Erika Jensen hangs her hoe in Waupun, Wis.

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Five Secrets for the Best Winter Squash
by Erika Jensen       #Advice   #Fall   #Vegetables

‘Tiptop PMR’ acorn squash yields five to seven squash on a semi-bush plant.



If you’re passionate about squash, you know the difference between great squash and mediocre squash. Great squash is sweet, with well-developed flavor and good texture. Mediocre squash is tasteless, watery and stringy. Sometimes it can be saved with butter and brown sugar, but ours often ends up in the compost pile.

It can be tricky to get good squash, since many varieties need 100 or more days to mature. Here are some secrets I’ve learned after 20 years of growing winter squash and pumpkins.


Here are a few varieties of squash I like to grow, with tips for each one. The letters in parentheses tells which merchants carry the seeds.


‘Metro PMR’ Butternut (105 days)
Metro is a smaller butternut type with good disease resistance. The flavor improves after a few weeks of storage, so save it for later. Harvest when the squash loses its green color around the stem and turns darker tan. (JSS)

1. Plant at the right time
Squash needs a full season to mature, so plant as soon as danger of frost is over. For an extra early start, plant squash in the greenhouse three weeks before the last frost date.

> ‘Metro PMR’ is a smaller butternut with powdery mildew resistance.

‘Delicata’ (95 days)
‘Delicata’ offers very sweet flesh with a tender skin. Eat these early in the fall since they may only keep a couple of months. There are a lot of companies offering this variety, but some of the lines have not been very well maintained. I purchase seed from High Mowing Seeds, which does a lot of very careful work with breeding. Harvest when the white has turned creamy and the green stripes have darkened. (JSS, HMS, FED)

‘Sunshine’ (95 days)
This is a kubocha type squash, which is bright red and exceptionally sweet. It’s not a heavy yielder, but it’s done well for me in most years. Cure the squash for a couple of weeks, then store for another month to fully develop the carbohydrates and flavors. Harvest when the stem becomes corky (with rough brown patches). For the sweetest squash, the stem should be at least 75 percent corky. (JSS, FED)


2. Treat them right
Abundant fertilizer, lots of water and protection from insects help get your plants off to a good start. In my garden, I use spun- poly row covers for the first month to protect against cucumber beetles and squash bugs.

‘Delicata’ can be eaten early in fall with little or no curing. • ‘Sunshine’ is an All-America Selections winner and is good for baking, mashing and pies. • ‘Sweet Dumpling’ is a smaller-sized squash with tender orange flesh.


‘Sweet Dumpling’ (100 days)
This round, striped green-and-cream squash weighs about one pound each and is perfect for small families or individuals. Plants yield eight to 10 squash. Look for the same ripeness indicators as with ‘Delicata’. (JSS, FED)


Here are a few varieties of edible pumpkins I like to grow, with tips for each one as well.

3. Pick When Ripe
This one’s a little tricky, since each variety has very specific signs to look for. Some tips are included in the next section. Watch your squash carefully as it grows, so you can see how each type changes as it matures. Since squash is tender, make sure you pick before the first hard frost.


‘Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato’ (90 days)
This acorn type is an outstanding heirloom variety from Missouri. The texture and sweetness are fantastic. Ripe squash will have a cream to golden skin color. (SH). Not shown here.

‘Tip Top PMR’ Acorn (92 days)
I didn’t like acorn squash until I met ‘Tip Top’. Its excellent sweet flavor and good texture made an acorn believer out of me. It has the added benefit of powdery mildew resistance, which is a must in my garden, where plants need to take care of themselves. For the best-tasting squash, I look for acorns that are a dark green-black with a ground spot that’s orange (not yellow.) (JSS)

‘Baby Pam’ (105 days)
This is my all-around favorite for pie pumpkins. Production averages four to five fruit per plant, and it’s a solid, dependable variety. Each one will make about one pie, or a couple of loaves of pumpkin bread. The sweetest pumpkins are a nice dark orange color. (HMS, FED). Not shown here.

4. ‘Cure’ Your Squash
Curing is a process of final ripening, which is completed after the squash is picked. Cure your squash at temperatures of 60 to 70 F for two to six weeks, depending on the variety. Members of the subgroup Cucurbita pepo (acorn types, ‘Delicata’, and ‘Sweet Dumpling’) often make the best eating early in the fall, while squash such as butternut should rest until the holidays to develop full flavor.

‘Long Island Cheese’ is an heirloom that looks like an old fashioned wheel of cheese. • ‘Kakai’ has hulless seeds that are great for snacking.

‘Long Island Cheese’ (108 days)
This one wins the longevity award from last year. It lasted until June with only a bit of softness on the bottom. It was also hardy enough to produce in one of the worst pumpkin years ever — 2012 — with little irrigation and lots of weed pressure. Ripe ones are a nice dark tan, like butternut squash. (JSS, HMS, FED)

‘Musque de Provence’ (125 days)
You may never go back to growing those brash orange pumpkins after trying this beautiful French heirloom. The deeply ribbed, fruits start out green and mature to a buff color. The large pumpkins are traditionally eaten fresh. (JSS, HMS)


5. Store them Right
Store squash at about 50 to 55 F with plenty of air circulation. A cool basement or porch would work well.

< ‘Musque de Provence’ is a French variety, also known as ‘Fairytale’.

‘Kakai’ (100 days)
These combine an attractive appearance (green and orange striped) with the added benefit of hulless seeds for easy snacking. They produce well and have a semi-bush habit. In September, look for pumpkins with well-developed color and mature seeds. (JSS, HMS)


Seed Source Codes -JSS Johnny’s Selected Seeds,; HMS High Mowing Seeds,; FED Fedco Seeds,; SHPC Sand Hill Preservation Center,


A version of this article appeared in a September/October 2013 Print Edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Johnny’s Selected Seeds/ and Hank Shiffman - Shiffman/.


Posted: 10/27/17   RSS | Print


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