It’s been a great year for winter squash, and there are lots of our favorite butternut squash in the garden, concealed beneath their prickly blanket of huge leaves. We’ve been checking on them, reading them, watching for the subtle shift from pale beige to the beige that spells ripeness. Before too long, a light frost might cause the leaves to wither and the squash will be easier to see and to pick when ready.
But if we wait too long, we’ll lose the crop. Picked too soon, unripe, they won’t keep well or taste good. If a big bad frost threatens and they are not ripe, we’ll cover what we can with tarps. When the vines wither on their own in fall, sans frost, it’s a sign that they are ripe. So is resistance to a stab of the fingernail.
A winter squash seems tough, hard and durable, but don’t be fooled. It must be babied to avoid any nicks or scratches that let in bacteria and cause decay. We want those squash right now, in smooth soups or roasted to sugary sweetness in the oven, but we also want them in March, April and May. And these are great keepers if treated right. We’ll clip the stems an inch from the fruits with pruners, never yanking or tearing, never using the stem as a handle. Never throwing the fruit into buckets.
Once they are off the vine, we’ll let them cure in the field in what we hope will be warm, sunny weather. Heat such as this will not only toughen the skin, heal tiny cracks and thereby help them keep better, but also make them sweeter-tasting, because heat increases their sugar content. If the weather is cold and/or wet, we’ll bring them indoors and find a warm, dry place to cure them. A greenhouse would be ideal, a sunroom or an attic. Maybe a few atop the kitchen cabinets. Never mind if they collect a little dust. They can be tenderly rinsed off and dried with towels, the way you would your best Limoges. Even three weeks is not too long for this curing process.
Then what? Find a cool, dry, well-ventilated spot where the temperature does not go below 50 degrees or above 68. The basement is out unless it’s very dry. Most home cellars, not to mention root cellars, would invite mold. Maybe there’s a spare room at your place, a guest room perhaps, where you could stash them, on nice soft rug, under the bed. Explain to guests what they are and why they are there.
The only trouble with a spot like that is it’s out of sight, out of mind. You’ll need to keep checking for dark spots or shriveling. Squash that are starting to spoil should be composted. But those that keep well will give you a winter of wonderful, sweet, bright orange, carotene-rich flesh, hidden beneath the beige.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Last call for lawn seeding for the year: Seed requires good soil contact and even moisture to grow. Cultivate areas to be seeded with a rake, add some soil amendments and sow seed at the recommended rate. Mist renovated areas daily until grasses become established. It might take two weeks or more for turf-type tall fescue seed to germinate. Next month, keep the seedlings free of fallen leaves.
— Adrian Higgins