The leaves of a neck pumpkin plant form a canopy along the top of a four-foot-tall trellis. Until they start to deteriorate in autumn, winter squash plants add remarkable textures to a garden. Left to run along the ground, leaves create enough shade to keep weeds from getting established.
Winter squash is by far one of my favorite vegetables to grow. Happily, it’s also a really easy plant. It’s easy but for a few challenges:
- It requires a lot of garden space
- It’s susceptible to Squash Vine Borers
- It’s susceptible to squash bugs
- It can host mold that can kill an entire plant
- It may not set fruit without human intervention
No, seriously, it’s easy to grow winter squash. You can beat all of the challenges with little effort, and the reward is a harvest of delicious, nutritious, and versatile food that stores well and could last through the winter.
Squash vines on trellises are strong enough to support the fruits they grow. Here, a modest butternut squash hangs from the vine. I’ve had 17 pound neck pumpkins do the same. The vines hold up fine, but one year three squashes on the same side of a trellis were enough to collapse the trellis.
Optimize Garden Space
Winter squash plants are vines, and a single hill (three or four plants set close together) can spread over 100 square feet or more of ground. Minimize the ground they cover by providing trellises and training the plants up. I’ve run trellises north-south, and others east-west, and the squash have been happy on both. My trellises are only four feet high, but I’d design seven-foot trellises if I were starting over.
On the other hand, under the “Beat the Squash Bugs” heading, you’ll see that I plant squash in the garden in mid-July. I grow peas on sturdy trellises starting in late March and they’re done by July. So, I simply leave the trellises in place for the squash when I stomp down the pea plants.
Beat the Squash Bugs
Your simplest defense against bugs is to grow bug-resistant winter squashes. I’ve had great luck with butternut squash and neck pumpkins. Both seem immune to squash vine borers (SVB), and I’ve harvested squash from them even when they were crawling with squash bugs.
But I have almost no squash bugs anymore and the reason is simple: I hold off until mid July before planting winter squash in my garden. This may shorten your growing season too much if you live in zone 5 or below, but here’s the trick: Start hills of squash in early June by planting in containers.
Each sawed-off drink bottle in this photo contains a “hill” of squash seedlings about 14 days after I planted seeds. I start the seeds in early June to transplant in mid-July. Usually, that beats the squash bugs, but for added assurance, I plant butternut squash and neck pumpkin which are both amazingly immune to SVB and squash bugs.
For each hill, cut off the bottom third of a 2-liter soda or juice bottle, poke a few holes in the bottom, fill with potting soil, and set three or four seeds and inch deep. Keep these containers in a sunny screened porch until mid July (or under protective cover such as cloches, hoop tunnels, floating row covers, or screened enclosures), and keep the soil moist. Around July 15th, transplant each hill of seedlings as a single plant into your garden. There’s a reasonable chance that squash bugs will have given up on your garden by then, and none will bother your winter squash.
Will Your Squash Plants Mold?
My butternut squash and neck pumpkin plants have never developed mold, though I’ve grown other types of squash plants that have molded. So, start there. You’re already choosing these varieties because they resist SVB; perhaps they are also mold-resistant. By planting late, you keep the squash bugs down, so there won’t be sap oozing out of the squash leaves. Sap drawn by squash bugs can provide a great environment for mold to grow, so beating the bugs may beat the mold. Finally, by growing squash up on trellises, you promote air movement in your squash patch; that reduces moisture on the leaves and discourages mold.
It’s easy to identify a female squash flower. The blossom protrudes from the end of a miniature squash, and the flower’s pistil is a central stalk that forks into landing platforms for bees. Amazingly, a squash blossom starts to wilt about when the sun is highest in the sky. Pollination must take place before the flower wilts.
Don’t Go Fruitless
Many squash growers report frustration when their plants fail to set fruit. They report that flowers appear, but the young squashes attached shrivel and die. Squash flowers draw more attention from bees than anything else in my garden, and you’ll probably have the same experience. However, leaving pollination to the bees can lead to poor squash production. Photos in this post show how I pollinate my winter squash—every winter squash. It’s one of my favorite tasks in the garden and I’ve never lost a squash that I hand-pollinated.
Butternut squash and neck pumpkin are very similar. Neck pumpkins have a milder flavor, but if you serve it in place of butternut, few diners will notice the difference. People in central Pennsylvania favor neck pumpkin for pumpkin pies. But beware! A large butternut squash might weigh two or three pounds. A large neck pumpkin can weigh 25 pounds.
I gotta say: it’s really satisfying to drag a 17 pound vegetable out of the garden. Managing the few quirks of winter squash is a minor inconvenience for the pleasure. Give winter squash a try. You can grow that!
Find more You Can Grow That posts at youcangrowthat.com.
If a female squash flower doesn’t receive pollen from a male squash flower, the fruit dies. Amazingly, this happens often even when bees are very active in a squash patch. It’s disheartening to see a squash rot away like this. Protect your investment in squash seeds by hand-pollinating every blossom.
A male squash flower grows directly from a stem; there is no fruit beneath it. The stamen is a single or split stalk obviously coated with pollen. Look carefully and you might also notice a dusting of pollen all around the inside of the blossom.
To pollinate a squash, find and pick a male flower. Then peel the petals away from the stamen. Discard the petals.
Hold the stem end of the peeled blossom and wield it like a brush to “paint” the pistol of the female squash flower. Be careful not to agitate the bees in the blossoms, though in all the years I’ve pollinated squash, a bee has never shown interest in me. Bees have flown into blossoms I was holding before I had a chance to strip off the petals, but the bees ignored me. You can use one male flower to pollinate several female flowers.
This small pile of winter squashes includes neck pumpkins and butternut squash. The wine bottle gives you a sense of scale; the largest neck pumpkin in the heap is nearly two feet long. A well-developed winter squash that is still green at harvest will ripen slowly at room temperature in your house.