Grow your own: Squashes

Squashes are members of the gourd family and include pumpkins, courgettes and marrows. This section we will concentrate on summer squashes other than courgettes and also look at winter squashes which include the pumpkins.

Summer squashes tend to be softer skinned and do not store well. They mature during the summer and early autumn and are best picked and eaten straight away.

The winter squashes mature mid to late autumn and need a long season to ripen the fruit and harden the skin. These varieties will keep for many months if allowed to ripen properly before harvesting.

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Squash Varieties

Summer squash

  • Patty pan ‘Scallop Mixed’
    An unusual flat yellow or white fruit with a scalloped edge. Pick small fruits which can be eaten raw or cooked as you would courgettes.

Winter squash

  • Pumpkin ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’
    The one to grow if you want a record breaking monster.
  • Pumpkin ‘Mars F1’
    Produces good 2.7kg (6lb) fruits ideal for carving for Halloween or using in the kitchen.
  • Vegetable spaghetti ‘Hasta La Pasta F1’
    A great winter squash that produces oval, orange fruits; inside, a spaghetti like flesh which makes a refreshing healthy alternative to spaghetti.
  • Butternut ‘Avalon’
    A wonderfully flavoured butternut with a trailing habit and good longterm storage.
A pile of squashes on a white background.

Sowing & Growing Squashes

Squashes are tender vegetables so are usually sown in containers and kept in warm conditions until planting out at the end of May/beginning of June.

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Ideally sow one seed, on its edge, in a small 9cm (31⁄2in) pot or use cell trays with one seed per cell. A multipurpose compost is fine or a John Innes’ seed or no 1 compost.

Place the pots on a warm windowsill or in a propagator. Check them daily as they are very quick to germinate and if too warm the stems stretch very rapidly making them top heavy. Once they have germinated, move to cooler conditions such as the greenhouse bench or a cold frame to grow on.

Keep a watch out for slugs as these will devour young squashes. When all danger of frost has passed, by about the end of May/beginning of June, the squashes can be planted outside. Space the trailing varieties at least 1.2m (4ft) apart and bush varieties about 60cm (2ft) apart.

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Growing on squashes

These crops require a good fertile soil. They could be grown on an old muck heap as long as it’s mature. New manure heaps will be too ‘hot’ in terms of temperature and richness so the leaves may scorch.

Alternatively, dig a 30cm (12in) deep hole with a similar diameter and back fill with some garden compost or well rotted manure. Then heap a half mix of soil and compost on top and form a mound. The plant can then be planted into a hole made in the top of the heap.

Make sure you plant deep enough to support the stem. Sometimes they can be a bit floppy at this stage so if necessary put in a short stake and tie the stem to this.

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One major problem after planting is wind battering the young plants, shredding the leaves or snapping the weak stems. Summer squashes are best harvested when young and tender, but this depends in part on the variety. Check the seed packet for a guide.

If you have several plants you will find you can be picking fruits every day; they grow that fast. If the fruits are left to get large the plants tend to stop flowering as much and you get a reduced crop.

Winter squashes such as pumpkins are sometimes a bit shy to flower at first until they get going. Leave the stems to trail naturally for 3-4.5m(10-15ft) then you could nip the end out. This will encourage sideshoots to form along the stem. These will produce a lot more flowers, usually male flowers at first but then female blooms.

Once this happens you should start to see one or two fruits setting. If you are aiming for a really large pumpkin then remove the growing tip about two or three leaves beyond the fruit.

Remove the growing tips of other side shoots too, to encourage all the plant’s energy into the one or two fruits you have picked out.

Feed occasionally with a general purpose feed to encourage good leaf colour but also fruit growth. Winter squashes may not be ready until October and often the plant may die back before you feel they are ready to harvest. This is fine, leave the fruits where they are until they have coloured up more and been touched by the autumn sun.

Scrumptious recipes for your homegrown squashes

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