Squash Can Be Your Staple Crop

Reader Contribution by Alexia Allen and Hawthorn Farm
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Squash storage shelves and a happy squash eater.

When people hear that I run a farm, they ask, “What do you grow?”  My standard reply is, “Everything we love to eat!”  We specialize in generalizing, growing a varied year-round diet literally from soup to nuts. But if I had to choose one crop to focus on, it might be squash.

Winter squash, specifically, the tasty orange-fleshed varieties I love, the ones that we actually eat. Squash just feel like really good return on investment—I put one seed in the ground, tend it well, and then it sprawls 10 feet in all directions and gives me a few hundred seeds where I only planted one. Given the choice between the casino, stock market, or squash patch, I’ll put my money in the squash.

Understanding Squash Varieties

And I do put money and land into them. I buy good seed for my favorite varieties. I’ll tell you why it’s important to get seed from a conscientious plant breeder in a minute. I have tried many different kinds of squash, and settle again and again on two staples, both bred or recommended by my plant hero Carol Deppe in Oregon. One is called ‘Buttercup’ (NOT butternut, which is a separate species of squash which I also love but doesn’t grow reliably in my cool Pacific Northwest summers).  ‘Buttercup’ has forest-green skin and deep orange flesh, very similar to what you might have seen called Kabocha at the grocery store.  The flesh is sweet and tastes like chestnuts.  It’s sweet enough to make into a “pumpkin” pie, yet savory enough to make a delicious soup or puree. 

The other variety is ‘Candystick Dessert’ delicata.  I have grown several strains of delicata squash over the years, and most of them are good for sure. ‘Candystick’ is just drool-over-it awesome though.

Both Delicata and ‘Buttercup’ squash have thin skin that we can eat—as in, I can just drop chunks of cooked ‘Buttercup’ into the blender to make soup. Sometimes I grow a big Hubbard type of squash. Their tough shells make them resistant to voles or deer who would nibble squash in the garden. They can get big, though. I once grew one that weighed at least 40 pounds.  I had to drop it on the pavement a few times to get it into chunks that would fit into our oven. Delicious, and worth growing now and then, but in general I give garden space to my two favorite varieties. 

Plus, sometimes I get volunteer surprises growing in the garden anyway.  Not so much with Buttercup, which is a species called Curcurbita maxima and is less widely grown, but with delicata. Delicata is a variety of the species Cucurbita pepo. You know how Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and poodles are all the same species? Well, delicatas, Jack-o-lantern pumpkins, ornamental gourds, zucchini, and acorn squash (to name a few) are all Cucurbita pepo.  That means there is a lot of potential for a bee to fly from a gourd flower half a mile away to a delicata squash flower in my garden carrying a load of pollen—and then the seeds inside the fruit that develops from that bee-visited flower have some gourd genetics.  If I plant those seeds, I could get some hybrid gourds of potential but questionable edibility.

Saving Squash Seeds

If I am saving seeds from my best squash plants, I need to tape the flowers closed before they open so our abundant local pollinators aren’t doing too good a job mixing plant genes around.  I need to pollinate that flower myself with a male flower from a plant of the same variety—and then tape her closed again to keep bees away while the fruit develops.  You see why I suggest getting seed from a plant breeder who knows what they are doing?  This is also why I’ve gotten ruthless culling plants that sprout up out of our compost piles.  They might yield delicious fruits…  Or they might be covered in tiny rock-hard ornamental pumpkins.

If I’m feeding myself and my “farmily” out of the garden, I want to devote my space and time to what is actually going to feed us. Our 9-person household eats over 800 pounds of squash a year, and the rabbits, goats, and ducks are happy to clean up any we miss. 

Squash blossoms themselves are a tasty treat.  In the later part of the season, when the plants are optimistically putting out more flowers than they can ripen at our latitude, we break off the flowers we can reach at the edge of our giant squash patch, sautee them with eggs, then serve with a dollop of goat cheese. Squash have male and female flowers on the same plant, the male ones smaller and full of pollen, the female ones with a velvety pad to catch pollen and an ovary that will swell and become the fruit. 

So, I grow ‘Buttercup’ as my Cucurbita maxima squash. As for Cucurbita pepo, I grow delicatas, zucchinis and crookneck squash, and a new kind this year: three varieties of naked-seed pumpkins.  What’s a naked-seed pumpkin?  Well, if you have ever disemboweled a jack o’ lantern, you have seen the seeds that are encased in fibrous shells. The shells aren’t bad, just… tough.  They’re delicious toasted. But what would make pumpkin seeds even easier to eat? Not having tough shells, that’s what.

Naked-seed pumpkins live up to their name being full of green seeds that are ready to scoop out, rinse, dry, and eat.  We toast them, sprinkle seasonings on them, and have a fantastic salad topping.  If we were really feeling ambitious we could press oil out of the seeds, but that’s more work. One great thing about eating from the homestead is that it is just plain easier to eat whole foods.  Refining food takes work, and when it’s me, or another farmily member doing that work, we’re just less likely to do it when we can whiz a handful of pumpkin seeds in the blender to make creamy salad dressing.

Whole food eating is the general rule around here. Not that we are so virtuous, just energy-conserving to eat that way…  or lazy, or busy, if you will. Most pumpkins have an even longer growing season than the squash we grow, so I have to plant them early and baby them along. But it’s worth it, and another example of how versatile and useful this plant is.

Winter Squash Food Heritage

In general, the savory squash that we eat were developed and bred by agriculturalists in the Americas over thousands of years. Sweet melons were mostly developed in Africa and Asia. The history of food plants is amazing, the way people have worked with these plants for generations, and how food traditions migrate and shift as new plants became available.  You eat plants originally developed all over the world.  Take a look in your pantry. Can you name the origins of the foods there, or picture their wild ancestors? It’s taken many generations to create a plant that yields meaty, sugary fruits instead of small bitter gourds.  When you choose delicious and unusual varieties at the grocery store or in your garden, you build a demand for diversity and resilience in our food supply.

Early in the spring, I planted the squash plants along in little hills where the soil would warm faster. I put little clear plastic cloches over them to keep them warm, I replanted diligently whenever any of them succumbed to a rabbit or a duck knocking them over. The tiny seedlings responded to the heat of the summer by growing across the 10-foot gaps between plants and creating an impenetrable forest of big prickly leaves, all gathering sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sweet fruits.

As fall comes, frost and rain turn the vigorous squash patch into a sea of sad leaves and lifeless stems. But as the plants die back, the squash become visible like jewels and shells left at low tide.  “It reminds me of Easter eggs!” said one enthusiastic young squash gatherer, running around picking up armloads of partly-hidden squash.  Once the squash stems are trimmed, the fruits come inside to share the house with us for the winter.

Maybe it’s because my mother’s homemade squash soup was the first food I ate as a baby, but this plant has a place in my heart, belly, and pantry.  As a healthy, easy-to-grow staple, it’s hard to beat.  No offense to the beets, parsnips, and other root vegetables that round out our winter diet, but those are a tale for another time.

Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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