Despite the name, winter squash is actually a warm-season vegetable harvested before the first frost. Many popular species of winter squash include spaghetti, butternut, buttercup, Hubbard, and crookneck varieties. These vegetables mostly grow on vines (though some plants are bushy), and they are known for their easy growth. Winter squash is harvested when the skins have hardened and are generally consumed in the fall and winter months, as summer squash is harvested with tender skin and is traditionally consumed in the summer months because of its shorter storage life.
Winter squash grows well in hardiness zones four and higher, and all varieties are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins A, B6, and C, as well as heart-healthy minerals including riboflavin, folate, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and copper.
Choose a well-drained area in your garden that has partial to full sun. Squash plants have healthy appetites, soaking in nutrients from the soil. As such, it is important to cultivate the soil; ensure that all rocks, sticks, and debris have been removed from the desired planting area. Nourish the soil with compost or organic compound fertilizer to ensure a rich feast for your plants. The pH level of the soil should measure between 5.5 and 6.8.
Seedlings should be started indoors for milder climates about five weeks prior to outdoor planting. Sow winter squash seeds about one inch deep in peat pots, and keep the soil moist, but do not oversaturate it. Place your seedlings in a warm and sunny window, and transplant them into the garden after the soil has reached 60°F.
For moderate and warmer climates, seeds can be sown directly in the garden into rows or mounds. Seeds can be planted once the soil temperature has reached 60°F, usually about three weeks after the final frost in the spring. Plant several seeds together about half an inch deep in a single mound. Mounds should be about three feet apart, and once the seedlings surface, thin to two or three plants per mound. When thinning your plants, cut them off at the stem rather than pulling them from the ground; this will preserve your root system and keep from disturbing your remaining plants.
Squash plants do well with regular fertilizing. Adding compost to your plants once a week will help replenish the nutrients that the plants absorb from the soil. Water your winter squash plants generously, but ensure that they also receive proper draining to prevent rot.
Winter squash plants are susceptible to insects that are interested in both the vines and the leaves of the plants. Many pests can be warded off by wrapping nylon or mesh netting around the base of the plants or by using row covers. Other insects can be picked away or treated with insecticides.
These plants are particularly vulnerable to mildew and bacterial wilt. Avoid these fungi by not handling the vines or leaves while they are wet. Keep the garden area free of any decay or rot, and only use fertilizer that has fully decayed.
Winter squash is generally ready for harvest between sixty and one hundred days after planting, depending on the type of vegetable. Winter squash should not be harvested before they fully mature; ripe squash can be identified by a hard rind that cannot be penetrated by a fingernail. All squash is sensitive to cold and should be harvested prior to the first frost of fall.
Cut the stem of your squash about two to three inches away from the vegetable, ensuring a longer shelf life for your produce. Winter squash stores for up to five or six months with proper curing and placement. To cure the vegetables, leave them out in the sun for at least one week; the squash can then be placed in a cool (fifty to sixty degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and dark place. Alternatively, these vegetables can be stored by freezing, canning, or drying. Squash can be eaten raw, cooked, or baked and can be used in a myriad of favorite fall and winter dishes.