Squash the Cold: Cultivate a Bountiful Winter Harvest

Apr 16, 2023

It's hard to believe that zucchini and pumpkins belong to the same plant family, but both are part of the cucurbit, or gourd, family of vegetables.  Summer squash, such as zucchini and yellow crookneck, set many fruit throughout the summer and are best eaten when they are young when their skins are tender and the seeds small.  Winter squash, like summer squash, are planted in the spring, but are harvested only when they are fully ripe, when their skins are hard and the seeds mature.  They can be stored for weeks or months, right on through the winter, hence the name “winter” squash.  

The Napa Master Gardeners Field Test Committee set out to try three different winter squash varieties.  One problem for many gardeners is the lack of space for these sprawling long-vined vegetables.  We searched the seed catalogs for varieties that promised to be space savers, either short-vining or bush varieties.  We picked two that were described as bushes.  These are bred to produce small squashes.  One was Kindred Buttercup, which was a long-time favorite of one of our members.  Another small fruit producer was called Gold Nugget.  The third variety, Sweet Mama, was not advertised as a small squash, but the seed packet claimed it was a short-vined space saver.  

One lesson we have learned over several vegetable trials is that seed packets are not always accurate. Sweet Mama was not short-vined.  Each seed produced one very long vine that produced 2-5 large squash, weighing 3-5 pounds apiece.  This variety is a type of kabocha squash, which originated in Japan.  It is sometimes called a Japanese pumpkin.  It is a large globe-shaped squash with dark green skin that sometimes sports warty white bumps.  

The other two varieties were space savers because they were true bushes and produced small squash. Both varieties produced an average of nine squash per hill (2-3 plants) with an average weight of one pound.  The Kindred Buttercup seed packet claims the average size is 3-5 pounds.  It is possible that our results were not typical due to the severe drought we were battling.  It is an attractive gold-orange orb that makes a pretty addition to the table.  

Gold Nugget's small size was consistent with the seed packet description, which was 1-1.5 pounds.  It was the least popular of the three.  We had some failures with germination, and for some of us, it failed to thrive.  Most of us felt it was too small to warrant the trouble of growing it.  It made a pretty table decoration, but the flesh was not thick enough to provide much to eat.   

No one reported any insect problems.  The only pest damage appeared to be caused by rodents.  I had a problem with something gnawing on the squash.  When I noticed it, I wrapped tulle around the individual squash, and that prevented further damage.  

We planted in early May, directly in the ground or raised beds.  Harvest ranged from early August to late October. Squash is ripe when the rind is hard and difficult to pierce with your fingernail.  When harvesting, always leave an inch or two of stem attached to the squash.  There should be no damage to the rind. Squash should be cleaned and dried before storing. These measures prevent bacteria from entering the fruit.

Winter squash are best stored at 55-59°F and can last 2 to 6 months depending on the variety.  Cucurbita pepo types such as acorn, spaghetti, and delicata are best eaten in the fall. Cucurbita maxima types such as hubbard, buttercup, and kabocha squash are best eaten in December/January.  Cucurbita moschata types such as butternut will store the longest. 

All three varieties in our trial are in the C.maxima  family.  For optimal flavor, this type of squash requires a curing period to convert some of the starch to sugar.  I cooked some of the Sweet Mama shortly after harvest and found it bland and starchy.  After allowing time for curing, I tried it again, and it was rich and sweet.  

Kindred Buttercup won a blind taste test of the three squashes.  The small size is convenient for a meal for two. My favorite was the kabocha variety, Sweet Mama.  It is harder to cut, but its size provides a thick layer of dense, tasty fruit. It can be used in place of pumpkin for a pie.  

These types of squash should be kept in a warm, airy place for 10-14 days before transferring to a cool dark place for longer storage. The larger varieties generally keep longer than the smaller ones.

If you want to enjoy your summer vegetables into the winter, winter squash is an easy-to-grow and delicious choice.


Annual Tomato Fest & Sale: This year's in-person sale is today Saturday, April 15, from 9 am until 2 pm (or until sold out), at 1710 Soscol Avenue, cash or checks only, please. An online sale (credit cards only) follows the in-person event starting at 5 pm on April 15 until 5 pm April 16. Plants are grown with care by our local UC Master Gardeners, and cost $5 each. The tomato fest features education tables staffed by our expert tomato growers. 


 Food Growing Forum: April 16, 2023 3:00 pm, by zoomWe'll focus on growing tomatoesExplore everything from planting tips, site selection, and soil prep, to tricks to growing the best-flavored tomatoes. Also learn how to avoid pests and disease and discover some tips on trellises and support. Find out what else you can plant and do now in your edible garden area as well. Event is free; sign up to get the zoom link at    https://ucanr.edu/2023FoodForumAprTomatoes


Grape Growing in Today's Environment: Growing a home vineyard for table and wine grapes. Join the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County Integrated Grape team for this free in-person workshop held at a home vineyard in Napa County. April 22, 2023 from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm. Location will be provided by email a week before the workshop. Content includes the annual growth cycle of a grapevine, regenerative farming practices, integrated pest management and more. Register at https://ucanr.edu/2023AprGrowingGrapesToday


Help Desk: The Master Gardener Help Desk is available to answer your garden questions on Mondays and Fridays from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa. Or send your questions to mastergardeners@countyofnapa.org. Include your name, address, phone number and a brief description of the problem.  For best results, attach a photo of the plant. You may also leave a voicemail message with the same information at 707-253-4143.