Native American: the Squash

by: Aidan Feeney

Nantucket has its own variety of winter squash, which came to this island along the intersecting currents of history. The word squash is derived from the Narragansett Native American word askutasquash.

Squash was grown widely throughout the Americas in pre-Columbian times. When European settlers arrived in New England, they quickly adopted the practice of growing squash from the Native Americans and it became an important part of the colonial New England diet. As European farmers settled different areas of the region, they grew and selected varieties of squash that best suited their locales.

The variety best suited for this island came to be known as the Nantucket long pie pumpkin. This squash was grown year after year in the isolation that once defined the island. Thrifty farmers saved seeds from vigorous and well-performing plants, and a variety perfectly suited to Nantucket’s maritime climate was developed.

The plant produces fiveto eight-pound long and slender orange pumpkins. They have an orange flesh with a silkysmooth texture and an incredibly sweet flavor. This winter squash/pumpkin makes an incredible pumpkin pie.

As small-scale and subsistence farming declined on Nantucket, the long pie pumpkin faded into obscurity and nearly extinction. Luckily, however, a dedicated farmer and seedsaver from Maine grew and saved seeds from the pumpkin for over 30 years before giving the seeds to a seed company. Since then, the variety has been making a slow but steady comeback and it can now be purchased from a variety of seed companies including High Mowing Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

The local-food movement continues to build momentum across America. In every part of the country people are finding a renewed interest in the plant varieties and culinary traditions that historically defined their regions. Many of these plant varieties have been lost forever and are now replaced with generic, commercial varieties. As New Englanders and Nantucketers, I encourage all home gardeners to try to grow winter squash in their gardens. This is one way that all of us can help to preserve and pay homage to our heritage and traditions.

Growing winter squash

Winter squash is a long-season crop, meaning that it typically takes about three months to grow from seed to harvest. I plant my crop in early July, so it can be harvested in September and I have some time to cure the squash before using it in October (more on curing squash later). Winter squash can be sown directly into the soil in your garden, although in my experience it is better to start the plant in a greenhouse and transplant it into the garden. This gives the plant a headstart over the insect pests that can plague the crop, particularly when it is a young and vulnerable.

Another strategy is to sow the seeds into your garden and cover the plant with insect netting/row covers, and then uncover them when the plants begin to flower. That way the flowers can be pollinated. By this time, the plant is typically hardy enough to withstand insect pests. Plant your squash two feet from one another. This will give the plants plenty of room. As they vine out, they should make a closed canopy in your garden, out-competing any small weeds beneath them.

Soil nutrients and water

Winter squash is a large plant with heavy nutritional requirements. It grows best in loose, well-drained soils amended with compost. If you see yellowing on leaves, this is typically a sign of nitrogen deficiency and you should side-dress the plant with an organic fertilizer or water it with a liquid fertilizer. A bronze discoloration on the leaves indicates a potassium deficiency and you should side-dress the plant with organic potash.

Water your plants regularly when they are young, but once established, only water as needed. Over-watering squash can promote mildews and molds. If you see the large fan leaves on your plants drooping, they need water. If the leaves are upright and do not look wilted, the plant is fine and you are probably better off leaving it dry.

Pests and diseases

The most common pests for your squash crop will be striped cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers. The most effective way to deal with these pests are all preventative measures. Transplanting your crop into the garden and covering it with row covers until the plant is flowering is the most effective practice. If your plants appear to be wilted, even though they have received adequate water, the problem is likely the squash vine borer. Look along the stems of the plants to see where the bug has entered, make a cut into the stem and remove it by hand.

The most common disease for squash plants is powdery mildew. This is a fungal disease that spreads from spores. The spores don’t overwinter in New England, although they always blow into the region from southern states during the summer. Nantucket, with its high humidity and foggy weather, creates ideal conditions for the proliferation of powdery mildew. The best way to manage this disease is to try to keep your plants dry and to choose resistant varieties (often labeled as PMR on seed packets).

Harvesting, curing and storing

You should harvest the gourds as they change to their ripe color. It is often worthwhile to cut into one to see if the flesh has changed color as well. When harvesting, cut the stem a few inches above the gourd instead of just snapping the stem at the top of the gourd. This will help to prevent rotting later on in storage.

Once harvested, store the plant in a warm and dry location for a week or two. During this stage, the squash will convert many of the carbohydrates inside the flesh into sugars, making for a sweeter and more delicious crop. After a week or so of curing, the crop should be stored in a cooler area with low relative humidity. This could be a number of areas in your house, but the key to good storage is cooler temperatures and low humidity.

Variety selection

In my experience of growing squash in the Northeast, the bestproducing varieties have been butternut squash, Long Island cheese pumpkin and Nantucket long pie pumpkin. Delicata and acorn squash also produce well, but they do not store as well and are prone to rot. Hubbard squashes produce giant gourds with great flavor, but they seem more susceptible to insect damage. That being said, feel free to try whatever varieties you like and see which ones grow best in your garden.

Aidan Feeney grew up on Nantucket, attended Sterling College in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to study farming, and farmed in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island before moving back to the island this spring. He is the owner of Fog Town Farm and sells his produce weekly at Sustainable Nantucket’s Farmers & Artisans Market.

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