars: plant 3 to 4 plants per hill, in hills 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) apart. For vining types: plant 3 to 4 plants per hill, in hills up to 5 feet (1.5 m) apart. You can use the same spacing when planting out seedlings or transplants.

A good trick when planting seedlings is to hill the soil up around the stem if it is more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the soil line to the first set of leaves. This is one time it's OK to mound soil up around a plant's stem, it won't rot, and a stronger healthier root system will develop. If you have had problems in the past, cover the seedlings with row covers to protect them from squash bugs and cucumber beetles.

Squash need regular water to keep the fruit producing, and can be grown without mulch, except in very dry climates, since the leaves are large enough to shade the soil on their own.

Keep in mind, because winter squash do take longer to mature, when the fruit is in contact with moist soil for long periods of time, rot can happen on the underside of the squash. Soft sunken spots form where the fruit touches the soil, and if the conditions are right, can cause complete collapse of the fruit. To minimize the problem, prop the squash up off the ground with bricks, pieces of wood, or tile, so they are not in contact with moist soil. Use care when doing this and don't break the vines or crack the stems. If that happens, you will lose the fruit.

Squash can be grown in containers, just use the compact, bushy types. Feed the plants every three weeks with a good balanced water soluble fertilizer like a 5-5-5 or a 10-10-10. Hand pollinate to ensure fruit set (see the Common Problems Section below for instructions how to do this).

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    Fertilizing: Make sure the soil has already had lot of good compost and organic matter worked in. Lightly broadcast some 10-10-10 over the area, till in, and then plant transplants or sow seeds. When the plants just start to vine, side-dress with 1 tablespoon (15 ml) per plant of 5-10-10, or one large handful of good compost which generally equals the same. Sprinkle around the base of the plant, but not up against the stem, and water in.

    Pest and Disease Prevention: Use row covers to protect young squash plants from cucumber beetles, and squash bugs that can carry and spread bacterial wilt, a common disease that causes plants to wilt and die suddenly. Remove the covers when the plants begin to flower. Radishes or basil interplanted with squash helps repel beetles and squash bugs. Don't plant where squash or its relatives, such as melon and cucumber, have grown the previous year. Provide good air circulation to avoid mildew. If plants do develop mildew, spray the foliage thoroughly with a mild baking soda solution of (1 teaspoon (5 ml) per quart (liter) of water). To reduce the chance of many squash diseases, plant resistant cultivars.

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    Common Problems: Fruit that turns black and rots before reaching picking size has not been pollinated. This often happens early in the season before male flowers appear, or in cool weather when pollinating insects are not as active. Squash also won�t pollinate successfully in temperatures above 90° F (32° C). Many squash produce only male flowers at first, followed by a mixture of male and female flowers a week or so later. If female flowers are opening and withering without setting fruit, they may not be getting enough pollen. If bees are low in your area, you can pollinate the flowers yourself. Simply pick a male flower, and place it over a female one and tap it to release the pollen. To see an example this read the "Squash and Pumpkin Section" in the "How to Maintain a Vegetable Garden" article listed in next Helpful Articles. Keep in mind however, poor pollination is seldom a problem if you have four or more plants flowering at the same time.

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    Days to Maturity: 85 to 110 frost-free days depending upon the cultivar grown.

    Harvest and Storage: Make sure to leave a minimum 2-inch stem (5 cm) attached for best storing, and harvest when color is good, and the shell, or rind, is hard enough that it cannot be dented with your fingernail, except for vegetable marrow squash. Vegetable marrow are treated differently and harvested when they are 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) long and are prepared and eaten like a summer squash.

    Harvest all winter squash as soon as their skins are tough enough, or after a light frost has killed the vines; more than a light frost will shorten storage life. Leave on the ground to "cure" in the sun for 10 to 14 days; cover them if frost threatens. This curing will sweeten the flesh and toughen the skin for storage. Wipe the skin with a cloth dipped in a weak bleach solution (1 part bleach to 6 parts water) to help prevent rot. Store in a cool, well-ventilated area where temperatures will range between 50° to 55° F (10° to 13° C).

    Special Tips: In small garden areas, grow vining squash on a fence or a trellis, but grow smaller fruited varieties so that the vine will be able to support weight of the hanging squash fruit. If needed, you can put cheescloth around the fruit and tie to the trellis supports to help the vine support the weight.

    The winter squash information above applies to the following squash:

    Acorn Squash (Cucurbita pepo var. pepo) - Also called pepper squash. Acorn-shaped, usually dark green to near black. Sweet, moist, orange flesh. High-yielding with usually five to eight fruits per plant. 'Table Queen' is a well known favorite.

    Buttercup Squash (Cucurbita maxima) - Dark green and squatty, with a "button" or small turban at the blossom end. Fruits have orange flesh and can weigh 3 to 5 pounds (1.5 to 2.5 kg). They keep and store well. Japanese kabocha squash are very similar.

    Butternut Squash (Cucurbita moschata) - A thick necked squash that has a small seed cavity and solid, orange flesh. Keeps and stores for a long time. Can weigh up to 4 to 5 pounds (2 to 2.5 kg) each.

    Delicata Squash (Cucurbita pepo) - Also called sweet potato squash because they are very sweet, are oblong and can weigh up to 2 pounds (1 kg). Fruits are striped green and cream, with orange flesh. These winter squash don't need curing before storing.

    Gold Nugget Squash (Cucurbita maxima) - A quick-maturing winter squash that has round, orange fruit, weighing up to 2 pounds (1 kg). This is a good plant for small gardens due to its bush-type growth habit.

    Hubbard Squash (Cucurbita maxima) - Also called blue hubbard, these have large, warty fruits, and usually only produce one or two fruits per vine. They have a very hard rind, making them an excellent keeper for storage.

    Spaghetti Squash (Cucurbita pepo) - Also called vegetable spaghetti. Has an oval shape, with tan or light yellow skin and pale orange to yellow flesh. When baked the flesh separates into pasta-like strands, thus earning its name.

    Sweet Dumpling Squash (Cucurbita pepo) - A flattened, round fruit, about 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) in diameter. Has striped skin and light-orange flesh. This winter squash is convenient because it requires no curing before storage.

    Turban Squash (Cucurbita maxima) - Also called Turks Cap, is uniquely beautiful squash that is striped in red, orange, green and white. A very old variety from France with thick orange flesh. Produces a good sized fruit.

    Vegetable Marrow Squash (Cucurbita pepo var. pepo) - Also called Lebanese zucchini. There are a few bush-types, but most varieties have trailing vines that can be trellised. Best harvested when they are 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm). Use the dense flesh like eggplant or summer squash.

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