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How to Grow Winter Squash

Winter squashes grow best in air temperatures ranging from 50° to 90°F. This is Sweet Dumpling squash.

winter squash growingWinter squash is a frost-tender, warm-season annual. Winter squash is grown to maturity on the vine until the skin is very hard (unlike summer squash which is harvested while the skin is still tender). Popular winter squashes include Hubbard, butternut, acorn, delicious, banana, Turk’s turban (photo above), cushaw, and spaghetti squash.

Sow winter squash seeds in the garden–or set out seedlings started indoors–only after the soil has warmed to at least 60°F (16°C), usually no sooner than 3 weeks after the last frost in spring. Winter squashes grow best in air temperatures ranging from 50° to 90°F (10-32°C); established fruit will ripen in temperatures as high as 100°F (37°C) but flowers will drop in high temperatures. Winter squash requires 60 to 110 days to reach harvest.

Description. Squashes are a large group within the cucumber family, Cucurbita, and include winter squashes, summer squashes, and pumpkins. Winter squashes are eaten after they have matured and their skins have thickened and hardened. Some winter squashes grow fruit as long as 30 inches (76cm). Squashes have large, broad leaves; 4 to 6 stems or vines grow from a central root. Some winter squashes are sprawling; others are bush-like. Fruits vary in shape from round to oblong, to cylindrical to turban shaped. Separate male and female flowers appear on the same plant. Winter squashes have a distinct seed cavity, unlike summer squashes.

Yield. Grow 1 or 2 summer squash plants per household member.

Squash planted on a mound
Plant squash on a mound; the vines will run down the mound in full sun.

Planting Winter Squash

Site. Plant squash in full sun. Grow squash in loose, well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Prepare planting beds in advance working in plenty of aged compost. Add aged manure to planting beds the autumn before growing squash. Squash prefers a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.8. Winter squashes will sprawl and require ample space; if space is tight train them over a small A-frame or up a trellis as tall as 5 to 8 feet (1.5-2.4m).

Planting time. Winter squashes are frost-tender, warm-season annuals. Sow squash seeds in the garden–or set out seedlings started indoors–only after the soil has warmed to at least 60°F (16°C), usually no sooner than 3 weeks after the last frost in spring. Start squashes indoors as early as 4 weeks before the last average frost date in spring. Sow seed indoors in biodegradable peat or paper pots that can be set directly in the garden so as not to disturb or shock plant roots. Winter squashes grow best in air temperatures ranging from 50° to 90°F (10-32°C). Established fruit will ripen in temperatures as high as 100°F (37°C) but flowers will drop in high temperatures. Winter squashes require 60 to 110 days to reach harvest.

More tips at Winter Squash Seed Starting Tips.

Planting and spacing. Sow squash seeds 2 to 3 inches (5-7cm) deep. Sow squash in hills or inverted hills, 4 to 5 seeds set 3 to 4 inches (7-10cm) apart; thin to the two strongest seedlings. Space hills 6 to 8 feet (1.8-2.4m)apart. In rows, plant 2 squash seed 10 inches (25cm) apart in rows 3 to 5 feet (.9-1.5m) apart; thin successful seedlings in rows to 3 feet (.9m) apart. Thin seedlings by cutting off weak seedlings at soil level with scissors so as not to disturb fragile roots. Hills or mounds should be 6 to 12 inches (15-30cm) tall and 20 inches (50cm) across. This will allow plants to run down the hill and away from the main stem. Inverted hills–which are used to retain moisture in dry regions–can be made by removing an inch of soil from an area about 20 inches (50cm) across, using the soil to form a ring or circle. Plant 4 or 5 seeds in each inverted hill. Winter squash can be caged or trained up a fence or trellis. Set supports in place at the time of planting.

Companion plants. Nasturtiums, bush peas, beans. Avoid planting summer squashes in the shadows of taller plants.

Container growing. Bush-type winter squash can be grown in containers but the season is long. Sow 2 or 3 seeds in the center of a 10-inch (25cm) container; thin to the strongest seedlings once plants are 3 to 4 inches (7-10cm) tall. Extend the growing season by planting early and moving pots indoors when frost threatens. Set a cage or trellis in place to save space.

Butternut squash: Side dress squash with compost tea every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing season.

Caring for Winter Squash

Water and feeding. Squash grows best in soil that is kept evenly moist. Squashes require a lot of water in hot weather. Plants may wilt on hot days as they use water faster than the roots can supply. As long as the water is regular and deeply applied, wilted plants will liven up as the day gets cooler. Squash that is wilted in the morning needs immediate water. Add aged compost to planting beds before planting and side-dress squash with aged compost at midseason. Side dress squash with compost tea every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing season. Avoid feeding squash with high nitrogen fertilizer, 5-10-10 is best.

Delicata squash
Delicata squash

Care. Squash has separate male and female flowers. The first flowers to appear are male flowers that will not produce fruit. Female flowers appear slightly later and are pollinated by the male flowers commonly with the help of insects. If pollination is slow or does not occur, use a soft-bristled brush to dust inside a male flower then carefully dust the inside of a female flower (a female flower will have an immature fruit on its stem, a male won’t).

Once fruits form set each one on a wooden plank so that it does not have direct contact with the soil; this will allow squashes to mature with less exposure to insects.

Winter  Squash Pests and Diseases

Pests. Squash can be attacked by squash bugs, squash borers, and cucumber beetles. Handpick or hose away beetles. A small hole in the stem or unexplained wilting may indicate the presence of borers. Slit the stem, remove the borers, and dispose of them. Cover the slit stem with soil to encourage root development from that point.

Squash borers or bacterial wilt can cause squash plants to suddenly wilt and die just as they begin to produce. Bacterial wilt can be spread to squash by cucumber beetles; handpick and destroy cucumber beetles.

More at Squash Growing Problems: Troubleshooting.

Diseases. Squashes are susceptible to bacterial wilt, mosaic virus, and mildew. Plant disease-resistant varieties. Keep the garden clean and free of debris where diseases and pests may harbor. Water at the base of plants to keep water off the foliage, and do not handle plants when they are wet to avoid the spread of fungal spores. Remove and destroy infected plants before they spread the disease to healthy plants.

  • Powdery mildew, a fungus disease, will cause leaves to turn a gray-white color late in the season. Proper spacing and increased air circulation will help reduce this problem.
  • Mosaic virus can cause squash plants to become mottled yellow and stunted. Mosaic virus is spread by aphids. Control aphids and remove affected plants.
  • Blossom end rot will cause squash fruit to rot from the blossom end. Blossom end rot is caused by fluctuations in soil moisture. Water evenly and regularly and mulch around plants to conserve soil moisture.
Curing squash
Butternut, Hubbard, and Kabocha squashes. Cure squashes in the sun for a week or more after harvest.

Harvesting and Storing Winter Squash

Harvest. Winter squashes are ready for harvest 60 to 110 days from sowing when rinds are full color and firm (some acorn squash may be green and have semi-hard rinds). Winter squashes should be allowed to mature fully on the vine. If the rind cannot be dented with your thumbnail, it is ready for harvest. Complete the harvest before the first hard frost. Stems and vines will be hard and dry at harvest time. Cut squash from the vine leaving 2 to 3 inches (5-7cm) of stem above the fruit; this will allow the squash to store longer. Use a knife, pruning shears, or lopper to cut thick stems. Keep pruners clean so as not to spread the disease to other plants. More tips at How to Store Winter Squash.

Storing and preserving. Winter squashes require curing before storing. Cure squashes in the sun for a week or more or place them in a dark, humid place for 10 days at 80° to 85°F (26-29°C). After curing store winter squash at 50° to 60°F  (10-15°C) in a dry, dark place. Winter squash will keep for 5 to 6 months. Winter squash with a soft skin will likely rot in storage; these squash should be cooked right away. Do not wash squashes until you are ready to use them. Cooked squash can be frozen, canned, pickled, or dried.

Yellow acorn squash
Yellow acorn squash

Winter SquashVarieties to Grow

  • Acorn: ‘Autumn Queen’ (71 day); ‘Bush Table Queen’ (82 days); ‘Carnival’; ‘Cream of the Crop’; ‘Ebony Acorn’ (85 days); ‘Gill’s Golden Pippin’ (85 days); ‘Heart of Gold’; ‘Jade’; ‘Table Ace’ (78 days); ‘Table Gold’ (90 days); ‘Table King’ (80 days); ‘Table Queen’ (85 days); ‘Tay Belle’ (70 days); ‘Tubby Acorn’.
  • Banana: ‘Pink Banana Jumbo’ (105 days); ‘Blue Banana’ (105-120 days).
  • Buttercup squash
    Buttercup squash

    Buttercup: ‘Bush Buttercup’ (88-100 days); ‘Emerald’ (90 days)

  • Butternut: ‘Early Butternut’ (75 days); ‘Harris Butternut’; ‘Hercules’ (95 days); ‘Nicklow’s Delight’; ‘Ultra Neck Pumpkin’; ‘Waltham Butternut’ (85-110 days); ‘Zenith Butternut’ (85-120 days).
  • Delicious: ‘Golden Delicious’ (100 days).
  • Hubbard: ‘Baby Blue Hubbard’ (90 days); ‘Blue Hubbard’ (100-120 days); ‘Kindred’ (100 days); ‘Little Gem’ (80 days); ‘New England Blue Hubbard’ (120 days); ‘Sweet Meat’; ‘Warted Chicago Hubbard’ (110 days).
  • Spagehhti squash
    Spagehhti squash

    Spaghetti: ‘Pasta’ (90 days); ‘Pasta Spaghetti’; ‘Stripetti’ (95 days); ‘Tivoli Spaghetti’ (100 days); ‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ (90-110 days).

  • Sweet potato squash: ‘Delicata’ (92 days); ‘Sugar Loaf’ (105 days); ‘Sweet Dumpling’ (100 days); ‘Thelma Sander Sweet Potato’.
  • Turban: ‘Ambercup’; ‘Autumn Cup’; ‘Bitterroot’; ‘Burgess Buttercup’; ‘Buttercup’; ‘Churimen Abobora’; ‘Emerald Bush’ (90 days); ‘Honey Delight’ (95-110 days); ‘Sweet Mama’ (85 days); ‘Turk’s Turban’ (110 days).
  • Others: ‘Doe’; ‘Flat White Boer’; ‘Futtsu Early Black’; ‘Gold Cushaw’ (115 days); ‘Gold Nugget’ (95 days); ‘Hopi Pale Grey’; ‘Lower Salmon River’;’Mayo Blusher’; ‘Red Kuri'(95 days); ‘Silver Bell’; ‘Sweet Meat; Tahitian’ (85-220 days).

Botanical name. Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita moschata

Origin. American tropics

 

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8 Comments

  1. I have a butternut squash plant that has 5 squash on it almost or completely mature. I haven’t seen any female blossoms bloom or even form in a few weeks. My region (10B) has no frost, so I might even be able to get another round of squash before the cold sets in, or I can start prepping the area to use for broccoli in the fall. Can I pick these squash now and have a chance at getting more later? Would it be better to pick them one at a time so I could use them separately, or to harvest all of them at once and cure them together? Also, does the squash need to be cured if it is not going to be stored? One that I harvest now would probably be used almost right away.

    • You can use the butternut squash without curing–cure the squash for storing into the winter months. Plants with fruit growing are not going to produce any or many flowers–if you pick the fruit, they plant will blossom again.

  2. Butternut squash- I’m wondering if I should be picking off baby squash to encourage the rest to finish ripening. And/or can we eat the little squash like summer squash?
    Our average last frost is Oct 10, lately Oct 30, but the plant is still growing strong!

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