Why Winter Squash?
Updated: Mar 24
A HUNGER GAP STAPLE
As you plan your homestead garden, you will find that there is only enough energy, space, and--in our case--water to grow the crops that are most important. But choosing which crops classify as "important" can be a challenge. For our homestead, it boils down to four qualifications:
In all three of those categories, winter squash have excelled and become one of our most reliable food sources.
A note on squash genetics: Cucurbits can be broken into four main species-- Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita mixta, and Cucurbita moschata. In our northern climate, both C. mixta and C. moschata don't perform well enough to be worth investing in. All of the cucurbits we grow are either C. maxima or C. pepo. The pepo varieties include summer squashes like zuchinni and fall squashes that should be used during the fall months. Our guideline is usually that pepos should be gone by Christmas. The maxima varieties are long storage all-stars, many of which sweeten as they age and should be used only after they have been stored for a few months.
A Powerhouse of Nutrients
In order for a food to be worth growing in our homestead garden, it has to be rich in nutrients. This dense nutrition will provide for us during either the fruitful summer months or the cold winter when food becomes less plentiful and varied. Winter squashes are packed with nutrition--vitamins A, B1-6, B9, C, E, and K, folate, beta carotene, manganese and many other minerals, and numerous amino acids. This intense nutrition is one of several reasons that winter squashes have been a go-to food in many cultures throughout the centuries.
While all cucurbits are thirsty and require a great deal of water to grow well during our hot summers, watering can be targeted to the root zone of each plant. Because of this, we are able to build up mulch around the roots and water each plant individually as opposed to the entire growing area. Squash are very productive for the amount of garden space required (more on that later), and besides watering and weeding, they require very little maintenance during the growing season. Most importantly, they can go directly from harvest and curing to winter storage without any energy expended on drying, canning, or processing.
We adjust the growing areas of our homestead garden each year to reflect what we have learned from the previous season. Some years we have increased or decreased the amount of space dedicated to winter squashes. But without fail, they have been one of our most productive crops. By weight, winter squashes are on par with potatoes and significantly outpace most other crops. Over the past four years, our harvests have ranged from 200-400 lbs. of squash.
Useful in the Kitchen
No matter what you grow, if you don't like it, you probably won't use it. This is the reasoning behind the "usability" requirement for the crops we choose. Winter squashes, however, are easy to use and delicious in many contexts. Each of the five varieties we grow has a use for which it is best suited: simply baked and seasoned, cubed in soups, or baked in breads. Best of all, the long-storage C. maximas provide concentrated nutrition during the late winter months of the "hunger gap," when other stored foods are beginning to wane and new spring harvests are not yet an option.
Winter squashes are all-stars in these four areas; they have certainly earned their place in our homestead garden.