Updated: Mar 24, 2021
FIVE VARIETIES THAT RISE ABOVE THE REST
In this garden at the edge of the woods, our ongoing mantra is do what works. This means that as we experiment with techniques, try new varieties, and adapt planting areas, we are constantly trying to find what works best for us and stick with it. When it comes to choosing which winter squashes to grow, we have narrowed our favorites down to five staple varieties. We have tried numerous types, but in order for a plant to become a reoccurring member of the garden lineup it has to meet a number of criteria. It must grow vigorously. It must be productive. It must have a fast enough growing habit to mature in our short mountain season. And it must be something we will use and enjoy.
Thelma Sanders' Sweet Potato
The best and brightest star among our winter squashes is the Thelma Sanders' Sweet Potato. This is a squash that I happened upon a few years ago as I sought out a variety to replace the acorn-style squashes that we were currently growing. Unlike most acorn squashes, they are buttery yellow in color. They are also incredibly prolific. After the first year of growing them we replaced our previous acorn squashes with this variety and never looked back. It is said that this squash was developed by Ms. Sanders in an attempt to imitate the texture and flavor of a sweet potato as an option for northern growers (for whom sweet potatoes are either impractical or impossible). Whether she was satisfied with her product or not, I don't know, but she did create an outstanding variety.
These squashes have smooth, sweet flesh and cook more quickly than many of the larger winter squashes. They can be started outdoors after the last danger of frost, when the soil has warmed to 60-70 degrees (F). The vines are vigorous once they are established. They take 85-95 days to maturity, but often will continue setting new fruits right up to the end of the season. On average, the fruits weight 1-2 pounds each. The most mature fruits will take on rich yellow color and may even have some orange freckling. Immature fruits can be harvested and used within a couple of weeks like a summer squash (in a stir-fry, soup, etc.). While these squashes are in the Cucurbita pepo group, which ordinarily need to be used within a couple months after harvest, the Thelma Sanders' squashes actually sweeten after a month or two of storage and for us they keep well into the new year. This makes them an excellent asset in the pantry from October through March. We normally bake these squashes and use them as a side dish, sometimes garnished with maple syrup, spices, or--my favorite--Devonshire cream.
With its brilliant color, prolific production, and creamy, thick flesh, the Red Kuri is another garden champion. The Red Kuri is a mini hubbard squash in the Cucurbita maxima group. This means that they have a hard exterior and will keep well past New Year's Day and even into the spring. Unlike the Thelma Sanders', they have denser, drier flesh and less natural sweetness. This makes them perfect for either sweet or savory uses. The Red Kuris set many fruits on each vine, and--like the Thelma Sanders'--they will continue setting new fruits even late in the season. The immature fruits that are brought in before frost can be used like a summer squash. Red Kuris can be planted as soon as the soil is warm and will take around 90 days to maturity. The most mature fruits will take on a deep red-orange color and hard exterior. The fruits weigh an average of 3-4 pounds apiece.
Our favorite way to use the Red Kuri is in soups and savory dishes. The flavor is rich and it packs an impressive, nutrient-dense punch in any dish to which it is added. Of all the squashes we grow, the Kuri has the smoothest and creamiest texture. It is one of our favorite winter storage staples.
The classic Buttercup Burgess squash has become part of our summer lineup for its production, thick flesh, and good storage. It doesn't store quite as long as the Red Kuri squashes do, and needs to be used within about 6 months of harvest. Buttercup Burgess have thick flesh with a small seed cavity and a dry, smooth texture that is perfect for use in baking. They have a more traditional pumpkin flavor as well, making them a good substitute for recipes calling for pumpkin. They can be planted when the soil warms, but will require a slightly longer growing window at 115 days. The mature fruits weigh 3-5 pounds each.
When planting Buttercup Burgess squashes, it is beneficial to leave more room for the vines to spread. They can cover a lot of territory, and will need significant sun and water to produce well. As they cure in storage, the squashes will sometimes take on a yellow blush under the green exterior. This is a good sign that it is time to incorporate them into the kitchen menus.
Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat
The largest and heaviest squash we grow for winter storage is the Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat. This variety was developed by Oregon breeder Carol Deppe. She developed a version of the common sweet meat squashes that would have exceptionally thick, rich flesh and an outstanding sweet flavor. The Oregon Homestead doesn't produce as many fruits (generally 3-4 fruits per plant), but the size of each squash and the incredibly thick flesh make it one of our most productive plants by weight. They should be planted as soon as the soil has reached 60-70 degrees (F). They should be started as early as the weather permits, because they will need at least 100 days to mature. Like the Buttercup Burgess plants, they need space for the vines to spread and plenty of sunshine and water.
These squash are a staple of serious home food production because of their ability to produce well and store into the deep hunger gap of winter. The walls of each squash are 2-3 inches thick with a small seed cavity full of large seeds. These squashes sweeten as they age, and shouldn't be opened until Thanksgiving at the soonest. They store well into spring and will take on a pink blush as they sweeten in storage.
Lower Salmon River
This rare squash is a Pacific Northwest treasure, relatively unknown to many growers but gaining popularity. They are larger than the Buttercup Burgess, but smaller than the Oregon Homestead Sweetmeat, with each squash weighing 5-10 pounds. One of their outstanding features is being able to grow in a cool northern climate and mature even in a short season. They take just 90-95 days to maturity. They should be planted as soon as the soil is warm enough, and they benefit from plenty of sunshine and space.
The first and foremost reason that the Lower Salmon River squashes are part of our homestead supply is that they keep longer than any of the other varieties, storing for a year or more. This makes them like a food insurance policy for the coming winter, and a reliable option when the other squashes are gone.
One Final Note
All of the varieties described above have the uniting characteristics of growing well, producing a substantial amount of food, and storing dependably through the winter months. They have one more thing in common: They are all open-pollinated squashes. This means that they are not hybrids and will produce fertile seeds true to their type. This factor is important for us in our homestead garden because it enables us to save our own seed, increasing resilience and decreasing dependence on outside resources. It is yet one more reason that these five varieties are the stars of our homestead squash production.