In the Garden: With proper care, winter squash thrive

Last year, these winter squash and pumpkin plants got off to a good start after being kept warm the first couple of weeks. (Susan Mulvihill)
Last year, these winter squash and pumpkin plants got off to a good start after being kept warm the first couple of weeks. (Susan Mulvihill)

It won’t be long before it’s safe to plant warm-season crops in our gardens. In the Inland Northwest, we usually don’t get any frosts after mid-May, although that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep a close eye on the weather forecasts.

Over the past several years, I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of growing my own pumpkins and winter squash. There are three secrets to being successful with these crops: Choose short-season varieties, baby the plants at the beginning of the season, and cure them for two weeks after harvest so they’ll store for several months.

When looking for pumpkin and winter squash seeds, remember that we only have about 120 frost-free days in our garden season. Because of this, choose varieties that mature much earlier than that.

The pumpkin varieties that have grown well for me are New England Pie, Winter Luxury, Cinderella-style Rouge Vif d’Etamps and white Casper.

Winter squash varieties that grow fairly quickly include sweet dumpling, delicata, Lakota, sweet meat and spaghetti. While I love eating butternut and acorn squash, they don’t always produce well in my garden.

I start my pumpkin and squash plants indoors from seed around the first of May, about two weeks before I transplant them into the garden. Once the seedlings have a couple of true leaves, I start feeding them with fish fertilizer that has been diluted to half-strength.

Here’s what you can do to have a great crop:

In the garden, prepare their bed by adding plenty of organic amendments such as shredded leaves, compost and/or composted steer manure. The most important ingredient of all is bone meal, which contains a higher percentage of phosphorus than it does nitrogen or potassium. Plants that bloom and set fruit need extra phosphorus so I always work some into the soil.

The best way to water veggies is with soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems so the water is delivered to the base of the plants rather than overhead. Set whatever system you’re using on top of the bed before covering it with plastic mulch to raise the soil temperature.

I prefer red plastic mulch, sometimes referred to as tomato mulch or SRM (selective reflecting mulch), but black plastic works well, too. It will need to be pinned or weighted down so the wind doesn’t blow it away.

On planting day, cut little x’s into the plastic about 18 inches apart and carefully plant a seedling through each one. Press the soil firmly around each plant so there are no air pockets in the soil.

Now to really baby the seedlings – as well as protect them from chilly nights – cover the bed with floating row cover. This lightweight fabric lets in light and moisture while providing a few degrees of frost protection and can be found at garden centers and online. Remove the cover after about two weeks.

Once the plants have a couple of developing fruits on them, pinch back the ends of the vines so the plants use their energy to mature them. They are ripe when you can’t push your fingernail into the flesh.

At that point, cut them from the vine, leaving 2 inches of stem attached. Place the pumpkins and squash in a warm, dry and sunny area for two weeks to cure them for storage. You will be amazed at how much longer they’ll keep and how long you’ll be enjoying your own homegrown produce.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at inthegarden@ live.com.Visit her blog at susansinthegarden.blogspot.com and Facebook page at www.facebook.com/susans inthegarden for more gardening information.

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