Cucurbits, the family of plants that includes cucumbers, squashes, gourds, pumpkins and watermelons, offers an amazing variety of fruits, flavors and uses, but they need deeply fertilized soil and a lot of water to do so. Winter squashes need to be planted in early summer; that’s why folklore suggests planting your pumpkins for Halloween on the Fourth of July.
Healthy plants are better able to fight off insects and disease, so they need a good start. It’s recommended to fertilize before planting by mixing in plenty of compost and appropriate fertilizer. Always check the soil’s pH (pH tests can be found at any nursery or garden center) and consider what elements both your soil and your plants need. If you’re not sure what’s going on with the numbers on the front of a fertilizer bag, P-N-K stands for phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. Cucurbits do best with high phosphorus and lower nitrogen levels, and they also want a good bit of potassium. However, this is relative to your specific soil, so check with your local nursery about the right mix for your garden.
Baby squash plants must be kept weed-free, but uprooting deep weeds can harm the root system of the squash, so pull the weeds when they’re new and weak. The broad leaves of the squash will eventually shade out weed growth. Also, because the squash have very tender root systems, it’s best to sow them directly in well-fertilized soil with ample sunshine rather than transplanting. If using transplants, though, self-sow in peat pots or cow pots, but keep them moist at all times. Start the seeds in these pots under grow lights three to four weeks before your planting schedule. Plenty of gardeners often simply sow seeds in the compost pile, where the plants are practically guaranteed enough nutrition.
Choose plant varieties naturally resistant to your worst garden foes. For example, a northern seed accustomed to lower temperatures and regular rainfall simply isn’t as likely to succeed in our climate as one bred for generations in a clime similar to our own. One of the best ways to avoid pests of the cucurbit and squash world is simply to plant for a late harvest, avoiding the growth cycle of the pests entirely. Most cucumber beetles and squash beetles wreak havoc earlier in the spring season, so planting a crop of winter squash in early summer avoids some of these problems. It’s still wise to consider a floating row cover or crop tunnel for your squash: These are long fabric strips that enclose a row of squash plants and protect against pests; you just need to allow pollination to take place. There are two ways to allow pollination in spite of crop covers, either by hand or by rolling up the sides of the cloth-covered hoop or tunnel after the early morning pest frolic.
If pollinating by hand, check whether the plants are female or male by looking for the presence of a fruit underneath the flower (female) or the straight male stem. Use a paintbrush to transfer male pollen from the stamen of a male flower to the calyx of a female flower, or strip the petals off a male flower, leaving the stamen intact, and use that to hand-pollinate two or three female blossoms. Gently press the flower petals closed afterwards if you want to guarantee the seeds aren’t crossbred between squash varieties for the next season.
If you’d rather just plant some seeds and let nature do what it will, there are a number of regionally sensible varieties of winter squashes to plant. All are heirloom varieties, so they’re indeterminate (meaning they’ll grow, and grow and grow), and probably won’t produce as much fruit, but they have an amazing heritage—frequently passed down through communities or families for generations—and are often considered tastier than hybrid varieties. If you’re growing on a patio or have limited space, there are hybridized dwarf plants that can be grown in containers, trellised in lovely displays or otherwise kept tidy.
As far as harvesting goes, wait until the rind is hardened on the squash and the vine has died or shriveled and turned brown. The part of the fruit that touches the ground will turn creamy-orange, as opposed to green and yellow. The fruits want to harden outside, or “cure,” for a few days (except in the case of rain.) Afterwards, keep them inside in a cool, dry space. Pumpkins and winter squash can keep anywhere from three months to a year, depending on variety and storage.
Last word of advice: Don’t let the weird-looking warty gourds scare you away from culinary endeavors. When preparing these heirloom squash in chunks for roasting, cut them in half one way or the other, place them cut-side down and peel with the peeler or knife facing away from you. Then cut into chunks according to your recipe or desired size. Or, roast by cutting in half, scooping out the seeds and baking, cut-side down, for 40 to 60 minutes at 400 degrees. The skin should slide off easily once it has cooled. Squash are excellent savory or sweet, stuffed or sliced, baked or pureed, broiled or sautéed. Enjoy!
Central Texas/Zone 8 Squash Varieties
Tahitian Melon Squash: Much like a gigantic butternut, this squash grows well in the hot summer. It has extremely sweet flesh, one of the highest sugar contents in all cucurbits.
Thai Rai Kaw Tok: Known to be a pest-resistant variety, it grows well in the heat and keeps very well after harvest. It has a lovely dark-green rind with lighter flecking.
Seminole Pumpkin: Named for the native tribes of the Everglades where it was discovered by Spanish conquistadors, this squash will require more water than some varieties. It is heat-, disease- and pest-resistant.
Cushaw White: Also known as “Jonathan Pumpkin,” this is a lovely white pumpkin shaped something like a butternut. It gives large numbers of fruit, and is also resistant to borers.
Hopi Pale Grey: Originally from the Hopi tribes of the Southwest, this squash is a good option for our heat. It’s shaped like a football and is an attractive pale grayish-green color.
Mongogo du Guatemala: This Guatemalan heirloom variety grows gorgeous rounded little fruits, and is shaped like a traditional pumpkin but striped in shades of green. It can be harvested as a summer or winter type.
By Sarah J. Nielsen • Photography by Carole Topalian