If you’re gardening to raise as much food for your household as possible, winter squash should be near the top of your planting list. Heaps of winter squash varieties are nutritious and easy to store, but which will grow best in your region? And how should you deal with pest challenges?
To give you the scoop on squash, we surveyed a few hundred readers and Facebook fans, and we touched base with organic farmers around the country who are big into this crop. Respondents offered up their six favorite winter squash types, listed here in order of popularity. You’ll also find cooking advice and preferred varieties. Warning: You may want to try them all! Use our Seed and Plant Finder to locate seeds for these top winter squash varieties.
You can grow all types of winter squash in hills or in rows. Most varieties produce on large, sprawling vines. The easiest cultivation method is to create planting hills along the edges of your garden, and then to enrich the hills with plenty of compost or manure. Encourage the vines to run outside the garden to save space and prevent overcrowding. If possible, grow at least three plants of the same squash species to achieve the best pollination. In cool climates, you can mulch the plants with black plastic to warm the soil. Start plants indoors to gain growing time for late-maturing varieties. After harvest, cure winter squash by brushing off the dirt and allowing the fruits to rest for two weeks in a dry place where temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Store cured fruits in a cool, dry place, such as your basement, a closet or beneath a bed. Check stored fruit every two weeks, and immediately cook any squash showing signs of spoilage.
Bulbous, smooth-skinned butternuts (Cucurbita moschata) get high marks among organic gardeners because the sturdy vines are naturally resistant to squash vine borers, and because squash bugs usually prefer other types of winter squash. Butternuts need up to 110 days of warm weather to produce a good crop, so they may not ripen fully in cool climates, especially if powdery mildew weakens the plants. Be sure to allow plenty of space for the vines, because butternuts don’t tolerate crowding. Properly cured fruits will store for six months or more.
Top varieties. Open-pollinated ‘Waltham’ produces 4- to 5-pound fruits on rambling vines that are susceptible to powdery mildew. Fruit size varies a bit, but many gardeners report that they can get large and medium fruits from a single plant. If you need more compact plants, try ‘Butterbush,’ an open-pollinated variety that bears small fruits weighing less than 2 pounds. For powdery mildew resistance, grow hybrid ‘JWS 6823 PMR’ for its vigorous vines that produce 3- to 4-pound fruits.
In the kitchen. Butternuts are easier to prepare than other types of winter squash because you can remove the rinds with a vegetable peeler. The deep-orange flesh is ideal for purées and soups. Roast butternut squash to remove moisture and caramelize its sugars, and to prepare a big fruit for use in multiple dishes.
Gardeners love delicatas for their looks and the sweet flavor of their 1- to 2-pound striped, oblong fruits. Not preferred by squash bugs but susceptible to vine borers and powdery mildew, delicata squash (Cucurbita pepo) is ready to harvest in about 90 days, and the cured fruits will store in a cool place for three to four months. Delicata’s growth is more compact compared with that of other winter squashes.
Top varieties. Open-pollinated ‘Delicata’ produces fruits up to 9 inches long on robust, fast-growing plants. The soft skin of the striped fruits is edible after it’s cooked. Open-pollinated ‘Honey Boat’ squash has nutty, yellow-orange flesh that’s high in calcium and vitamins A and C.
In the kitchen. Delicata’s flesh is at its best when the fruits are halved, baked and buttered, although some cooks also like to grill or pan-sear unpeeled slices. When filled with a savory stuffing, a baked delicata half can become a one-dish meal.
Compact acorn squash plants yield heavy crops of pleated fruits weighing 1 to 2 pounds. Most varieties have green rinds, but some ripen to orange or tan. Acorns (Cucurbita pepo) are susceptible to squash vine borers, but are of only passing interest to squash bugs and cucumber beetles. Plants can be seriously weakened by powdery mildew. The fruits mature in 90 days and will store for two to three months.
Top varieties. Open-pollinated ‘Sweet REBA’ has good resistance to powdery mildew. This variety produces abundant yields of dark green fruits with golden flesh. Heirloom ‘Thelma Sanders’ has tan skin and creamy flesh with flavor notes of roasted chestnuts. This open-pollinated variety stores better than other acorns.
In the kitchen. Baked acorn squash is as delicious stuffed with savory meats and grains as it is with spiced apples and raisins. Keep it simple by dressing with butter and honey or brown sugar. You can save cooking time by roasting thick, unpeeled slices instead of halves.
Prized for their dry, orange flesh and stability in storage, long-vined Hubbard squash (Cucurbita maxima) grow best in the cool, moist climates of New England and the Upper Midwest. Depending on variety, the fruits can weigh 5 to 15 pounds, with bumpy rinds that may be blue-gray, green or red. Vines usually set only a few fruits, and the plants struggle in hot climates. Hubbards are attractive to all squash pests, so they are often grown as trap crops. (See Patrolling for Squash Pests for tips on using trap crops.) Most varieties need 100 days to mature, and the fruits will store for six months.
Top varieties. The heirloom ‘Golden Hubbard’ variety produces 8- to 12-pound fruits with dry, fine-grained flesh. The rinds turn orange as they cure. ‘Blue Ballet’ yields smaller 4- to 6-pound fruits with gray-green rinds that contain sweet, fiberless flesh.
In the kitchen. The most difficult part of working with Hubbard squash is cutting it open, which is best done by hacking a stout knife into the rind and then tapping on the knife’s dull side with a mallet until the fruit splits open. The pared pieces can be boiled, steamed or roasted and used in pies and soups.
Prolific and fast-growing, spaghetti squash plants produce heavy crops before powdery mildew can weaken their vines. Squash vine borers and squash bugs can infest spaghetti plants. A wide range of climates are suited to growing spaghetti squash (Cucurbita pepo), which mature in about 90 days and will store for about three months.
Top varieties. Open-pollinated ‘Spaghetti’ supplies family-sized, 3- to 5-pound fruits. The vines are 15 feet or longer and often develop supplemental roots as they grow, giving them an edge against squash vine borers and drought. The oblong ‘Stripetti’ hybrid carries some delicata genes that give the fruits green stripes and a sweeter flavor than other spaghetti varieties. Hybrid ‘Small Wonder’ produces heavy crops of 2- to 3-pound fruits that store well.
In the kitchen. The tender strings of cooked spaghetti squash resemble pasta. Bake or steam halves of the squash until just done, and then tease out the mildly flavored “noodles” with a fork. Purists add only butter, salt and pepper to this delicate dish. In casseroles, layer spaghetti squash with pasta sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Grown as a sweet potato substitute in northern climates, buttercup squash (Cucurbita maxima) has long vines that run up to 15 feet and produce 2- to 5-pound fruits. The dense, dark-orange flesh becomes flaky when baked, like starchy potatoes. Buttercups are often regarded as the best winter squash for pies. The plants are moderately susceptible to pests and are especially well-adapted to the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest. Fruits can take up to 100 days to mature and will store for six months.
Top varieties. The 2- to 4-pound fruits of hybrid ‘Sweet Mama’ mature slightly earlier than those of other buttercups — before powdery mildew can affect the vines. Open-pollinated ‘Burgess’ buttercup produces blocky 3- to 5-pound fruits with smooth, sweet flesh.
In the kitchen. Cut peeled buttercups into wedges, and then toss the wedges with olive oil and herbs before roasting in an open pan. Prepare buttercups for pies by baking halves or steaming large chunks.
There's no quick fix when it comes to squelching squash pest problems, but you can try these techniques to keep the bothersome bugs under control.
Plant non-preferred squash types to disinterest your region's worst pests. Gardeners in the eastern United States favor butternuts over all other types of winter squash because borers usually leave the plants alone.
Start plants indoors to give them a strong, borer-free beginning, and then grow them under row cover until the flowers open and require visits from pollinators. Row cover will also protect winter squash types from two other persistent pests: squash bugs and cucumber beetles.
Delay planting your main crop until early summer, after many squash bugs and cucumber beetles have found other host plants.
Plant trap crops by early direct-seeding a few pest-magnet squash, such as 'Baby Blue’ Hubbard or yellow straightneck summer squash. When squash bugs or borers find the trap crops, cover those plants with a bag, pull them up and discard them.
Check plants often for squash bugs' shiny brown egg clusters, and rub them off with a finger or a wet cloth. Gather nymphs with a hand-held vacuum, or crush them with your fingers. Trap squash bugs by placing small boards under plants during periods of cool weather. First thing in the morning, overturn the boards and quickly brush any hiding squash bugs into a bucket of soapy water.
Repel vine borers from susceptible winter squash varieties by wrapping aluminum foil shields around the base of the plants' stems after you’ve removed the row covers. (Read more in Organic Squash Vine Borer Control.)
Encourage natural predators, such as ground beetles and damsel bugs, by growing a bed of mulched perennial flowers and herbs in a central part of your garden. Add sweet alyssum, dill and other easy annuals to attract parasitic tachinid flies and other winged squash bug predators.
Grow squash in areas ranged by poultry. Chickens, guineas, geese and ducks will nab adult pests that are in search of host plants. Master homesteader Harvey Ussery reports that using portable electric fence netting to pen a few guineas in a squash patch can be highly effective.
Choosing which winter squash varieties to grow is challenging when we have hundreds of options to consider. Happily, gardener Amy Goldman has done the legwork for us while researching her encyclopedic book The Compleat Squash. Goldman evaluated 150 heirloom varieties by raising them and then testing their qualities in her kitchen. Here are some of her all-time favorite winter squash types and varieties, along with a few of the reasons she adores them.
Buttercup: Sets the standard of excellence. Dry and sweet-meated. Not a whisper of fiber.
Hubbard: Proves that bigger is better. Thick, rich flesh. Excellent table quality.
‘Sibley’: Best banana squash — and that’s saying a lot. Dry, with a delicate flavor.
‘Thelma Sanders’: The sweetest acorn squash. Chestnutty.
‘Triamble’: Meaty, sugary, brilliant orange flesh. A shelf life of two years isn’t unheard of.
‘Vegetable’ spaghetti: The closest thing to pasta since durum wheat. Sweet, golden fiber.
Farmers who grow winter squash for profit have tried dozens of varieties, so as part of my research for this story on the top winter squash types for self-sufficient gardens, I tracked down a few knowledgeable folks and asked them a few questions.
Do you agree that most farmers market and farmstand customers want small-sized winter squash? Are there certain winter squash types or varieties that bring customers back for more?
“I sell to both farmers market and commercial outlets (Whole Foods, Dillons, etc.), and I try to have a variety of sizes in both the butternut and spaghetti. I realize there are a lot of single people and senior citizens who don't want big squash, so I have a variety of options, and try to put some big ones in the box as well for the families with several children. I generally use open-pollinated seed, so the fruits are never uniform in size.” — Jim Rowh, Pure Prairie Farm, Clayton, Kan.
“Most of the time my customers pick the medium-sized squash, but may go smaller with the single-serving types like acorns. By far, the one variety that brings them back is the open-pollinated ‘Delicata’. Most haven’t heard about it, but I talk it up and after they try one, they love it.” — Bill Bass, Honest Eats Farm, Willis, Mich.
“We sell the most of acorn — green, white, ‘Fordhook’, ‘Carnival’ and ‘Sweet Dumpling.’ Our customers love ‘Small Wonder’ spaghetti, ‘Thelma Sanders’ acorn and ‘Sunshine’ hybrid squash.” — Hohl family, Harvestville Farm, Donnellson, Iowa
Are there special cultural techniques you use to improve the eating quality of the winter squash you grow?
Most of the farmers said “not really,” but 20-year seed-saver Jim Rowh explained his management strategy:
“I always save some seed back in case calamity strikes and I can't get good seed. But I also always purchase some new seed every year — at least half to two thirds of what I plant — primarily to keep the strains as true to pure as is possible. Spaghetti is bad about picking up pollen from other squashes, and tends to get an orangish look if there are any pumpkins around. It’s still very edible, but just has a little heavier texture than pure spaghetti with no adulteration. The butternut does not cross as easily and tends to stay true. I like ‘Waltham’ butternut, but have found over the years there are some differences in the ‘Walthams’ that each seed company has to offer. I rarely save seed for acorn squash, as all the commercial buyers want the big acorns, which are hybrids for the most part. The open-pollinated acorns don't get big.” — Jim Rowh
If your life were to change tomorrow and you became a “civilian” winter squash grower, which winter squash types or varieties would you continue to grow for you and your family?
“Acorn, butternut, delicata and spaghetti squashes. We would probably throw in something different — buttercup, kabocha, ‘Red Kuri’ Hubbard and ‘Sweet Dumpling’ acorn — to keep things interesting.” — Bill Bass
“‘Thelma Sanders’ acorn squash, ‘Sweet Dumpling’ acorn, and green acorn.” — Hohl family
“Open-pollinated spaghetti squash and ‘Waltham’ butternut, plus a hybrid acorn for consistent size.” — Jim Rowh
“We love open-pollinated ‘Delicata’ and that’s what we’d grow if we were cultivating a home garden.” — Cure Organic Farm, Boulder, Colo.
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