Winter squash and pumpkins take space. Get used to it. For that reason, I don’t grow a lot of varieties. I do crowd them a bit and allow them to ramble, intertwine and generally take over the area I have set aside for squash. You can grow them intermingled with beans and corn, the way Native Americans did, but I don’t know how the heck they did any weeding after the first few weeks, because these Three Sisters gardens really turn into a jungle in a hurry. On the other hand, the Sisters are pretty efficient at choking out the weeds, so it’s probably a zero sum game. Some experts recommend you prune them, others say don’t prune. The rationale for pruning is that you are more likely to get larger fruit even if they are fewer. The don’t prune school of thought is that you are creating an entry point for bacteria and subsequent infection. I’m of the opinion that plants – like people – have robust defenses against infection and, if they are healthy, can easily handle pruning. If you live in a short-season area or got them started late, pruning can help you have at least a few ripe fruit rather than a lots of half-ripe fruit. To prune, allow the vines to get about three feet long, then remove the end buds. Thin the fruits as well, so you have one or two fruits per individual vines. Make sure your knife is very sharp and make straight vertical cuts so the open surface is as small as possible. You can, by the way, use the immature fruit just as you do summer squash. Once the rind has started to harden, you’ll have to peel them, but they can be sliced and fried. Add spices or a very small amount of sugar, as they won’t have developed full flavor. And of course, the chickens and pigs are happy to gobble anything that’s under-ripe.
Winter Squash Varieties
Squash and pumpkins are generally divided into four varietal groups: Cucurbita mixta, Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Cucurbita pepo. The Maxima group includes Buttercups, hubbards, marrows and turban squashes. Cushaws are primarily Mixtas. Golden Cushaw, Orange Cushaw, and Orange Striped Cushaw are Moschatas. Other Moschatas include Butternut varieties and the “cheese” pumpkins. Pepos include the summer squash varies like crook-necks and zucchini, as well as gourds, Delicata and Acorn squash. What Americans call pumpkins and use for Halloween decorations fall in the C pepo group as well. These groups will cross within themselves but not across groups, so if you want to save seeds but don’t want to hand-pollinate (which is really easy with cucurbits), only grow one variety from each group.
Winter squash and pumpkins, like summer squash, need plenty of water – they have a huge leaf canopy, not to mention their fruit, so don’t ever try to short them in the water department. Winter squash and pumpkins can be canned but I prefer to freeze the puree as it tastes fresher. Or you can just take the whole stored fruit off the shelf and cook it when you want some instead of tying up shelf or freezer space. They also dehydrate well. You can find them in various colors aside from the standard orange: grey, green, bluish, yellow, tan, black and striped. They can be round, oval, shaped like a long cylinder or a cylinder with a bulbous end. Some are covered with “warts” or peanut-shaped growths. Others have knobs or turbans, or are deeply grooved. Although I don’t currently grow all of the varieties below, I have at some point.
- Butternut Squash – originally developed by Charles Leggett, of Stowe, Vermont, in the 1940s. He took some seeds to the Waltham extension station and it was refined there, primarily by Robert Young. This is an excellent keeper, yields well and has a nice nutty taste. It also makes pretty good “pumpkin” pie.
- Table Queen Acorn Squash – there are a number of different varieties of acorn squash, but I don’t really think there’s a lot of difference from one to another. I grew this one for several years, and although it’s got a great flavor and is prolific, in my experience it doesn’t store as well as the other winter squashes. If you grow it, plan to eat these first, and save your other winter squash for later in the year. It was introduced by the Iowa Seed Company in 1913.
- Hubbard Squash – I’m not sure why this one is called Hubbard, as it was developed around Marblehead, Massachusetts, having arrived there by way of either the West Indies or South America around 1798. It’s a big squash, with fruits typically well over 12 pounds. It stores very well. Great flavor.
- Delicata – This one has a tough skin, which helps it stay good in storage. It tastes kind of like sweet potatoes. Since nobody in my family is very fond of the flavor, I quit growing it, but it’s a good squash. Been around since the 1890s or thereabouts. The seeds are very good when roasted.
- Spaghetti Squash – This is a Japanese heirloom, supposedly from the 1890s, but the earliest US catalog to list it is from 1937. Instead of dense flesh, it has strands just like spaghetti. It doesn’t store as long as most winter squash. If you’re gluten-sensitive, this squash lets you have your spaghetti and eat it, too. It’s also good with butter, pesto or olive oil and garlic. Although a lot of recipes suggest you microwave it, I prefer to cut in half and bake cut-side down in a pan with a little water for about 20 to 30 minutes. Since it’s the only squash hubby will eat, I grow it mostly for him.
- Banana Squash – this is the big daddy of winter squash; the fruits can get up to 70 pounds. It probably came from Peru, as seeds have been recovered from archaeological sites that match up to today’s cultivars. It hit the US in 1893, courtesy of R.H. Shumway. It’s a lo-o-o-n-n-ng season squash – 120 days or more. Great flavor and generally stores well.
- Long Neck Pumpkin – the name is a misnomer, because it’s really a squash rather than what we call a pumpkin. Sometimes called the Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck or Canada Crookneck. I love this what-ever-it-is. The flavor is great, whether you eat it like squash or make pumpkin pies with it. The long neck is solid flesh, with a small seed cavity in the bulbous end, so peeling is a snap – whack the neck into rounds, cut around the edge to remove the rind, and use it. Once you’ve removed the seeds, the bulbous end can be turned cavity up and roasted or filled with stuffing. It’s been around for at least 150 years and stores well. I think this makes the best pumpkin pies of all the squash/pumpkins.
- Connecticut Field Pumpkin – all indications are this one was being grown by the Nauset tribe when the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock, but it’s been around since 1700 at least. It needs a long season, at least 120 days, but it’s very productive, stores well and tastes good. Livestock like it, too (and so do the deer, who will devastate the field).
- Small Sugar Pumpkin – if you want to make pies, this is a good choice. It’s not a huge pumpkin, maybe 8 pounds, but the flesh is sweeter than most and it yields well. It’s mentioned in seed catalogs from the 1930s but may well be older.
- Rouge vif dEtampes – sometimes called the Cinderella Pumpkin, because it looks just like Disney’s coach and four before the fairy godmother started messing with it. It’s a beautiful old French heirloom from about 1880, and the fruits can be picked small and used like summer squash. I’ve grown it, but I wasn’t impressed with the taste, so I don’t grow it any more. It’s great for fall displays, however, and the flesh is a gorgeous deep reddish-orange. For cooking, I’d mix it half and half with another pumpkin or winter squash and puree them together.
- Amish Pie Pumpkin – this variety produces great big pumpkins, as in about 60 to 80 pounds per fruit. Developed by an Amish gardener in Maryland named James Robinson, it looks like a regular pumpkin on the top but tapers on the bottom, for a tear-drop shape. Although it’s probably been around longer, it didn’t start showing up in seed company offerings until 1999 and is still a little hard to find. Lots of people rave about the flavor but I would say it’s just OK. It did not store well for me.
If I could only have one, I’d choose the Long Neck Pumpkin. It’s prolific, good for fresh eating or to make pie, and it’s easy to peel, unlike Hubbard, which I would rank as its closest competitor. Long Necks also store very well. For pumpkins, I would go with the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, for similar reasons (although it’s not easy to peel). The other thing I like about all of these is that they’ve really stood the test of time.
Winter squash are generally a good source of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium and magnesium, and a very good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium and manganese. Pumpkin also provides iron, copper and riboflavin, and both vegetables are loaded with fiber.