Curcurbits, or squashes, are a regular feature in my garden. And with their large dark green leaves, sprawling and vining branches, and showy orange flowers, they command attention. My prolific summer squashes keep us with steady supply of fresh produce throughout the late spring and summer, and the colorful winter squash will provide savory meals throughout fall and winter.
Squashes originated in Central and South America over 8,000 years ago. Along with beans and corn, squash was a staple food of ancient America. These plants nourished Native peoples for thousands of years and provided a food base for Maya, Inca and Aztec civilizations. European settlers were quick to add squash into their diets and became a mainstay in homestead gardens.
Squash can be classified as “summer”, the lesser known “autumn”, or “winter” squash, with all growing over the spring/summer season. Winter squash are grown until they are mature and ripen on the vine. the fruit has a hard skin and will store for several months. Autumn squashes, like the winter squash, are eaten after they mature, but do not store well for more than a few months. Summer squash are picked and eaten when the fruit is immature, and have thin, soft skin. They grow quickly and do not store well. While usually eaten cooked, summer squash can also be eaten raw.
The flowers are also edible, and delicious stuffed with cheese, then breaded and fried. If you find yourself getting to many zucchinis than you need, pick some of the female flowers to curb production, and also have delicious treat! The flowers are easy to tell apart.
Squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, along with gourds, cucumbers and melons. There are three different species of Curcubita: C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo., and then there are countless varieties found in each species. Curcubitas are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. They are pollinated by insects, and a favorite of my bees. They are exceptionally easy to cross pollinate, so unless you take great care to isolate the flowers, saving seeds for future plantings will likely result in strange fruit. Any varieties of the same species will cross with each other, and C. pepo and C. maxima will also cross with C. moschata. However, C. pepo will NOT cross with C. maxima.
In my garden, I have a variety of all types of squash growing. Because I don’t keep isolation distances or take the time to isolate flowers, I don’t save my own squash seeds (yet) and instead plant heirloom varieties from Baker Creek. Summer squash are spaced about 4 feet apart, interplanted in a raised bed with eggplants, basil and sunflowers. Winter squashes are growing 2 feet apart in mounded rows, spaced 6 feet apart, interplanted with nasturtiums and sunflowers, or tucked into corners wherever there is space. There are hundreds of different vatieties of squash, some well known and some that sounds like they are aliens. Choosing which type to grow can be overwhelming, as there are 14 pages of squash in my seed catalog! This year, because we are still in garden development and don’t have space to dedicate to experiments quite yet, we mostly went with standards that we are familiar with.
Summer squash are C. pepo species, and I have one yellow Early Prolific Straightneck, 2 Black Beauty zucchinis, and 1 Costata Romanesco zucchini plant planted.
Winter squash can be further categorized in the texture and how dry their flesh is, dictating what their best use is in the kitchen. I like to have different types so that I can use squash in many ways. When thinking about what type of squashes to plant, think about what you like to eat. I eat lots of squash soup, curries, and just cubed and roasted- so I look for types that are good for that. I don’t like stuffed squash or plain mashes as much, so I don’t grow as many that are best suited for those purposes. My family is also small, so I have no need for a 20-pound squash. I also avoid squash that have really lumpy skins, to make peeling easier, or ones that are so hard you need a hatched to break open. I like varieties that will store, so I have delicious squash thought the winter.
In the C. maxima group, I have Red Kuri and Rouge Vif D’Etampes growing. Red Kuri is a Japanese squash, and similar to the more well known Kabocha. Its flesh is smooth and dry. It is great for curries, soups, and stir-fries. I made a pretty delicious Red Kuri ice cream one Christmas. Rouge Vif D’Etampes is a very old French Heirloom, and is flattened, with a gorgeous deep orange color. With its medium-dry flesh, and is good for pies, curries and stews.
Squash that I have growing in the C. pepo group could be considered the autumn squashes, as they do not store well. These will be the first to eat, leaving the pumpkins for when the nights turn long and (hopefully) the rain falls. I have several Delicata plants, and just one lonely bush White Acorn. Delicata have moist, fine sweet flesh and are best steamed, sautéed or baked. The skins are edible, so they are a great squash to use when you are short of prep time, just cut lengthwise and clean out the seeds! Acorn squash has coarse, moist flesh and is best for baking and stuffing.
Waltham Butternut is the squash growing that falls in the C. moschata species. Butternut squash is my favorite of the squash, and I find to be the best all-purpose of the squashes. With its medium grained texture and medium-dry moisture content, its great for soup, purees, pies, roasted and steamed.
Another squash that we have growing is a C. maxima, called Red Warty Thing. Baker Creek’s description claims its “a big glowing, oblong globe with glowing, brilliant orange-red and covered with fantastic bumps”. I have no idea what this one tastes like, and planted solely because this is what happens when your husband is told to pick out a squash. So far, it just looks like a lumpy pumpkin.
I have two varieties of pumpkins growing for decoration, Howden Carving Pumpkin (C. pepo) and Wyatt’s Giant Wonder (C. maxima). These seeds were from Renee’s Garden, that I picked up for free at a seed swap. Pumpkins grown for decoration are edible, but not very tasty, as selective breeding has focused on looks rather than taste. The flesh is to stringy to be used for pies, but they are fun to grow for Halloween!
Winter squashes need a long growing season, between 90- 120 days to ripen, so I’ve been surprised to see mine turning orange so early. They are ready to harvest when the skin resists an indent made from your nail, and the stems are dry. I’ve already had one Delicata fall off the vine when I nudged it with my food while watering. Perhaps its because the early heat? Anyone else in California notice this?
What about you, what’s your favorite squash to grow or cook with?