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Improve Your Winter Squash Harvest

I love to grow winter squash in my small kitchen garden… even though squash plants cannot in any way qualify as small-garden-appropriate. Still, when I plan a progression from spring crops to summer crops, I make sure there’s a place where butternut squash plants will be able to stretch out in July and August.

Poor Squash Production

The first season I grew butternut squash was very disappointing. The seeds sprouted quickly, and vines grew aggressively. It was a bit of a rush when squash flowers popped open; and very entertaining to see new flowers open almost every day. When female flowers opened, I was particularly jazzed: these were young squash fruits that would grow large and provide food later in the year!

My first year growing winter squash, I saw blossom after blossom wither and die, dashing my hopes of getting a decent harvest.

No dice. Those female flowers would blossom and fade in a day, and two or three days later the fruits from which they’d emerged would turn brown, wither, and drop off the plants.

Occasionally, a squash fruit would set: the flower would dry up and fall off as the squash itself plumped up. While this was very satisfying, harvesting only a squash or two per plant seemed hardly worth the garden space.

Since then, I’ve heard this story told by many beginning gardeners—and even by experienced gardeners—who were puzzled by poor production from their winter squash plants.

More Squash per Plant

One summer, as the squash plants started flowering, it occurred to me that, perhaps, a squash fruit that isn’t pollinated isn’t viable. Honestly, I don’t know whether this is true, but the thought led me to a new garden task: I now hand-pollinate all my female squash flowers. Since I started doing this, I’m almost certain that every squash flower I’ve pollinated has grown into a harvestable squash fruit. Now in a typical season I harvest at least five decent squash fruits per plant, and sometimes as many as seven or eight.

A male squash flower (left) stands atop a stalk that stretches toward the canopy of leaves. A female flower (right) lies low under the canopy and grows from the end of a miniature squash fruit.

Life of a Squash Plant

A squash plant may seem to develop slowly, producing small leaves on skinny vines. After a few weeks, however, the plant starts to overwhelm its area in the garden. Large leaves rise 18 inches above the garden bed as the vines thicken and send out branches.

Soon, squash blossoms peak out from under the canopy of leaves… they don’t necessarily rise above the canopy, but their unmistakable orange flashes in the morning sun.

The earliest squash blossoms are males; they can’t produce fruit. These usually sit on stalks that grow straight up from the horizontal vines.

You can pollinate a female flower using a male flower from the same plant, but I like to find a male flower from a different plant. I snap the stalk that holds the flower (they are brittle and break off easily), then I peel the petals away much as you’d peel a banana (center). I end up with a stamen at the end of a handle (right).

 

To pollinate squash, I simply use the doctored male flower as a paintbrush: I hold the stem and brush the stamen around on the pistil of the female flower. A squash fruit grows very quickly after pollination. If the plant gets enough water (and if the days are hot), a fruit can reach full-size in seven-to-ten days… though it might take several more weeks to ripen fully.

A squash bud blossoms in the morning, glows orange until midday, and starts to fade in the afternoon. By nightfall, the blossom is droopy, at best, and the flower is useless by the next day… but another set of blossoms opens on that morning.

You might see such blooms for a week or two before the first female blossoms mature. A female blossom grows in the direction of the stem that holds it. There is a tiny squash behind the flower, and the flower itself may actually lie on the ground when it opens. While male blossoms congregate near the original roots of the plant, female blossoms grow near the ends of the vines… but I’ve never seen a female blossom open when there were no male blossoms open as well.

Caution! Bees seem to think squash flowers are what it’s about. On a good day, the squash bed is abuzz with dozens of bees. In my experience, they pay no attention to me as I wade through the sea of squash leaves. They are so single-minded, I’ve actually had bees land on the male flowers whose petals I was stripping. Despite heavy bee activity, I still hand-pollinate. I try to avoid arguments with the bees, and I’ve never been stung in my squash patch.

Squash Plant Maintenance

As a vine, a winter squash plant sends out tendrils that can wrap around anchors to support the vine. This being the case, some gardeners train their squash plants up and away from the soil. One great advantage of this is that the fruits develop off the ground where they are less likely to succumb to insects and rot caused by moisture.

But I wonder whether training squash vines off the ground cheats the grower out of a few pounds of squash per plant. You see, squash vines branch, and the branches are thinner and flimsier than the main vine. Still, those flimsy branches can grow quite long and they can produce fruiting flowers. No problem so far.

In my experience, the fruiting flowers of slender squash branches are smaller than those of the main vine. Many fail to blossom; they simply shrivel and drop off the plant. I’m about to offer a guess about squash culture, but first: one more fact about how squash plants grow:

Squash vines aggressively seek supplemental sources of water. At each node where a leaf grows from the vine, the plant wants to drop roots into the ground. If the vine lies on your garden’s soil, the plant will re-root itself in dozens of places. I must believe (without knowing for sure) that these roots support the plant’s growth.

Here’s that guess I warned about: A squash vine that can’t drop supplemental roots into the soil will produce the flimsiest of branches and, probably, less fruit than a vine that re-roots itself all over your garden bed. Believing this, I let my squash plants have plenty of room, and I leave the vines in place so I don’t disturb the roots they inevitably produce.

Squash vines produce tendrils (left) that are capable of supporting the plants off of the ground. However, if a node where a leaf stalk emerges from the vine rests on damp soil, the vine drops roots there. For the sake of this discussion, I lifted a vine (right) and its newly-forming roots came out of the soil.

Now I’ll contradict myself: Two or three squash plants growing from a common point can intertwine and become very inaccessible. The main vines and their branches criss-cross and overlap while the canopy of large leaves blocks your view of the vines. As fruit sets and enlarges, you’ll see many flimsy branches grow from the main vine, and it will be obvious that most branches won’t produce fruit.

When my squash patch becomes particularly overgrown, I remove many of those useless vine branches; I use a paring knife and cut them off close to the main vine. Again, I don’t know for sure, but my plant sense tells me that the vines and growing squash fruits that remain benefit when the plant isn’t trying to grow so many new branches.

When Squash are Ripe

It’s a little early to be concerned about harvesting winter squash. But if squash fruits ripen, cut them off the vines and take them inside… there’s no sense leaving them in the garden where they can fall victim to insects and other inconveniences. If your plants are still setting fruit… or they haven’t yet started, you may face decisions about when to harvest. I wrote a post last autumn about harvesting and storing winter squash. I hope you find it useful: Harvest Squash from your Small Kitchen Garden.

Here are some links to articles about diseases that can damage your squash plants… and to a few discussions about cooking winter squash:

  • Downy Mildew Alert « Weekly Crop Update – edu and Kate Everts, Vegetable Pathologist, University of Delaware and University of Maryland ; keverts@umd. Downy mildew was observed on cucumber in our sentinel plots on Wednesday, July 9 near Georgetown, DE by Emmalea Ernest. She found several small spots on 3-4 leaves on the susceptible slicing variety Straight Eight’.

  • pumpkin plants turn ugly in just a few days – jerry brust, ipm vegetable specialist, university of maryland; jbrust@umd.edu. last thursday, august 6, my pumpkin plants looked great with large green leaves and just a little powdery mildew (fig. 1). just a few days later and they …

  • having my way with winter squash « Culinaria Eugenius – Although I must say that I recently devoured a maple cream puree made with the grey squash above, I prefer winter squash dishes that don’t add extra sugar. The marshmallow yam Thanksgiving casserole? *shudder* …

  • Five Ways to Eat Winter Squash – I love this Moosewood Cookbook recipe, which mixes kale and chunks of winter squash into a basic white-wine risotto. It’s easier than I expected—although you do have to be vigilant about stirring!—and it’s a very healthy dish, …

  • Winter Squash Soup with Gruyere Croutons – Bon Appétit | December 1996. In France, this soup would be prepared with a baking pumpkin. A mixture of butternut and acorn squashes mimics the French pumpkin’s exceptional taste and texture. Pour a lightly chilled rosé with this …

 

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4 Responses to “Improve Your Winter Squash Harvest”

  • Marina:

    Thank you, I’ve had a terrible season with my summer squash- only had two fruits out of four plants. They are dying back now, but will try the hand pollinating next season.

  • Thanks for the Twitter link to this page. I did discover that I have one fist size pumpkin. It is growing 10 FEET off the ground. The vine climbed itself up and through the neighboring rhodo! I’ll take photos tomorrow, and post them on Twitter. (after I pollinate a few of the flowers properly)

  • admin:

    Pollinating squash (and pumpkin) blossoms has become one of my favorite gardening tasks. This season, it seems the bee population has increased – I’m always wading through a loud buzz – but I still get out every morning to examine the plants and search for newly-opened fruiting blossoms. I found two that kind of surprised me in the past two days, on plants that I thought were spent. We had our first butternut squash with a meal over the past weekend.

    I hope you get some fruits to set; it’s always so satisfying to harvest and prepare a nice winter squash.

  • What a great tip — and now that I have acquired (since mid July) a community garden plot, I can actually pay attention when people talk squash. However, I wouldn’t exactly call this a “lazy” garden technique. I fall more into the lazy-faire category. Which is perhaps why the half-fried pumpkin plant someone gave me when I got the plot seems to contain no actual pumpkin.

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