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Ask a Master Gardener: Best way to plant winter squash

by Peter Sutter | June 3, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Mid-May is the time to plant squash in Mid-Missouri but if you haven't yet, don't worry, it can still be planted with plenty of time for a harvest. In fact, I just got some buternut planted a couple of days ago. That is one advantage of our long growing season.

Most squash can be put into two categories: summer squash and winter squash. The terms "summer" and "winter" are used to describe the time of use. Summer squash, such as zucchini, differs from fall and winter squash in that it is selected to be harvested before the rind hardens and the fruit matures, thus it is eaten throughout the summer. Summer squash grows on bush-type plants that do not spread as much as other vine type plants. Winter Squash is distinguished from summer squash by having hard skins which allow the squash to be stored.

Pumpkins and winter squash are a great way to brighten the fall and winter dinner plate. And nothing is quite as satisfying as growing them yourself. With proper handling, you can turn your harvest into satisfying and nutritious fare for months.

Squash are generally planted in hills or mounds of dirt 6 to 8 inches high and with a flattened top about a foot square. To make an easy mound, dig a hole about six inches deep and fill with compost, then add the dirt back in and mix. The height of your mound will be in relation to the amount of compost you put in the hole. A good bed of compost will make your squash flourish like never before. Space the hills 6 to 10 feet apart. Most winter squash have long vines but semi-bush type are being developed all the time, so check them out if you are limited on space. I usually plant four to six seeds to a hill, a half to one inch deep. Once the seeds germinate and the plants emerge, I thin the plants to the strongest two plants.

Squash plants are usually vigorous growers with little care other than watering. They do tend to be thirsty plants, so be sure they receive at least one inch of rain per week or supplement water if needed.

It's best to leave pumpkins and winter squash on the vine as long as possible to ensure that they are fully mature. There are several ways to tell if your squash or pumpkins are ready. Mature fruit will be fully colored. Although you might think thumping is just for watermelons, it will work for pumpkins as well, so...thump them to see if they have a hollow sound inside. Try denting the rind with your fingernail; a mature pumpkin or squash may dent, but it won't puncture easily. The foliage should be starting to turn yellow. The stems should be hard or starting to crack or turn brown.

You should have your pumpkins and winter squash harvested no later than the 1st or 2nd light frost. Go ahead and pick any green ones; if they are far enough along, they might be able to ripen, although you should eat these first. Continuos exposure to cold temperatures will diminish the quality of the crop. The squash should be fully mature before storage, and immature fruits may spoil quickly. When removing from the vine, leave 2 inches or more of stem, but do not carry it by the stem when handling.

To get the squash ready for storage, cure the fruit in a sunny window or a porch at 75-85 degrees for 1-2 weeks. This will allow the skin to harden further and scratched or dented areas to heal. To prolong the storage period, kill any surface organisms by dipping or spraying with bleach and water solution of a half cup bleach to one quart of water.

The best storage condition is 50-60 degrees with good air circulation around each squash. I will admit, mine is more like 60-65 but I do try to keep them separated. The storage place could be in a cool basement, root cellar or someplace similar. Keep stored squash and pumpkins away from apples and pears or any other ripe, or ripening, fruit which release ethylene, a gas that can accelerate decay.

Under good storage conditions, the most popular squash (Butternut, buttercup and pumpkin) can be stored for 3-4 months. Acorn squash do not store as well but will keep for a couple of months.

That should get you through the holidays with some bright orange color on your plate from your own garden. Hard to beat that!

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a life long gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].

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