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How to grow Winter Squash

How to grow Winter Squash
During the winter, it can be hard to satisfy an appetite for fresh vegetables. An easy way to fill this craving is with a few winter squash. These veggies can be harvested in the fall and stored for use throughout the winter. They make great soup, vegetable dip, pasta toppers, and their seeds are so tasty that they may be addictive.

Winter squash are similar to gourds, and pumpkins, but they have a thick rind that helps them resist frost. Winter squash can be found as vining, semi-vining, and bush varieties. Some of the most common winter squash varieties include butternut, acorn, delicata, buttercup, hubbard, and spaghetti squash.

Before you plant your winter squash, you should test your soil pH and temperature. Soil temperatures should be about 70 degrees, and a soil pH of around 6.5 is recommended. For best results, you should test your soil with an electronic soil tester. An electronic soil tester can easily analyze both soil pH and temperature.

Winter squash need well-draining soil with lots of organic material and healthy soil bacteria. Instead of using chemical fertilizer or pesticides, try adding compost to the soil to restore the soil ecosystem and use integrated pest control to deter bugs and wild animals from attacking the squash. Different cultivars of winter squash have different space requirements; vining squash require a large garden, while semi-vining and bush varieties of winter squash are appropriate for smaller gardens. If you want to fertilize, consider using an organic fertilizer or a compost tea. Insecticides should be avoided because they can kill the bees that squash need to fertilize the flowers and produce fruit.

To grow winter squash in the home garden, you can grow them in rows or in hills. For rows, plant the seeds about two and a half feet apart in with at least two feet between rows. For hills, heap up your soil into small, rounded hills. Plant 5-8 seeds on each hill, 0.75 inches deep. After the squash start growing, you can thin the vines out by eliminating all but three healthiest plants per hill. For bush and semi-vining squash, plant your seeds about one inch deep, three to four seeds per hill. Allow at least six feet between rows. For semi-vining varieties, remove all but the healthiest two to three squash plants. For bush squash, you should keep only one plant per hill.

Squash require warm soil to germinate and even a light frost can damage the seedlings. Plant your seeds after the last frost and test your soil temperature, which should be at least be 70 degrees Fahrenheit before you plant. Squash have shallow roots, so it's important to remove any weeds that try to compete. Weed by hand to avoid damaging the squash roots.

Winter squash can be stored for several weeks, or cut into strips and dried. The optimal storage conditions vary based on the type of squash that you grow. In general, the best results come from storing vegetables in a cool place without too much humidity (avoid fridges due to excess moisture and do not freeze squash). It's easy to harden the rind by curing the squash. When you harvest the squash, leave as much of the stem on as possible, and stack the squash in an area that they can dry out. The best conditions for curing are a constant temperature of 70 degrees at 80% humidity. To prevent mold, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service recommends that you wash your squash briefly in a water/chlorine bleach solution diluted to 10% before storing in a cool, dry spot.

There are a few insects and diseases that attack squash. Insects such as the cucumber beetle, squash bug, squash vine borer, pickleworm, and the seed corn maggot like the way they taste, but are easily controlled with organic methods. Companion plants such as mint, catnip, and marigolds repel some of these pests, while trap plants around the perimeter of your garden will kill other bugs. Organic pest killers are effective and biodegradable, and they can be used along with organic fungicide to prevent diseases such as gummy stem blight, downy mildew, and powdery mildew. Another way to prevent these diseases is to rotate crops regularly, and avoid growing squash (or pumpkins) in the same soil without 2 years of other crops in-between. Experiment with different organic control methods, and find what works best in your area!

Squash have a well earned reputation of hardiness. They can withstand bug attacks, recover from blights that would kill lesser plants, and still grow a few inches a week at the height of growing season. When you follow these tips for growing squash, you'll be amazed by how quickly squash vines can grow!