Delicious, super-nutritious winter squash are a mainstay in my garden because they’re easy to grow, plus they store for months in our cool basement. I am devoted to buff brown butternuts because of their resistance to squash vine borers, a native North American insect that often sabotages other types of squash. But why stop with butternuts? To bring diversity into the garden and the kitchen, I like to grow three different types of winter squash every year: delicatas, buttercups, and butternut squash.
Winter squash are space-hungry crops, so most of my plantings go on the garden’s outer edge, where the vines have room to wander into pathways, or ramble over the garden fence. My favourite way to grow winter squash is to plant them into a compost pile created the previous autumn. The vigorous vines do a good job of smothering weeds when thinned to three per heap, which reduces how much mowing we must do during the heat of summer. Depending on the size of the fruits, winter squash will produce between three and six fruits per plant. Keep a stub of dry stem attached when harvesting winter squash to insure a long shelf life.
Stuffable Delicata Squash
Sometimes called sweet potato or sugar loaf squash, I think delicata squash are the ones to beat among early-maturing winter squash. They are more productive and taste better than acorns, and they are the only winter squash I have found that can be tied to an upright trellis to save space. Delicata squash are kitchen friendly, too. Each fruit, cut in half and filled with a spicy or savoury stuffing, serves two. Stored at room temperature or in a cool cellar, delicatas last about 3 months.
Pie-Worthy Buttercup Squash
A few years ago I interviewed several winter squash experts from the Midwest, a region where homemade pie is serious stuff. All of them named buttercup squash as the best type of winter squash for pie, and they were right. These blocky green fruits with conspicuous buttons on their blossom ends have just the type of dry, flaky, almost potato-like flesh that bakes into a beautiful "pumpkin" pie, pumpkin soufflé, pumpkin muffins, or whatever. If you like cooking with pumpkin, you must try working with buttercups.
Classified as Cucurbita maxima, buttercup squash produce long, vigorous vines that often form roots where the vines touch the ground. I like to plant them in a compost heap in the far corner of the garden in late spring, where they can be left to grow until fall. Stored in a cool room, buttercups can last 5 months or more.
Dependable and easy to grow, butternuts set a high standard for home grown winter squash. The flesh of butternuts is quite moist compared to other winter squash, especially when baked. However, when cut into cubes or spears and lightly braised, butternut squash does a good job of keeping its shape.
Butternut soup accented with apples and curry has become a favourite autumn dish in many homes, but you can use cooked butternut squash in any recipe that calls for cooked pumpkin or sweet potato. Try using raw grated butternut as a substitute for raw carrots in baked goods or casseroles. Butternuts can last 6 months or more in storage.
Butternut squash is the one type of winter squash many gardeners find room for, and several special varieties have shorter vines than Waltham, a respected open-pollinated variety that produces well in a wide range of climates but has vines that can run 15 feet (5 metres) or more. The vines of Burpee's Butterbush run only about 6 feet (2 meters), and beautiful Autumn Glow, which has bright yellow rinds and variegated foliage, is also a restrained runner.
In the UK, the Cobnut variety is often synonymous with butternut squash, but one of Cobnut’s new sisters, Harrier, is more compact and faster to set fruit, which is an essential asset in cooler climates. Indeed, the tropical ancestry that gives butternuts the edge they need against summer heat in the US has proven troublesome in Europe. Fortunately, UK-based Tozer Seeds has bred several fast-maturing varieties suited to cool European climates.