Thursday, May 14, 2015

Survival Gardening: Growing Squash



The simplest way to categorize squash is to divide them into summer and winter types. Summer squash grow quickly, have soft skins, and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Winter squash take months to grow, have hard skins at maturity, and are always cooked before being eaten. However, that division doesn't fit in neatly with their scientific classification into species. There are 4 species of squash, each with many varieties. Cucurbita pepo includes all the summer squash, but it also includes many winter squash. C. maxima and C. moschata are winter squash of various sorts. C. mixta includes cushaws and a few other Asian types, most of them not well known in North America.

Out of those many types, there are only a few that are practical to grow in the United States or Canada. Most of the summer-squash (C. pepo) types are useless because they are bushes rather than vines, so they are not drought-resistant, but Yellow Crookneck and Black Zucchini will do well. There are more good varieties of winter squash. C. maxima includes Buttercup, Hubbard, and Delicious, all of which are drought-resistant. C. pepo winter squash worth growing are Acorn, Spaghetti, and the "true" pumpkin (a lot of so-called pumpkins are a type of C. maxima); these are also drought-resistant, but Acorn squash is not especially good for storing. Of the C. moschata types, the most familiar is Butternut; while it isn't noteworthy for being drought-resistant, it is one of the best squash for storing.

It is usually the flesh of squash that is eaten, but nowadays there are several varieties of pumpkins and other squash that have naked seeds (i.e. seeds without hulls), and these plants are well worth considering as a major source of oil in your diet. In fact, in very early times squash was cultivated more for its seeds than for its flesh.

If you want to grow squash, be sure to start by digging plenty of compost into the soil. Don't do any planting until good weather in late spring or early summer. Then put 3 or 4 seeds in a hole ½ inch (1 cm) deep. Squash take a lot of room, and there should be 4 feet (1.2 m) between holes for bush-type squash, 8 feet (2.5 m) if you're planting vining squash; the vines will eventually fill this area -- and the roots can reach outward and downward by the same amount. Go easy with planting; 3 or 4 plants may be all you need. Contrary to what one may read in some books, it's better not to transplant squashes, because their roots are too easily damaged, although if you have a short growing season you may have little choice. Don't walk near the plants any more than necessary, because loose soil is needed for the roots to expand. Keep the plants watered until they develop a few true leaves, and then thin each group to the one strongest plant (not several). After they've begun to grow, they should need little or no irrigation.

Summer squash can be picked and eaten when they are quite young; the entire fruit is edible, raw or cooked. If you keep picking young fruit, the plants will keep producing more.

Winter squash should always be left on the vine until the first few frosts. The fruit can then be peeled, and the flesh is baked or boiled. By the middle of summer, you should remove any remaining flowers and pinch off the tips of the vines, so that the plants can put their energy into growing the fruits that are already there.

There are not many problems that squash are subject to. If you have to water them, you can avoid powdery mildew by putting the water on the soil, not on the leaves. Two insects you may encounter are squash vine borers and squash bugs. The former are white caterpillars that make holes in stems. Look for these holes and the "sawdust" and use a knife to slit the stems and kill the larvae. The adult is an orange-and-black moth that lays orange eggs under the leaves. Squash bugs are large grayish-brown insects that give off a bad odor when crushed. If you leave old boards on the ground, the bugs can be found under there in the morning and easily killed. The eggs of squash bugs are reddish brown and are laid on the underside of the leaves.

If you're cutting winter squash for storage, you have to be a little more careful. When you cut the fruit off the vine, leave about 4 inches (10 cm) of stem attached to each fruit. Don't carry the fruit by the stems, or you can cause damage to the fruit. Leave the squash in a place that's warm and dry for 1 or 2 weeks. (Acorn squash, however, don't need to be cured.) Don't wash off any dirt you may see. Then put the squash away for the winter in a place that's cool but not cold; squash will rot if it actually freezes. The average root cellar is perhaps too cool; an unheated room in a house would be better. Don't let them touch each other in storage.

Another excellent way to preserve winter squash is to use the old pioneer method: peel and slice it, then hang it up to dry. Although that may seem like a lot of work, you'd have to do most of that work anyway if you were preparing fresh squash for the table.

It's usually winter squash that's put away in storage, but if you're careful you can also preserve summer squash for a few months of fall or winter: let the fruit grow as big as possible, with hardened skins like those of winter squash, and then store them in a cool room.

Getting seeds for next year's crop is quite easy: just remove them from the fruit as you prepare it for cooking. Add some water to the pulp and work it with your fingers for a while, and then spread it out to dry in a thin layer before you pick out the seeds. To get seeds from summer squash, again you'll have to let them grow to maturity. The viability of squash seed is about 3 or 4 years.

If you intend to collect seeds, however, beware of crossbreeding. Which kinds of squash will cross is a complex subject. Don't grow two varieties of the same species within 500 feet (150 m) of each other. But it's even possible for crossbreeding to occur between separate species. To play it safe, grow only one kind of squash at a time.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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