Backyard Gardener: Heirloom squash varieties

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and Gardeners. It is hard to believe June is almost over and the July 4th Holiday is fast approaching. As we enjoy family, friends, fireworks and fire up the grill for burgers and hot dogs let us remember what we are celebrating. The United States of America is a land of freedom, liberty and opportunity. Millions of people around the world have come to live in this great country to give their family a better life.

We sent soldiers to help the Allies win World War I and came together as a nation to secure victory over the Axis powers during WWII. The pilgrims came here from England to celebrate one of our greatest liberties, freedom of religion. Since 1776, America has represented the greatest experiment of self-government by the people and for the people. Proudly display our flag, the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ this July 4th. “I love to see Old Glory paint the breeze!”


This week I am discussing growing squash, in particular heirloom varieties. Squash has been grown here for thousands of years, so it has an old and unique history. Many historians believe squash is the oldest cultivated food in North America. The word squash is derived from the Narragansett Indian word, askutasquash, which means “eaten raw or uncooked.”

It was used across North America from the Pueblo in the Southwest to the Iroquois Nation of Tribes in the east. It was a major food source not only for Native Americans but the American Colonies. Squash were eaten at all levels of ripeness, from their first appearance on the vine until fully mature. Many varieties stored for months to provide food for a long winter.

Mature squash were often baked whole in the coals of a fire, or sliced and boiled. Strips of squash were laid in the sun to dry and then stored for winter. Dried strips were rehydrated by a quick soaking or boiling. Seeds were removed, dried, roasted, spiced and added mixes of pemmican (dried meat, dried berries with fat) nuts or fruit. Some squash varieties lasted up to four to five months.

Squash is a blanket term that is applied to dozens of varieties of vegetable. Popular squash vegetables from the genus ‘Cucurbita’ genus include pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, gourds and zucchini. All of these varieties are vine grown and ripen fairly late in the season from late summer through the autumn. The vegetable fruits vary widely in color from orange to yellow and to green, among others. Some types such as zucchini and yellow crook necked mature in 55 days while pumpkins and other squash take over 100 days.

Squash varieties are often separated into two categories: summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) and winter squash (Cucurbita maxima). Squash are loosely grouped into summer or winter varieties based on when they are harvested and how they are used. Technically they are all summer crops but summer squash are harvested immature, when their rinds are still tender and edible. Winter squash are usually allowed to mature into the fall, resulting in fruits with fully developed seeds and tough rinds. Winter squash often develop hard, stiff shells or skins and contain less water than summer squash. They are also favored for winter storage.

Varieties generally recognized as summer squash include pumpkins, zucchini, custard and yellow scallop squash. Winter squash include; butternut, cushaw and hubbard. Some squash, such as acorn squash, are often classified as both summer and winter squash.

Nearly all varieties of squash grow from a single thick, green vine or a smaller offshoot from this vine. Cucurbita plants generally produce relatively large, orange or yellow flower blossoms. Squash are monoecious, meaning they produce both “male” and “female” flowers on the same plant.

However, these flowers emerge at different times. In general, male flowers bloom one week or so before female flowers but in zucchini and some summer squash female flowers tend to bloom first. The squash bee, honey bee or other insects must pollinate squash to produce fruit.

Squash perform best in fertile, well-drained soils containing high levels of organic matter. They also require full sun. Squash are commonly planted in hills so direct sow 4 to 5 seeds per hill at a depth of 1 inch. Thin to 2 to 3 vigorous, well-spaced plants per hill when seedlings have 1 or 2 true leaves.

Once the danger of frost is past squash can be planted well up into July for short season varieties. Long season winter types should be planted in mid-June. Hills and rows of summer squash should be 3 to 4 feet apart. Hills of winter squash should be spaced 4 to 5 feet apart with 5 to 7 feet between rows.

The following are three varieties I recommend you try for the home garden. Many are over 100 years old and can still be used for all kinds of recipes in the family kitchen. Bon Appetit!

* Patty Pan (Curcubita pepo). This squash, also called Cymling, is an old heirloom, originating from Native Americans tribes in the eastern U.S. in the 17th century. It was grown in the American Colonies from New England to Virginia. “Cymling refers to the fruits similar size and shape to English simnel cakes baked during Lent. The oldest description of this variety dates back to 1591.

Plants are a more bush type with large leaves and mature in 55 days. Consistent harvest will encourage plants produce more fruit. True patty pan squash are 7-9 inches across and weigh 7-8 pounds. Skin is a dull white and can be stores for several months.

Thomas Jefferson grew them in his retirement garden, and they were used in soups and stews with butter, salt, and pepper. If picked early they can be used like zucchini skin and all. A very versatile vegetable

* ‘Delicata’ (Cucurbita pepo) has experience a renaissance in popularity due to its flavor. This heirloom has been around for over 120 years. The skin is yellow to cream color with dark green markings. It is a trailing variety sprawling out 8-10 feet with small silvery green leaves. It is a good producer and fruit is 8-10 inch long.

Inside the flesh is a deep orange/yellow color and is fine textured and sweet. The name derives from these squashes delicate flavor. It can be eaten similar to yellow crook neck as the skin does not have to be peeled. Many restaurants are using ‘Delicata’ for stuffing and baking. This squash was highly prone to powdery mildew and fell by the wayside. However, Cornell bred an open-pollinated variety resistant to typical squash diseases and ‘Delicata’ has made a comeback.

* Long Island Cheese (Curcurbita moschata). Long Island Cheese squash (or pumpkin) is a personal favorite and one of the oldest varieties of grown in the U.S. It’s claim to fame was use in pumpkin pie recipes. Many believe this variety originally came from Central or South America and was officially introduced to the marketplace in an 1807 seed catalog by Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia. It was a very popular variety grown along the Atlantic seaboard, hence the Long Island reference.

The name is derived from the fruit looking like a wheel of cheese. The name may also refer to what Colonial Americans would call pumpkin cheese or what we know as pumpkin butter. Pumpkins which would not keep for the winter were cooked down into a thick, dark brown paste similar to apple butter and preserved for the winter.

It remained popular up until the 1960’s until new squash varieties were introduced which were more suited for modern growing, harvesting, and distribution techniques for the canned pumpkin industry. This variety usually has tan skin and fruit weigh 10-15 pounds. The vines may trail up to 18 feet and inside the flesh is a salmon/orange color. They are very productive, and they will make a great pumpkin pie or pumpkin soup. Seeds are readily available for these and many other heirloom varieties. Baker Creek, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Johnny’s Seeds are some good sources. Contact me with questions at the WVU Extension Office at 304 424 1960 or at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu. Good Luck and Happy Gardening!


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