When I was a little baby, I have been told, I loved winter squash so much that it was fed to me so often that I got sick of it, and then I refused it for the next 25 years – “The Lost Years”. Then when we moved to Vermont and started working on farms, it was winter squash this, and winter squash that, blah blah blah winter squash. Quite frankly, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But, because as adults we have to try new things, I vowed to give them a try in the fall. Turns out they were pretty tasty. It was the Delicata that brought me back into the Fold of the Lovers, but now I like them all, and look forward to them all summer.
We end up spending a lot of real estate on squash, and although the return isn’t as high as some other crops, the labor that we spend on them is less over the course of the season. We use plastic mulch to hold down weeds and give our soils a little more heat. All of our squashes are transplanted, and the same day that we plant them we cover them with a light weight remay. We don’t use hoops, as the upright leaves keep the fabric off the growth center of the plants. The remay does a few things. It keeps the wind off them, which helps them to find their legs, but more importantly it keeps striped cucumber beetle away. This beetle transmits a wilt, but can also destroy a young planting just by feeding on the leaves. We leave the remay on for a few weeks, until we see some flowers; typically the males are produced first to bring in the pollinators. We have also taken to purchasing a small hive of bumble bees to aid with pollination. A female squash blossom is only open for one day, and if the honey bees aren’t flying, you don’t get a second chance. Bumble bees are a lot more rugged, and will leave the hive when the others stay home.
I grow a fair amount of winter squash on our farm, and the quality of the fruits has a lot to do with what happens in the fall. Harvest them too soon, and the flavor won’t be there, wait too long and you can lose storage potential. In Vermont, we are looking at the patch with an eye towards harvest beginning in August. Typically the pepos, such as the acorns and delicatas, are good indicators; they set earlier in the season and are some of the first to be ready. When they are ripe, there is an orange spot where they are in contact with the ground. It’s important to be careful when you rotate the squash so they don’t separate from the plant. The final days on the plant are important; all the last remnants of goodness are being sent to the fruits to mature the seeds. I cut them from the vine close to the fruit, and am careful with them from this point on; I don’t want to pierce neighboring fruits. The maximas: kuris, buttercups, and hubbards, also have the color contrast on the ground spot, but sometimes it can be subtle. The hubbards, for example, have a lighter grey spot. The place to pay close attention to is the peduncle. It’s not really a stem; let peduncle be your word of the day! There will be a change from green and fleshy to more corky and dried. It’s important again to give the plant the opportunity to get everything it can to the fruit. I cut them close to the fruit at harvest.
As the summer draws to a close, I am also on the lookout for sunscald, which looks like a bleaching of the fruit; the intense late summer sun and decreasing vigor of the plants’ canopy make this more of a problem for the pepos, but I have seen it in all of the varieties on occasion. There comes a point when there is little to be gained by leaving the fruits in the field. I try to bring them in before it gets too cold at night, and I also like to bring them in dry. There are plenty of diseases that use surface moisture to get a hold, and I want to avoid all of them. I make a point of inspecting the fruits as we harvest them, and if I see a problem on a squash, it doesn’t come in with the others. I bring them out of the field for the hens if it’s really bad.
We harvest directly into bulk bins in the field and then bring them into the greenhouse to cure for a week or two; the curing process sweetens the squash and helps the skin to set. We use our greenhouse because it’s convenient and warm; if we have to we can light the boiler and heat it at night. I am mindful of the temperature, and I open the greenhouse if it gets too hot. Later into the fall, we are heating to control moisture. If the squash gets cold, when the greenhouse heats up in the light of day, water can and will condense on the fruit, which will lead to a premature rot. Once the economics of heating the greenhouse wane, we move the squash into another storage setting; dry and 50 is ideal. I also take the time to space them out a little bit; good air circulation is the key to storage.
Invariably, our squash starts to show some softness later into the season. We are mindful of their condition, and just process them when they start to turn. There’s never a bad time for pie, after all.