Winter Squash 101

Enjoy these fruits of the garden long after summer is over.

By Jill Jesiolowski Cebenko

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Winter squashes are the ultimate, easy-care vegetable, especially after they are harvested. They let you enjoy homegrown goodness well into winter without having to dry, can, or freeze them: Just put the squashes in a dark, cool place and forget about them. Until, of course, you're ready to warm up with a creamy soup or savory pie.

Contrary to their name, winter squashes are grown at the height of the summer season. They are abundant in stores and farmers' markets throughout the fall, so now is the perfect time to go squash exploring. A squash worthy of a taste-test should be firm, feel heavy for its size, and not have huge blemishes or gouges. Sample a few types in your own kitchen before you order seeds. That way, you'll know exactly what you want to grow in next year's garden.

All winter squashes belong to the cucurbit family (also home to cucumbers and zucchini). Most garden varieties fall into three species: Curcurbita pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima. We've broken these groups down a little further according to type and how you eat them. Because let's face it--eating is one of the main reasons to grow your own!

Short-Season Favorite
Acorn (C. pepo) Have a short growing season? Looking for a squash that's individual serving size? Acorns mature fast (about 90 days), guaranteeing a crop in all but arctic areas. These small, ribbed, dark green squash have pale yellow flesh that is sweet, nutty, and slightly dry. These are best eaten within three months of harvest.

Southern gardeners will also do well by acorns--you can get them in and out of the garden and still have time to make room for another crop. Acorns aren't the only squash southerners can grow. "Frankly, any of the winter squash do well here," says Joe Kemble, Ph.D., extension horticulturist with Auburn Univer-sity in Alabama.

Small Space Squashes
Delicata and Dumpling (C. pepo) "These plants are relatively small," says Chris Blanchard, owner of Rock Spring Farm, in Spring Grove, Minnesota. "Plus, they mature in a short season, so you can afford to wait to seed until the ground has really warmed up." Both of these squashes have striped or mottled skin in shades of cream, green, and orange. The pale yellow flesh is best savored within three to four months of harvest. Dumplings are small, globe-shaped, and truly sweet--like sweet potatoes; you can roast them and eat the tender flesh right out of the skin. The oblong delicata squash's edible skin makes it perfect for roasting or grilling.

Grow Your Own Pasta
Spaghetti (C. pepo) If you're cutting down on carbs or trying to sneak more veggies onto a fussy toddler's plate, then spaghetti squash is for you. Upon boiling or baking, this yellow-skinned squash has golden, stringy, mild-flavored flesh much like its namesake. Top it with your favorite marinara or a creamy white sauce. Spaghettis are fairly widely adapted and can be grown just about anywhere, and are best used within three months of harvest.

Best for Beginners
Butternut (C. moschata) "If I only had one squash to grow, this would be the one," says Rob Johnston, founder and chairman of Johnny's Selected Seeds, in Winslow, Maine. Johnny's conducts considerable winter squash breeding and then tests all the new cultivars that show promise, so Johnston has seen quite a few squashes come and go. "Butternuts are the most widely adapted all over the country," he says. Southerners, take note: Johnston says butternuts are especially suited to your region, because their solid stems do not suffer as much damage from vine borers.

This indestructible, reliable squash is tan, long, and cylindrical with a bulbed end. The dark orange, smooth flesh has a sweet, creamy flavor, and its soft skin is easy to peel, making it a favorite in soups and savory stews. These fruits last the longest--sometimes until the following spring--even in subpar storage conditions.

Glenn Drowns, a squash expert in Calamus, Iowa, recommends butternuts as a good starting point for midwestern growers. They are not as finicky as some of the other squash, and you'll almost always get some sort of yield. And Drowns should know--he grows about 200 varieties each year for the Seed Savers Exchange.

Drought-Resistant
Hubbard and Banana (C. maxima) If you live in an arid region, grow these squashes for their sweet, dense fruit. "Both hubbards and bananas do well in the Southwest, at high or low elevations," says Brett Bakker, chief inspector for the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission, in Albuquerque. "You'll get something from these squash, even in a dry climate," he says. "If there's irrigation, you'll get bigger fruits." Bakker recommends deep, infrequent irrigation rather than frequent, shallow watering.

Hubbards can be medium to large, with a neck at the stem end and a lumpy body in beautiful shades of deep orange or gray green. Their flesh is a rich reddish orange and excellent for pies and soups. Try substituting a hubbard in your favorite pumpkin pie recipe--you'll never go back to pumpkin! Bananas are, well, banana shaped and sometimes weigh 30 pounds or more. They have gray green or pink skin and orange flesh that can be pre- pared as you would a hubbard. When picked at maturity, they can be stored for up to six months.

Beautiful and Tasty
Buttercup and Kabocha (C. maxima) Looking for a "family"-size squash (not too big, not too little)? Or do you like the way squashes look but not how they taste? Then try a buttercup or kabocha squash. Fruits average 3 to 5 pounds, and some have beautiful slate gray or dark green skin with pale stripes. Buttercups are round and dark green with a "button" on the blossom end of the fruit. Kabochas don't have the button, and they have slightly drier flesh than buttercups. The golden flesh of both is flaky, sweet, and ideal for baking or mashing. These babies get sweeter after a few weeks of storage. Since these squashes are in the same species as hubbards and bananas, they'll do well in drier climates (but are adapted to other regions, too).

Freelance writer Jill Jesiolowski Cebenko divides her time between growing winter squash (and other stuff) and a growing family in rural Pennsylvania.

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