Most of you are aware of the existence of both winter and summer squash, but we continue to get questions asking us what the major differences are. The questions range from “how to grow” to “how to cook” to “how do you tell the difference?” We will attempt to answer the most common questions here, and if you find that you have more questions after you’ve read this article, please feel free to Ask Our Master Gardener.
The most simple explanation of the main differences between summer and winter squash is that summer squash bears fruit best eaten when it is immature and the skin is tender. Winter squash takes longer to mature with the skin being more rigid and tough, making winter squash the ideal “baking” or “stuffing” squash. Winter squash, such as Hubbard, acorn or butternut requires a longer growing season, typically between 80 and 120 days, while summer squash, such as yellow crook neck, zucchini or patty pan requires one third to one half of that time.
Gardeners in the northern climes of the U.S. may not have a growing season long enough to grow winter squash to maturity; they must stay on the vine to ripen. If this is your situation and you just have to have some winter squash, you can try germinating the squash seeds indoors in order to give you a jump start on the season and then babying, “really babying”, the transplants. Most recommendations call for planting squash directly into the ground, but…if you HAVE to have it…it is worth a try. We also have a few varieties of squash seedlings that will save you the time and expense of germinating your own. You will have to monitor the moisture level carefully, as squash will wilt with the smallest hint of drought, so we suggest mulching to retain moisture as well as to inhibit weed growth that can choke young seedlings. Once they have started spreading and are well- established, you can relax your vigil and be proud of your success.
Summer squash must be eaten or processed fairly quickly, lending itself well to inclusion in breads or soups, as well as freezing, frying, sautéing and steaming. Winter squash, on the other hand, can often be stored for months in the right conditions and can also be pureed for soups, but is most often served baked, cubed or sautéed with fall spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The experts recommend storing winter squash in warm household temperatures for about 10 days and then moving to a cool, dim place, like a garage or basement, where the temperature ranges between 40 and 50 degrees. You can freeze winter squash once it is cooked, even if it is pureed, for use later in pies and soups.
But, how do you grow each of these varieties? Squash requires room to grow, so we suggest you are sure of the varieties you want to grow. Visit your farmer’s market or your grocery store and try them. Ask your friends and family what their favorites are, and then grow only what you know you will eat, unless, of course, you sell your harvest at the local farmer’s market or will be freezing it for use later.
The process is basically the same for winter or summer squash. Both winter and summer squash like warm soil, lots of sun and prefer loamy, well-drained soil that is rich in compost or fed with a fertilizer that is not too high in nitrogen. Nitrogen will encourage leaf growth, sending those vines scurrying near and far, instead of concentrating the energy on the fruiting process. Of course, composting at home is the most economical and eco-friendly way to fertilize your vegetable plants, but for those of you who haven’t gotten “around to it” or who don’t have the room for your own composting set up, there are a number of fertilizers, such as Neptune’s Harvest, that are organically approved and will serve to provide nutrition to your plants while amending your soil, resulting in a better and healthier harvest. If you are short on space, you can train the vines to climb a trellis or support, even from a container, though container plantings will require more vigilance on your part when it comes to moisture and nutrients.
Pests are not normally a big problem, but for those of you in areas where the vine or squash borer is a springtime problem, we suggest you cover your young squash plants with row covers, uncovering them as they start to set blossoms; bees and butterflies are needed to pollinate the flowers in order for fruit to grow. At this point, the vines are also often thick enough and sturdy enough to thwart the efforts of even the most voracious pests. Check regularly under the leaves for eggs that have been laid and remove them. They are usually colored from white to amber and will be quite recognizable, being laid in sizable colonies. We don’t recommend using chemical pesticides, but instead suggest you rely upon those proven organic methods that are safer for your pets and your family.
Keep track of the number of days from planting, that being the most reliable indicator of when your summer or winter squash harvest will be ready. Summer squash should be harvested when no larger than 6-inches long or wide, this being when they are at their most tender and flavorful. Harvesting at this size will ensure the skin will not become thick and hard or the flesh bitter. Winter squash are best when fully mature, so should be harvested at the end of the growing season. The fruit should feel solid and sound slightly hollow when you thump or tap it.
We hope we’ve answered most of your questions. Watching squash grow is satisfying, the plants are amazingly vigorous and the resulting harvest is always colorful and incredibly delicious.