Determining the exact moment to harvest the winter squash can be a little tricky. They want to grow and ripen for as long as possible, but gloomy weather, especially with the onset of autumn rains, is not good for them. Placing a tile or something similar between the squash and the soil to prevent them becoming too wet and rots setting in can help, although our soil is not very prone to being waterlogged. One also needs to keep a close eye on the weather forecast, just in case of an early frost. The sunny days of early autumn certainly seem to have turned to wet and cold, so it was time to gather them in, before the next round of rains.
We have been watching the squash over the past few weeks, but every time we thought of bringing them in, a few more days of sunny weather were forecast. Now, with poor weather settled in, they were not really benefitting from being left there. From autumn onwards, it is worth checking on the ripening squash and making sure they are exposed to whatever sunny weather comes along, cutting back excessive growth of the vines if needed. Our vines had naturally started to deteriorate so were not shading the ripening fruits.
Squash should be harvested with some care, to prevent damage to their skins. They should be cut from the vine, leaving their stalks intact, and should not be lifted by the stalks, as damage to the stalk area can be detrimental to storage properties. After harvesting, to ensure that they can be stored successfully, it is best to bring them into a warm, dry place for a couple of weeks to allow the skins to cure. They can then be stored in a cool, but frost free place. Depending on how well ripened they are, and the variety, they can last in storage for months.
Winter squash are one of my favourite crops; they are delicious and versatile, and one large squash can form the basis of numerous meals. They need plenty of space to grow, and a rich, fertile soil to develop well, but they are generally trouble free once they get going, cover the ground well, keeping weeds at bay, and can generally be left to their own devices.
Results were a bit variable this year. We grew six different varieties: Waltham Butternut, Sweet Dumpling, Crown Prince, Uchiki Kuri, Musquee de Provence, and Marina di Chioggia. The Waltham Butternut plants started as the weakest, but later developed some great fruit. Sweet Dumpling produced a good quantity of small, attractive fruits. We have eaten a few already, and they are as delicious as ever, with a rich, dense, nutty flesh. From one packet of Uchiki Kuri seeds, only one germinated, and then only after I had given up on it. That one plant only produced two small fruits. This is a new variety for us, and I suspect we had a bad batch of seed, but at least we have something to taste and decide whether they are worth trying again next year.
Crown Prince – one of only a few hybrids that I grow – did not fare quite so well as last year. The fruits are not so large, nor appear to be of quite such good quality. I expect we will still be enjoying them, though, as this variety does produce very tasty, sweet, dense flesh that is much like a butternut squash. Musquee de Provence produced fewer fruits than expected, but several of good size. This sort can produce a rather impractically large fruit that will fill the refrigerator for a week. Based on our experience last year, the flesh is neither so dense, nor quite so flavoursome, as either Crown Prince or Waltham Butternut, but still useful when prepared appropriately. Marina di Chioggia, which was another new variety for us this year, produced few fruits and of smaller size than expected.
Overall, the harvest is reasonable, but could be better. Of course, we still have a huge pile of squash, as I plant a fairly large area with them, so we will not be going short. The Waltham Butternut and Sweet Dumpling are likely to remain on the planting list for the foreseeable future. I would like to find a replacement for Crown Prince; although this can produce a very good fruit, I would prefer to grow a traditional open pollinated sort and will try a couple of new varieties next year in an attempt to find a suitable replacement. Buttercup is one sort that I have in mind to try. The other varieties I will reserve judgement on until we have tasted them. Whilst cropping is important, as I grow more than enough for our needs, I can afford to select on their storage and culinary properties, or simply because I find an heirloom variety interesting.