Overview and Description:
Squash plants are usually categorized as either summer squash or winter squash, even though there are several species of the squash genus Cucurbita. Summer squash have tender skins, like zucchini and pattypan. Winter squash tend to have hard shells, which make them excellent for storing. That's why they are called winter squash - because you can save them to cook throughout the winter.
Winter squash also tend to have very large vines, which means they take up a lot of space in the garden. Many times they are trellised on some type of support, but the squash fruits can get very heavy and growing them upwards is not always an option.
There is a great deal of variety in winter squashes. There are warty hard shell Hubbards, subtle Delicata, with a sweet potato flavor, stringy spaghetti squash, and dozens more. For more detailed descriptions of the many types available for growing and eating, see Winter Squash Varieties.
Winter squash are annual plants. Although most of them have a long growing season, often taking 3 - 5 months to mature, you can plant them at the start of the growing season and harvest the same season.
The size of both the fruits and the vines depends upon the variety you are growing.
Most have extensive vines that can reach 12 - 20 ft. long. There are also more and more bush varieties being developed. Bush squash plants tend to form a clump, rather than trailing vines, however they still require a good amount of space. Most bush varieties can be grown in containers, which helps to reduce their footprint a bit, since you can use a 3 ft.
container and allow the stems to hang over the sides.
The fruits vary even more than the vines. They can grow anywhere from a single serving to 12+ pounds.
Squash vines need full sun to grow well. Most will send out a lot of leafy growth before they ever begin to set flowers. The faster the vines grow, the sooner they will start setting fruits.
Bloom Period/Days to Harvest:
Again, the growing season will depend on the variety you choose to grow, but they tend to need a long growing season. Expect to wait 80 - 110 days before harvesting.
Harvest winter squash before the first frost. They may look inpenetrable, but frost will cause them to rot.
As the fruits ripe, the skins will become a bit duller in color and the rind will be hard enough that a finger nail will not be able to dent it.
To harvest, cut the fruits from the vine. Do not pull them and risk detaching the stem. That will leave an opening for disease and rot. Leave about an inch of stem attached and don't use it as a handle or you could break it off.
If you are not using them right away, wllow the fruits to cure in the sun for 7 - 10 days. Protect them from frost while curing. Then store in a cool (45 -60 degrees F.), well-ventilated spot until use.
There are so many wonderful and distinct varieties of winter squash, it's hard to select just a few. One of the great things about growing your own is that you can try varieties you won't find in stores. One of my favorites is 'Potimarron', a small French squash with the flavor and scent of chestnuts.
Soil: Winter squash prefers a rich, well drained soil. Add lots of organic matter to the soil before planting.
Planting: Winter squash is usually direct seeded in the garden, anytime after the last frost date. Squash plants won’t take off until the ground is warm, so don’t rush planting. In areas with short growing seasons, transplants started 3-4 weeks before planting out, may be preferable. They don't really like to be transplanted, so starting seed indoors in peat or paper pots will ease transplant shock.
Seeds are traditionally planted in hills, which means planting 4 - 6 seeds in a cluster. The hills are thinned to the 3 healthiest plants, when they are about 4 - 6 inches tall. Space the hills about 3 feet apart.
It's important to have several squash plants becuase they have separate male and female blossoms and both must be present at the same time for pollination to occur. Having multiple plants with multiple blossoms will increase the chance of pollination.
Maintenance: The basic maintenance will be keeping the vines watered, especially once the fruits have been set.
Winter squash does not generally need mulching, because the long vines basically self-mulch.
If your vines are getting too large or if they don't seem to be setting any flowers or fruits by mid-season, you can do a little tip pruning, to get things moving.
Pests and Problems:
Squash Bugs: Use row covers to protect against squash bugs. Also remove egg sacks by hand.
Squash Vine Borers: Wilting plants can signal squash vine borers. Slit open base of stem to physically remove.