Go Vertical With Winter Squash

I grow squash almost year round.  Since there are literally hundreds of varieties of them it is very easy to find several that will do well for you no matter where you live.  Right now I am growing three little bushes of yellow crook neck.  However, the stars of my fall garden are the five varieties of winter squash that I am now growing.

A lovely little acorn squash that I grew vertically last year

A lovely little acorn squash that I grew vertically last year

Now I am going to make a bit of a confession.  I actually enjoy eating yellow squash and zucchini a lot more than I do winter squash.  However, winter squash gives me three things that the bushing types never will – 1) It is visually stunning when grown on structure 2) It is almost 100% immune to the squash vine borer and 3) I can decorate with the fruits.

Growing Vertically – Winter squash typically grow on vines – BIG VINES.  It is not uncommon for many varieties to produce vines that are 20 to 30 feet long.  Because of this, a lot of folks don’t grow them.  While there is no way to stop them from going big, you can control the sprawl by growing them up a structure.  I grow my winter squash on a 32’ length of cattle panels.  The large scale foliage of these plants cascading off of the structure makes my garden look lush and almost tropical.

I love the large scale foliage of winter squash

I love the large scale foliage of winter squash

I planted five varieties of winter squash (see image at bottom of post) on August 15.  I could have planted any time after the soil temperature was above 70 degrees.  If you plant when the soil is too cool, many squash seeds will actually rot in the ground before they get a chance to germinate.  Squash is also very tolerant of all types of soils.  It can grow in soils that are slightly acidic and soils that are slightly basic.

Since squash grow so well from seed, and many varieties mature in 50 to 60 days, you definitely do not want to waste your money on transplants.  Plant your seeds in a sunny location when night time temperatures are in the sixties.  Plant them about an inch deep in soil that has been well worked with compost.  Squash are heavy feeders and need good drainage to thrive.  Compost will provide both of these requirements to the plants.  Most squash plants sprout in 5 to 10 days.  Once the true leaves appear you can thin your plants to 36” for vining types.

A baby winter squash awaits it's flower's opening and pollination

A baby winter squash awaits it’s flower’s opening and pollination

Because squash are big, fast growing plants they require more water and nutrients than many other vegetables.  While 1” every five days may be sufficient in heavier soils, squash in sandy soils will require more.  Watch your plants.  It is normal for them to wilt a little on a very hot day.  However, if they are wilting heavily you may want to increase the frequency of your watering.  Also, since they use so much water, squash will definitely benefit from mulch.  Mulch with compost and it will help the soil retain more water, keep the roots of the plant cool or warm and feed it all at the same time.

As you can see from the pictures, winter squash produce stunning foliage.  Some of the leaves of my heirlooms are as large as elephant ears.  These large vines also produce lots of large yellow squash blossoms that really bring in the bees.

Squash Vine Borer – If you are going to grow squash you are going to have bugs.    I can deal with squash bugs.  While annoying, they don’t really set my plants back much.  However, no matter how hard I try, I just cannot beat the squash vine borer (SVB).

SVB damage on last year's winter squash.  Even though a SVB  obviously attacked the plant, it did not effect fruit production

SVB damage on last year’s winter squash. Even though a SVB obviously attacked the plant, it did not effect fruit production

Luckily, winter squash are almost immune to the effects of this horrible little pest.  Notice I said almost.  The SVB can devastate summer squash because it only has a few stems to produce leaves and fruit.  The ugly little caterpillar can borrow through these few stems and destroy the plants entire vascular system.  Winter squash, on the other hand, spread out and put down roots every place a node lies on the ground.  Because of this, even if the SVB caterpillar gets inside the base of the plant, it cannot destroy the entire vascular system.  All of those rooted nodes ensure that the plant can continue to thrive even if the base gets infested with the SVB.

If you grow vertically you will be limiting the number of nodes that root on the ground.  This can limit its SVB fighting power.  If you are really worried about the SVB I suggest letting one or two vines grow on the ground and then let the rest grow up over the structure.  Winter squash is designed by nature to grow over things.  They produce tendrils that are  long and strong.  Because of this it is very easy to get them to grow up and ove something.  If you just lay your vines on the structure for one night, the tendrils will take over.  After that there is no more need for help from you.

Beautiful Fruit – Even though I don’t really love eating winter squash, I do love looking at them. With the exception of the cushaw, most of the winter squash that I am familiar with produce very attractive fruits.  When you go to the store to buy “gourds” for your fall arrangements, there’s a good chance you won’t be buying gourds.  All of those textured, oddly shaped  red, orange, green and gold “gourds” are actually the fruits of several varieties of winter squash.  Without getting too botanical, know that if it is woody and hollow, it’s a gourd.  If it is solid and has some weight to it, it is a squash (or a pumpkin which is also a squash but that’s another post).  One of the most commonly used squash in fall arrangements is the Turk’s Turban.  I love this funny looking squash so I am currently growing three vines of it in the row garden.  I am also growing Lakota, Galeux d’ Eysines, Black Futsu and The Red Warty Thing (not making that up folks, that is its real name).

The five varieties of winter squash I am currently growing.

The five varieties of winter squash I am currently growing.

Another reason that these lovely squash make such good decorative objects is the fact that they store really well at room temperature.  This storage capacity is why people grew them before refrigeration.  If the skins and the stems of your squash are not damaged they should stay fresh and attractive in an arrangement for three or four months.  I plan to harvest mine toward the end of October.  They will then be used throughout the house until after Thanksgiving.  At that time, the Christmas decorations will go up and I will be free to eat all of these lovely squash that have served me so well.