An impressively long storage life and seemingly endless uses are just a couple of reasons winter squash is a great crop to have around come cool weather. Pumpkins grab most of the attention each fall, but all types of winter squash are invaluable to those who want to grow their own food and preserve it in an easy, sustainable way. Available in a wide variety of flavors, shapes, and colors, it’s worth every homesteader’s time to try as many winter squash types as they can get their hands on. Here’s why.
Winter squash are easy to grow.
And they grow abundantly; a single butternut plant can produce more than 10 full-sized squash, depending on the cultivar and growing conditions. In tight spaces, bush types can produce plenty of food for a small family.
Just plop the seeds into a sunny spot in the soil (spacing them according to the seed packet directions), water well, and watch the squash thrive! Adding to the ease of growing winter squash is the fact that the plants’ large leaves shade the soil, which reduces weeds and helps the ground stay moist, meaning less watering on your part.
Winter squash have a long shelf life.
They can be dehydrated, frozen, or canned, but they don’t have to be preserved at all. Kept whole, most winter squash will store until spring. The trick is to cure the squash, which also sweetens its flavor, and then store it in the right location.
Wait to harvest winter squash until temperatures drop to between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, before the first frost. Look for withered vines, dry stems, and firm skin that can’t be easily pierced with a fingernail. When ready, cut the fruit from the vine, leaving a 3- to 4-inch stem. Squash with shorter stems or blemishes won’t store well. For best results, harvest the squash on a dry day. Brush off (don’t wash) any dirt and place the squash in a warm, sunny location, such as your dry garden or a windowsill. Allow the squash to sit for about three weeks to cure, then store them in a single layer in a cool, dry location — ideally 50 to 55 degrees with 50 to 70 percent humidity. A root cellar is the traditional storage location, but a garage, or even a cool closet, will do. Almost all winter squash benefit from curing; the exception is acorn types, which decline in quality if exposed to warm temperatures after harvest.
Winter squash are versatile.
Winter squash kept the pilgrims alive, inspiring the 17th-century poem: “We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon. / If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.” But while the pilgrims may have grown tired of eating pumpkins, you surely won’t get bored with the many winter squash options available today. Not only does each type have a different flavor, but there are many ways to prepare them.
For a simple way to cook the flesh, cut the squash open, scrape out the pulp and seeds, add a dab of butter, and roast at 350 to 400 degrees until fork-tender. If desired, sprinkle a bit of brown sugar over the finished squash. But other methods of cooking abound; try broiling, microwaving, steaming, stuffing, adding to soups and stews, and mashing like potatoes. The flesh is nutrient dense and filling. Most winter squash are a good source of fiber, antioxidants, carotenoids, vitamins B6 and C, potassium, and magnesium.
The seeds are also edible and nutritious. Separate the seeds from the pulp; don’t worry about washing them; there’s no need to get every tiny bit of flesh off. Then, spread out the seeds in a single layer and let them sit until dry. Small seeds can usually dry overnight, but it might take a day or two for larger seeds to fully dry. Stir the seeds once or twice a day to prevent them from sticking to each other. Once the seeds are dry, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place seeds on a rimmed baking tray, toss with olive oil, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, or whatever seasonings you desire. Roast seeds until golden, watching them carefully to avoid burning. Pumpkin and other large seeds usually take 10 to 15 minutes. The flavor of the seeds mirrors the flavor of the squash; experiment with different types to find your favorite squash for roasting seeds.
And don’t forget about the blooms, leaves, and stems. Wait until you’re certain the flower is fertilized and starting to grow fruit, then snip off the bloom. A favorite way to eat squash flowers is battered and fried, but you can also stuff them with cheese and bake them, or slice the petals and add them to soups or salads.
Pick leaves and stems when they’re young and tender, and cook them like you would any green. For added flavor, slice the leaves thin and sauté them in bacon drippings with some onion and garlic. Don’t worry about any spines on the stems because they’ll soften and disappear during cooking.
It’s easy to save winter squash seeds for future gardens.
Just remove the seeds, lightly wash to remove any clinging flesh, and then leave them to dry at room temperature. Once fully dried, label them so there’s no question as to what you’re growing next year, and store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry location. It takes only a few seeds for the average family to have enough plants for the next year.
If you save seed from hybrid winter squash, it’s uncertain what kind of squash those seeds will grow. Choose heirloom varieties for seed saving, taking note that winter squash plants within the same species can cross-pollinate.
Winter squash can double as livestock feed.
This cuts down on feed costs and provides a nutritional boost for your animals. Whether you have pumpkins past their prime or more squash than you can store, toss them out for your farm animals to enjoy. Squash seeds can also be a nutritious addition to livestock feed. Chickens will eat the seeds whole. For other animals, grind up the seeds and mix the powder into their feed.
Squash to Sample
A great way to familiarize yourself with the many types of winter squash is to visit a local farm stand or farmers market and sample whatever’s on hand. Here’s some basic information to get you started.
Acorns have a nutty flavor. They don’t store as long as other winter squash and are best eaten within a month or two of being harvested.
Large and long, banana is one of the sweeter types of winter squash. It stores well, usually lasting for at least three months.
One of the more familiar winter squashes, butternuts store for a long time, have a sweet flavor, and are easy to find at the store or market.
With its splashy colors, this squash cultivar makes a great fall decoration. The flavor is similar to a butternut, and it has a tough skin that’s great for longer storage.
Although delicata types only store for about three months, they’re easy to cut open and the skin is edible. They have a delicately sweet flavor.
Large with very thick skin, Hubbards are one of the best storage squashes. In ideal conditions, they can last six months or more. They’re similar to, but not as sweet as, butternut squash, and usually require pre-cooking to cut open. For an easier-to-slice Hubbard, try ‘Red Kuri,’ a smaller squash that’s sweet with a nutty aftertaste.
This bluish-gray pumpkin is mildly sweet with melon-like overtones. The cultivar can be tough to cut open and may benefit from pre-cooking, but will have a long storage life.
These small, pumpkin-shaped squashes have a long storage life. The red cultivars are sweet, while the green cultivars are more savory.
Most notable because its flesh easily shreds into vegetable “noodles,” spaghetti squash stores well for several months. Despite its name, the flesh doesn’t taste like spaghetti noodles; instead, it has a mild flavor that’s similar to yellow summer squash.
Small and compact, this striped squash is single-serving sized and tastes similar to a sweet potato. It stores well for 3 to 4 months.
With their unique and colorful exterior, these squash are often grown strictly for decoration — but their flesh is delicious, with a mild, nutty flavor. Turban squash have a tough skin and will store until spring, but may benefit from pre-cooking.
Kristina Seleshanko homesteads on 15 acres with her husband and children. She’s authored 25 books, including A Vegetable for Every Season.