By Paula Bertram
UCCE El Dorado County Master Gardener
Dear Readers, I have a confession: I’ve got a crush on winter squash (Cucurbita), hence forth “WS” in this article. All the warning signs are there: obsessive thumbing through catalogues for pictures and descriptions, daydreaming about WS — those hunky shapes, those amazing colors, talking to my friends about WS constantly, bringing them to parties where they’re not welcomed …
But believe me, there’s a lot to love about these bodacious members of the Cucurbita family. First of all, WS are easy to grow. The seeds are BIG and easy to handle, not like those persnickety lettuce and carrot seeds that blow away or get stuck to your thumb. No, you poke these big boys into the ground and they stay put! WS does like warm rich soil, and you can create this with a planting mound. Pile up your ordinary garden soil in a sunny spot and mix in some compost (or peat moss, or leaf mold or other soil amendments) to make the mixture fluffy. Add some organic or inorganic fertilizer for nitrogen. Mix this up thoroughly and form a roughly 4-foot-wide mound with a nice flat top. Voila: WS heaven! Water in your seeds and stand back! There are bush WS for the cautious.
WS plants get big, so make sure they’ve got 10 to 20 feet of space to crawl around without smothering the barbecue or small pets. The leaves are large and tropical-looking, the flowers prolific and bright, and the squash themselves come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Big red warty ones, little striped ones, grey/green groovy ones. There are the old faithfuls like Acorn (Cucurbita pepo) and Butternut (Cucurbita maxima). But who can resist flirting with tempting varieties that have names like “Speckled Hound,” “Turk’s Turban” or “Long Island Cheese”?
WS can be part of an edible landscaping scheme — they provided a background to perennial flowers at our place last year. Don’t worry, you can pick up the vines and re-direct them if they start to get rambunctious, sort of like managing a toddler. Or they can be grown up a strong fence or lattice. WS plays well with others, too. The classic “Three Sisters” of the South West Native American garden were squash, corn and beans. In this symbiotic relationship, the corn provides support for the climbing beans, the beans fix nitrogen to feed the squash and corn, and the squash covers the ground and shades out weeds.
And here’s the cool part: they keep, for months! Just as they are. No need for canning or freezing or drying. Pick them in the late summer or fall, when the outer shell is dry and resists your finger nail. Just leave them in a dry place until you’re ready to use. Large varieties of WS make super decorations for the porch, windowsill or table top. Go crazy: use them as bookends, boat ballast or door stops.
There are a few things to consider before you get involved with WS. They do need a fair amount of feeding and water to support their rampageous growth. Mulching heavily with straw, compost or leaves will help conserve water. Manure tea or other mid-season fertilizer is advisable. And there’s no such thing as a brief romance with WS — you’re in it for the long haul (or at least 90 to 100 days) until harvest.
Here’s my current favorite way to cook them. But first, a tip about peeling: the best way is to use a vegetable peeler on the whole fruit. Or, try cutting it in half and microwave briefly; the shell will soften enough to peel more easily. OK, back to the recipe. Remove seeds and pulpy stuff in cavity. Cut flesh into cubes. Toss with olive oil. Sprinkle with some sea salt. Roast in 400 degree oven until soft and browned, around 20 to 30 minutes.
Master Gardeners are available to answer home gardening questions Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon, by calling (530) 621-5512. Walk-ins are welcome at our office, 311 Fair Lane in Placerville. Master Gardeners will also be available at the El Dorado Hills Farmers Markets in Town Center, Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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