Autumn is here and now is the perfect time to enhance the amazing array of fall colors by decorating with winter squash, pumpkins and gourds. As members of the Cucurbitaceae, or cucumber family, these vegetables offer varying colors of blue, green, orange, crème, pink and variegated types to adorn around our front porches, businesses and churches.
Not only do pumpkins, winter squash and gourds come in a wide assortment of colors but also one can select from a vast medley of sizes, shapes and textures for multiple uses. While looking through magazines or surfing the internet, it’s easy to find recipes for cooking many scrumptious soups, stews and of course, the traditional pumpkin pie.
Many gardeners and crafters have learned how to fashion gourds into birdhouses, dippers, Luffa sponges and water bottles as part of our mountain heritage. It is well known that gourds have been cultivated for thousands of years by many cultures worldwide, including Native Americans, for their usefulness as utensils, storage containers and as ornaments.
Winter squash, grown throughout Western North Carolina, is a warm season vegetable known for having a tough outer shell that can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick and rock hard with a wide array of colors. Winter squash differs from summer squash in that it is harvested and eaten in the mature fruit stage, when the seeds are fully mature and the skin has hardened into a tough rind. When ripened to this stage, most varieties can be stored throughout the winter season.
Edible winter squash belongs to three different species: Cucurbita pepo (acorn, delicata, and spaghetti types), C. moschata (butternut types), and C. maxima (Hubbard, kabocha, and buttercup types) “the true winter squash.” Some varieties are small, producing enough for single servings, while others produce massive vegetables of 20 pounds or more, suitable for mashing, freezing, soups and pies.
While most winter squash varieties can be stored throughout winter, others should be used within a few weeks after harvest. Select varieties that cater to your taste as well as your ability to handle and store the squash.
Candyroasters, grown traditionally by the Cherokee, is a winter squash that has a deep orange color and can range in weight between 10-25 pounds, making it an excellent choice for canning and freezing the abundance.
Harvest winter squash and pumpkins before a hard freeze. A light frost that kills the vine will usually not harm the fruit. Cut the fruit from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem attached. Be careful not to cut or bruise the fruit. Ideally, the pumpkins and squash should be field-cured in place for a week or two in dry, sunny weather. This dries and toughens the skin for longer storage. If the weather has turned cold or rainy, squash can be cured indoors, in a well-ventilated, warm (80 degrees Fahrenheit) space.
Winter squash should be stored in a cool place about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, with good air movement. Ideal humidity should range between 50 percent and 75 percent. Check squash in storage frequently and remove the ones that seem soft or show signs of spoilage.
Now that your interest and appetite has been piqued, consider which varieties of winter squash to grow next year.
Some gardening tips to remember include:
• Wait until the danger of frost is past before planting.
• Vining squash types require at least 50 to 100 square feet per hill.
• Plant seeds one inch deep (four or five seeds per hill) and allow 5 to 6 feet between hills.
• After the plants are well-established, thin each hill to the best two or three plants and allow 7 to 12 feet between rows.
• Plant semi-vining varieties one inch deep (four or five seeds per hill) and thin to the best two plants per hill. Allow 8 feet between rows.
• Plant bush varieties one inch deep (one or two seeds per foot of row) and thin to a single plant every three feet. Allow five feet between rows.
• Squash plants should be kept free from weeds by hoeing and shallow cultivation. Water if a dry period occurs in early summer. Squash requires minimal care after the vines cover the ground.
Christine Bredenkamp is horticulture extension agent for Jackson and Swain counties.