Summer vs Winter Squash
By Rob Sproule
At the Grocery Store
At supermarkets in the Fall I feel like a pilgrim in a strange land. Odd shapes, bulbous and rounded, are stacked up on all sides of me as I navigate the aisles. The world of squash is a baffling one because of the rarity of many varieties. The Winter squashes are the most unusual, although the line between Summer and Winter squash isn’t as crisp as many think. It mostly comes down to how the squash is used and how long it takes it mature.
Summer squash, by far, is the most common in gardens across Canada. September is always zucchini month, with gardeners everywhere suddenly having more zucchini than they can eat, and ovens fill up with zucchini loaves, muffins, and pasta. Other summer varieties, like Crookneck and the decorative Patty Pan, are more common on store shelves than in the garden dirt.
Winter squash takes a lot longer to grow than summer (up to 3X the time to maturation). Combine that with the plants’ infamous reputation for growing to the size of small cars and you rarely find them in our northern gardens. If you do grow winter squash, you’ll want to harvest it while the squash is still immature. The more mature it gets, the harder (and less palatable) the skin gets. Maturation = decoration for winter squashes; mature fruit has rock hard skin and is best used for table centres or, in the case of some varieties, birdhouses.
All squash like warm soil, so it’s best to plant the seeds indoors in April and wait until the ground has warmed up a little to transplant outside (or buy starter plants). Usually you’d plant heat-loving plants in containers, like peppers and tomatoes, but squash is so big that it’s rarely grown above ground, except in raised planters. They like rich, well drained soil and as much sun as possible. You’ll need to provide some fertilizer but make sure it’s a high middle number. Too high a first number (nitrogen) and you’ll get a bumper crop of leaves but little else.
Harvest your summer squash when its no more than 6″ long in either direction (depending on the variety). Wait too long and the skin is more likely to get hard and the fruit bitter. While zucchini is bigger than that on the store shelves, it’s also from commercial growers who have systems in place that keep it tasting as it gets bigger. Winter squash should be harvested at the very end of the growing season (ie. when the vine freezes up). It only matures on the vine, and will probably still be immature when harvested. Mature fruit has a solid feel and sounds slightly hollow when you knock on it.
Learn more about fall vs winter squash, with Alberta’s Best Gardening Blog
At the Grocery Store:
If you can buy it at the store in an off-season like mid-winter or early spring, it’s a summer squash. Like other staple produce, summer is available all the time. The most ubiquitous, of course, is the humble zucchini. There are several varieties of zucchini, from green to yellow to the round Eight Ball. It needs to be eaten fairly quickly after buying it, typically cooked into soups, baking, steamed or just eaten raw.
Winter squash varieties only appear in late summer to early winter (unless imported from afar). They’re classic horn-of-plenty fare, from small Acorn squash (try slicing it up and cooking with butter) to the watery, sweet-potato tasting Butternut to the classic Spaghetti. While all winter squashes can be eaten (all parts of a squash are actually edible), some of the more decorative types become popular into the Fall for Thanksgiving
decorations and even kids’ crafts.
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