Monday, 18 October 2010

Winter squash harvest

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I find people either like squash or don't care for it at all. I happen to love squash of all types, especially winter squash. Not only is it really good for you, providing much needed nutrients in the dead of winter, it tastes good, and stores with a minimum of fuss. No canning or freezing is needed - winter squash comes with it's own storage container, namely a tough skin. All you need to do it store it in a cool, dry place and protect from freezing. It doesn't get much easier than that.

It also can be very productive if you have the space to devote to the rambling vines and fertile soil. I grew 427 pounds of winter squash in less than 1/3 the space I devoted to growing 400 pounds of potatoes. Granted I have large gardens on our farm, but I think even a smaller garden can grow some productive squash vines with a little ingenuity in regards to variety selection, and trellising or maybe a 3 sisters approach.

Sweet Meat winter squash - corky stem.

Rather than talking much about growing winter squash, I want to center on harvesting techniques to ensure good results in storage. We live in a cool, maritime climate, which has a long growing season for some hardy crops, but getting warm season crops to ripen is sometimes a little sketchy. Butternut types (Cucurbita moschata) are out in my location, however Hubbard type (Cucurbita maxima) and Acorn and Delicata (Cucurbita pepo) are the best candidates. Maxima type tend to keep longer than the pepo type. If you're not sure of what type you have, you can tell by the stem. Maxima usually has a corky stem with no spines, and pepo will have a woody stem with spines. If you want short term storage (2 -3- months) the pepo type like Acorn are great, and for longer term storage (5 - 8 months) try some Maxima types. They also come in a variety of sizes, small for easing into squashdom, and larger for aficionados.

Styrian Naked Seed pumpkin - woody stem.

Careful harvesting techniques are crucial to long term storage. Keeping the stem intact is important, not for a convenient handle, but rather to keep the entire squash enclosed in its protective skin with no openings. The easiest way to do this is to cut the stem instead of trying to wrench it from the vine, which often results in a corky stem attached to the vine instead of your squash. Carry your squash by lifting it with both hands, instead of using the stem for a handle. Likewise if you are buying winter squash for storage, look for specimens that still have their stem intact. Field harvesting techniques need to be expedient, and most winter squash for sale even at the farmers market most likely will be missing their stems, since most are destined for immediate use, not storage. In the home garden you can afford to take a little more time and keep your stems.

Dogs on vole patrol.

Not all your squash may be suitable for storage. In this particular variety, Sweet Meat, you will be looking for a grayish blue squash. This immature green squash pictured above will not be ripe enough to keep and shouldn't be harvested for keeping. It will make great hen or livestock food though, so it will not go to waste.

The squash on the left will keep many months in storage, the grayish, green squash on the right may keep for a while but should be used first.

Wheelbarrows come in handy for transport heavy squash to the curing area. These weigh in between 12 - 18 pounds apiece. By carefully placing these I can avoid the stems damaging adjacent squash, since the skin is still tender before curing.

Sweet Meat winter squash original Gill Brothers strain.

Winter squash will benefit from a curing period of two weeks or so at 70 - 80 degrees before being moved to a cool storage area like a cool bedroom, or attic. I use a greenhouse bench, covering for nighttime if the temperatures are going to dip below 50 degrees. The curing period at a higher temperature dries the shell creating a perfect storage container. This particular variety gets sweeter in storage, and keeps well until June. If you haven't grown winter squash before, now is a perfect time to taste test varieties from the farmers market, it would be realistic to expect if your local farmers are growing winter squash, it will do well in the home garden too.

For the frugal pantry, it's hard to go wrong with such a versatile vegetable that lends itself to savory and sweet recipes and requires virtually no processing for storage. I see pumpkin pie in my future this winter!