Squash Surprise!

Short version:

Squashes (Cucurbitaceae Cucurbita) need fertile soil and lots of water, but a smaller variety, like ‘Pumpkin Munchkin’ can be trained up a trellis or the medium sized ones can be grown over structures like fences or walls for an abundant crop with a small footprint. They are easy to grow, and the large seeds and the bright fruit are fun for kids. There are many varieties in the same species meaning cross pollination gives potluck seeds. Grow these for a squash surprise! (disclaimer: not necessarily a good surprise  \(o~o)/ )

There is a plethora of different types of squash. They’re all under the family ‘Cucurbitaceae’. This includes courgettes and pumpkins and cucumber and melons. They are technically fruits as they develop from the ovary and contain the seeds. These fruits all have the similar jagged edged palmate leaves. They mostly grow on vines, cling with tendrils and can grow many fruit. Even a ‘bushy’ courgette grows on an incredibly short vine if you look at the plant by the end of the season. Courgettes are just squashes that are picked young and unripe. If left to mature and ripen the courgette will grow to become a marrow that is no longer recognisable as a courgette.

Under the genus Cucurbita (this is the sub group of Cucurbitaceae that have higher nutritional value and doesn’t include the cucumbers or melons) there are many species, but the ones that I’ve grown fall under these 3:

Cucurbita pepo – courgettes, patty pan, spaghetti squash, pumpkin (pumpkin is a broad term and is often used for some of the varieties in maxima also)

Cucurbita moschata – tromboncino, butternut squash,

Cucurbita maxima – Turks turban, hubbard, red kuri

All the varieties within the same species can pollinate each other. This means you can provide a pollination partner without having to grow 2 of the same variety if you are lacking in space. Squashes favour cross pollination. They grow female flowers and male flowers which often will not open at the same time on the same plant. This is often why you might find yourself with lots of courgette flowers but barely any courgettes. You can hand pollinate with a paintbrush or by picking a male flower, removing the petals and brushing the pollen laden stamens onto the stigma. The cross pollination will not affect the type of squash you are growing. The tricky bit is when saving seed from a squash. E.g. if you grow a ‘Turks turban’ near a ‘hubbard’, then you take the seeds from the ‘Turks turban’ – the plant you grow from that seed may not produce ‘Turks turbans’. You can read more about this in ‘Pollination, fertilisation and variation’.

The following is a perfect example… not of how to grow squash… but how a squash can be a total surprise!

I never sowed this. Not intentionally anyway. I built this new bed in January 2019 with reused bricks. Because my soil is very heavy clay, I incorporated lots of organic matter. This was a hole about 40 cm deep. I filled it with the kitchen scraps and shredded cardboard for about 2 months. I had a sheet of cardboard on top to protect it from critters and would just lift the cardboard and chuck stuff in (see ‘Hole composting’). After I had planted some purple tree collard, wild cabbage (2 perennial brassicas) and some Egyptian Walking onions, a few squash plants started to grow in this corner. I knew that what grew might not grow too well in our climes or be tasty, but I thinned to the strongest plant to see what would happen. This is what grew. I still have no idea what it is. It did at least prove (if you can call one example proof), the theory that I knew: that seeds from fruit do not necessarily produce a plant that grows the same fruit. We had never eaten anything like this squash. Because it grew fine in our garden, I suspect it was one of our other squashes grown the year previously having cross pollinated with something else in the neighbourhood. If you save seed from something that has grown in your garden before, chances are it would be something that grows well in your area. If it came from a shop bought squash grown abroad it may not grow well in the British weather. I still don’t know what this is… so if anyone can enlighten me, I’d be ever so grateful. It was really tasty, and I’d like to grow them again. I have of course saved the seed, but what grows from that would be anyone’s guess!

Generally, squashes are also split into two types for use:

Summer squash – when the fruits are picked immature, usually in the summer (hence the name). This would include courgettes (or zucchini if you live across the pond) and patty pan squashes, which look nothing like courgettes, but taste similar. If you pick tromboncino when young they can be used as a summer squash.

Winter squash – are picked when the fruits are fully ripe. The skin becomes harder and they can be left to ‘cure.’ This means leaving them around 2 weeks in a warm, dry place to allow the skin to harden further for longer term storage. The curing can also make the squash sweeter. These include butternut squash, pumpkins, Turks turban, acorn… basically all the ones with hard skins that are OK left out of the fridge for months to be a source of food over winter.

How to grow

Due to the large variation in squashes, look at individual seed packets for different sowing times. We sowed Tromboncino in March. Then spaghetti squash wasn’t sown till a few months later.

All squash need full sun, plenty of water and lots of fertile soil. If growing in pots they need to be very very very… did I mention VERY?…. large to hold the water and nutrients.

Prepare a sunny spot by adding lots of well-rotted manure or compost if you have that available. I don’t. So instead I practise lots of ‘hole composting’ in the chosen spot. In the winter months I dig holes in the local area and throw in my kitchen waste. I stop around February to give the waste plenty of time to decompose.

I prefer to sow my seeds on a windowsill in large-ish individual pots made of recycling materials. I try to start them as early as possible to give them the longest growing season, but not too early as to have them festering in the pot indoors as it’s too cold to plant outside. Ha! Very vague and unhelpful! Basically, follow the instructions that come with your seeds, but if they say sow March to end of April, I would try and sow as early as possible in March. I then try and keep the plants indoors for as long as the pot has the space. Harden off by placing the pot outdoors during the day for a few days. Plant out in the pre-prepared space then water immediately to help the roots and soil settle.

Keep the plants well-watered in warm weather. Having  grown squashes for about 12 years the only thing that seems to be a problem (and has been a problem every year) is powdery mildew. This will often be in the hotter weather and is affected by high humidity. This can be controlled by watering the soil rather than the leaves (so a dripper system is good for this) and giving the plants plenty of space (my rather tightly packed garden is probably why I always have a problem) so that air can circulate. If you do spot signs of powdery mildew, remove the affected leaves and then spray both sides of all the leaves with a mixture of water with half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda, half a teaspoon of cooking oil and a few drops of washing up liquid. This has often worked for us in the past for long enough to let the last of the fruit mature.

Choosing squashes for different spaces

Courgettes

We’ve grown lots of these in the past but in our most recent home we’ve replaced them with tromboncinos. Courgettes are summer squashes. If you leave them too long, they turn into marrows which are much waterier and more tasteless. We’ve grown yellow ones and round ones for something more interesting. We have also grown patty pan ones, but this is going back about 5 years and I couldn’t find any photos.

Tromboncino

We began growing these as substitutes for courgettes as they taste quite like courgettes but vine so that we could have a smaller footprint. They basically take up about half of the soil space that courgettes do and utilise the space above instead. They do well trained over fences and walls. Because they’re treated as summer squashes they don’t have to spend a long time on the vine so just hanging around for a few weeks before picking is OK without support. Because they are the same species as butternut squash we’ve left some to mature too. They grow ginormous! Their skin does harden (so needs peeling) and the flesh inside becomes yellow and tastes quite a lot like butternut. We haven’t tried curing them yet. The vines grow very long so can be started where there is less sun and trained into areas of more sun. For pollination I grew 2 plants this year as the butternut squash last year wasn’t particularly successful. For more info see ‘Tromboncinos‘.

Hubbard

This squash was not something I intended to grow. I sowed a spaghetti squash. It was to have all this space over the bike shed to ramble. And the bike shed was going to support any heavy fruit. This is not spaghetti squash. Just in case it was just a funny shaped one I picked one at the same time as you would pick spaghetti squash, i.e. before the skin goes too yellow. It was nothing like a spaghetti squash. We were sad because my little one loves the spaghetti like insides. Instead it was something that was starting to taste like pumpkin. I let the next one mature and it was a delicious, creamy, pumpkin that was like the red kuri squashes I grew but a bit sweeter. The vine is fairly vigorous and produced 4 squashes. Luckily in the same area of the garden there was a Turks turban and a red kuri. This shows that even seed suppliers can get it wrong. I swear it couldn’t have been me mixing up my seeds as I had never seen this squash until it grew. It turned out to be a fortunate accident. They have very large tasty fruit. Luckily this bike shed was able to support it.

Spaghetti squash

These were the rest of the packet that did grow as expected. Spaghetti squash is just really fun as spaghetti squash. Cutting in circular cross sections give you longer spaghetti like strands. When cut lengthways you cut those strands up. It’s fun to unravel the strands after roasting. They can grow up to a foot long and about half of that wide. We’ve found these can be trained up a trellis, but the fruit needs some extra support. We don’t tend to cure these and pick them for eating straight away like summer squashes so these taste more like courgette.

Pumpkin munchkin

The pumpkin munchkin was grown because I knew I wouldn’t have space to let any pumpkins ramble. This spot is really sunny once you get above the shade of the fence, so these had to grow vertically. The pumpkins are around the size of a fist, so these were perfect to train up a support. They grew really well due to the hole composting in that spot in the winter before planting. Each plant gave about 10 pumpkins. They were really cute baked whole – either as a savoury or sweet pumpkin. For a sweet pumpkin the space inside was filled with cream, cinnamon, nutmeg and a whole load of sugar. They were nice enough and fun for the little one. They tasted fine but not what I would call amazing.

Turks turban

The Turks turban is very cool to look at but it was a pain in the backside to peel and made a very watery curry. The flesh was more courgette like and less pumpkiny. The squash is quite large and needs something solid to rest on.

Red Kuri

Chosen for its small size and taste to grow over an arch. It never quite made it over the arch but the vine this year did produce 3 lovely tasting squashes. They are rich, creamy and taste quite like chestnuts. The vine is nowhere near as vigorous as the tromboncino, hubbard or pumpkin munchkin.  

Cooking and eating squashes

Generally, for ease we peel, deseed, chop into chunks and roast in oil with a pinch of salt. This works for all of the squashes. Some will be more watery than others and taste of the squashes can vary, not only with variety, but with ripeness and growing conditions.

The rich creamy pumpkins like red kuri and Hubbard and the unknown squash make great soup, sauces and curries or roasted as a side dish. A squash soup with stock, lemon grass, basil (Thai basil if you have it – which grows really well outdoors here) and coconut milk is great for making in a huge batch and freezing.

The pumpkin munchkins are great roasted or baked with a variety of stuffings in the hollow where the seeds were.

The Turks turban and spagetti squash work well as vegetable side dishes.

Tromboncino, like courgettes can be boiled, fried or roasted when immature. They’re fantastic roasted or sautéed when more mature.

Next year I think we’ll stick to tromboncinos, spaghetti squash (it’s one of the best ways to get vegetables into my little monkey), hubbard or red kuri (depending on how sturdy the support is going to be) and we’ll try the seeds from the surprise squash. I’m a little excited already. Yes… I know… tragic!

2 thoughts on “Squash Surprise!

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