A harvest that lasts all season Versatile: Nutritional heavyweights that keep well without refrigeration, winter squash are as good to look at as they are to eat.

October 18, 1998|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Winter squash are the emblems of fall: cream-colored Sweet Dumpling, striated with hunter-green lines; knobbly Hubbard, powdery blue and flecked with buff-colored nodes; two-toned, turban-shaped buttercup; and Lakota, a bright orange-and-green Native American heirloom.

Gathered in artful array, they make beautiful decorations. More important, they are a great source of beta carotene and vitamins. What distinguishes winter squash from summer squash is their low moisture content, which translates into a spectacular ability to keep and retain their nutritional value. Though they are classified as winter squash, partly because that's when they're used for pies, soups, stir-fries, breads and all the luscious things that winter cooking brings, they do their growing in hot weather.

Cultivation

Before you plant, plan for their growth habit, which is unruly. When left to their own devices, winter squash vine and twine all over the garden unless you train them along fences or trellises or relegate them to their own patch. To train them, tie vines to supports with soft cloth strips. You may need to make cloth slings for the maturing fruits, although I've had 10-pound blue Hubbard hang off the vine unassisted. Plant winter squash from seed in late spring or early summer after the ground is thoroughly warmed. (You can speed warming by covering the area with black plastic.) Plant rows 2-3 feet apart, or hills of one or two plants (the best specimens culled from 4-5 seeds sown) 4-5 feet apart. Winter squash are very heavy feeders. Dig in manure or compost, about 1 cup per seed. To keep them growing well, fertilize several times over the summer and water regularly.

Leandre and Gretchen Poisson, authors of "Solar Gardening" (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1994), recommend taking off all blossoms and immature fruits about a month before the first expected frost date so the plant can put all its energy into maturing the fruits it has. Let winter squash cure (dry out and harden their rinds) on the vine.

"When the stem is brown and hard, it's ready to harvest," says Joseph Towner of Chestertown, whose organic farm has recently been certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "And don't let them freeze, or it will [adversely] affect their keeping ability." Store in a cool porch or garage.

Choosing varieties

There are over 85 varieties of winter squash, not counting the 50 or so varieties of pumpkins, which makes narrowing it down to three or four kinds difficult. When making your choices, consider use.

"Butternut is the most popular," says Towner. "It makes great pies and soups. Then there's buttercup, which is a little sweeter. They're consistent growers and they keep well."

Towner also grows red Kuri, a teardrop-shaped red baby Hubbard, which, like its blue cousin, makes superb muffins, breads and pies. Spaghetti squash, so-called because its interior separates into a bowlful of angel-hair strands, can be substituted for pasta and topped with any sauce you concoct. Sweet dumpling makes a lovely side dish for a roast when seeded, filled with spiced apricots, orange zest, walnuts and cranberries and slow-baked.

Consider also their visual effect. Winter squash, which are going to be hanging around for months, make a beautiful autumn and winter display on a porch, on the sideboard at Thanksgiving, or in an entryway.

Pumpkin, which has been cultivated in this hemisphere for 9,000 years, should be at least one of your winter squash choices. There are some interesting novelty varieties, including Jack-be-little, the miniatures that are beautiful decoration and delicious custard bakers; Baby Boo, a white miniature (both available from Gurney Seeds); Dill's

Atlantic Giant, which can weigh several hundred pounds after 120 days (and lots of extra feeding); and Lumina, a blue-white pumpkin perfect for jack-o'-lanterns (available from Henry Field's). Tina James, garden writer and lecturer, grows monogrammed pumpkins. With an awl, she scratches the name of a young friend on the side of a half-grown pumpkin. By harvest, the scratch has scabbed over, and the child has his or her own personalized gift from the garden fairies.

SOURCES:

Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co.; 110 Capital St., Yankton, S.D. 57079; 605-665-1930; fax: 605-665-9718.

Henry Field's Seed and Nursery Co.; 415 N. Burnett, Shenandoah, Iowa 51602; 605-665-9391; fax: 605-665-2601

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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