When fall comes, thoughts turn to harvesting winter squash, often described as a comfort food.

Squash belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, and consists of two main groups, summer squash and winter squash. Summer squash varieties include zucchini, yellow crock neck, scallop squash or patepan squash. There are many types of winter squash including butternut, butternut, hubbard, buttercup, and spaghetti squash. Unlike summer squash, winter squash is eaten after it reaches the mature fruit stage when the rind becomes thick and hardened. It stores well without refrigeration and each vine will produce 10 to 20 pumpkins if properly maintained.

Butternut squash (C. mochata) is one of the most popular types of winter squash. Weighing 4 to 7 pounds, it is a good size for small families. Their shape and small seed cavity also mean they take up less storage space than large, hollow pumpkins.

According to Dorothy Leggett, the pumpkin was originally bred in the 1940s by her late husband, Charles, who named it butternut because it was “soft as butter and sweet as walnut.” Later, her husband gave some seeds to researchers at the Waltham Experimental Field Station in Massachusetts, which resulted in the production of a very popular variety, the Waltham Butternut.

Plant butternut squash when all danger of frost has passed and the soil is well warmed by the sun, about 60-65 degrees. Do not rush to plant as the seeds will only germinate in warm soil. Seedlings are very tender and will not tolerate the slightest frost.

You can also start your seeds indoors to give them a head start. Seeds should be sown six weeks before the last spring frost date. Sow in good soil in a sunny window or greenhouse and transplant into the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Remember to harden off seedlings before transplanting.

If you are sowing seeds directly into the hill, place five or six seeds in each hill about 4 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Keep the soil moist, but not saturated. In about 10 days the seeds will sprout.

When they are about 6 inches high, thin out the weakest ones, leaving 2-3 plants per hill. It is important to mound the soil into a mound about 18 inches high. This allows the soil to warm around the seeds and roots. Your soil should be well amended and well fertilized since squash plants are heavy feeders and grow well in soil that is high in organic matter.

Squash are heavy feeders so be sure to fertilize them regularly. Regular feeding will produce the most abundant crops. When flowers are produced, bees provide pollination from the male flower to the female flower.

The growing season for butternut squash takes about 110-120 days to maturity. Vines can grow up to 15 feet high and take up a lot of space in a home garden, so it’s best to plant them at least 6-8 feet apart or provide a trellis for the vines to climb. Make sure to remove all weeds from the soil around the plant and it is best to place mulch over the hill and around the plant to retain moisture. Do not plant too deep because the roots are shallow. It’s also important to keep squash away from bare soil; Examples include placing a piece of wood underneath or placing a large layer of mulch such as grass clippings on the soil.

It is important to avoid pests, for example, the squash vine borer. They look like white larvae that are about an inch long. Squash bugs should also be removed; They are gray-brown in color and 3/4 inch long. Both can be picked from the vines and then discarded. Another helpful tip is to rotate your squash crops to a different area each year to avoid pests.

Harvest pumpkins as late as possible in the fall. Pumpkins can tolerate a light frost, which helps convert starch into sugar. If picked immature, they are often watery and have a poor flavour.

Your squash will be ready to harvest when the vines begin to die, and the skin becomes tough and difficult to puncture with your thumb. Harvest it by cutting about 2-3 inches from the vine and store it in a cool, dry area. They often last up to five months.

It is best to cut the squash in half, and remove the seeds; Butter can be added to the middle and baked until the meat is tender and dark orange in color. They are a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, in addition to being high in potassium, niacin, beta-carotene, and iron. Of course, they have great flavor, especially when grown at home from your own garden.

If you have any gardening questions, call the Master Gardener Clinic at 509-574-1604 or email Gardener@co.yakima.wa.us.

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