I have always loved squash. As a child, I got a vicarious thrill seeing my grandmother raise her axe to cleave open a monstrous 'New England Blue Hubbard' squash, grown on her three-hectare market garden farm in Churchill, Ontario. It was always a cold midwinter's day when the leathery, green, warty hide was breached, revealing a glowing, golden interior. Glimpsing the tasty flesh was like a vision of pure summer sunshine, a wonderful surprise, kept hidden through the dreary months of late fall and early winter.
That was more than 35 years ago. Hubbard squash is still my favourite winter vegetable. Four years ago, I moved to a house in Ottawa with a large yard, where I hoped to recapture those childhood memories by cultivating my own 'New England Blues'. Then I realized they might take over not only my garden but the entire neighbourhood. I opted for the 'Mini Green Hubbard', training the vines along a chain-link fence. Fruit on this dwarf variety grew only to the size of a medium pumpkin, not the giant wheel-barrow-size specimens of my childhood. Still, the vines greedily clambered everywhere — even into the neighbour's yard — in search of sun. The second summer, early butternut hybrids I had bought as nursery plants behaved much better, producing a few nice fruits on three smallish vines.
The word squash is derived from askootasquash, the Massachusetts Indian word meaning "eaten raw" or "uncooked" — one way the flesh was traditionally eaten. A staple of native agriculture, squash was one of the "three sisters" (the other two were beans and corn). Winter squash was particularly prized by natives and early settlers for its long storage life and delicious flavour.
Squash can be divided into two main groups: thin-skinned, early-maturing summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), such as zucchini and vegetable marrow, mini-pumpkins and gourds; and hard-skinned, late-maturing winter squash (Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita moschata). Winter squash need lots of room, plenty of water and full sun, as well as warm earth to grow in and a long season. Along with pumpkins and melons, they rate low for garden-space efficiency, but give relatively high yields because of the size of the fruit. Dig holes 15 centimetres deep, 60 centimetres around, and one to 2.5 metres apart, depending on the type of squash and expected fruit size, and fill with well-rotted manure. Mix a handful of 6-12-12 fertilizer with the soil you removed from the hole and put it back on top of the manure. When the weather is consistently warm and danger of frost is past, plant six to 10 seeds per hill. You could also start seedlings indoors in peat pots, four to six weeks before warm weather arrives. Thin the seedlings to three vigorous shoots when vines are 15 centimetres long.
Winter varieties include butternut, banana, turban, acorn (or pepper), hubbard, buttercup, dumpling and larger pumpkins. Each variety has many cultivars, varying by size, colour, maturity date and disease resistance. Current varieties of squash have been bred specifically for small garden spaces. "Compact bush plants will not take over the garden like regular vining types; therefore, more plants can be planted in a smaller space," says Kari MacInnis, field trials co-ordinator for Vesey's Seeds Ltd.