The bright orange flesh of butternut squash is a primary ingredient in rich, creamy soups, substantial casseroles, and delicious pies! This winter* squash can be stored for a surprisingly long time, plus, it’s easy to grow! This plant is a no-brainer. Once it gets going, you can pretty much ignore it until harvest time.
*Squashes are classified as either ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ varieties. This has nothing to do with when they are grown, Rather, it relates to when they are eaten. Winter squashes have thick, heavy duty skins that allow you to store them for several months. (I’ve stored some successfully for over two years!)
Butternut squash lifecycle
Butternut squash is a member of the cucurbit family. Cucurbits are unique in that they produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. Insects, especially bees, are attracted to the large, showy blooms. As these beneficial insects travel from flower to flower, pollination occurs. Female flowers can be identified by the immature fruit seen at the base of the flower. Male flowers have a ‘beard’ at the base that easily breaks off. (Male flowers can be deep fried, stuffed with cheese and baked, or sautéed in an omelet!)
How to grow butternut squash
Butternut squash grows best in full sun, though I have grown abundant crops under well-pruned fruit trees. You can use seeds from a butternut squash bought at the grocery store or buy a packet. This is a deep-rooted plant, making it well suited to areas experiencing drought. Butternut squash does not need particularly fertile soil and it can go weeks without watering. If larger leaves start to wilt, water deeply. There is no need to fertilize butternut squash.
Pests & diseases of butternut squash
Butternut squash is prone to root rot, so avoid overwatering. Seedlings are susceptible to damping off disease when the soil is too cold or too wet. Slugs and snails, caterpillars, and cucumber beetles will attack young plants. Later in the season, aphids, spider mites, and whiteflies can cause problems. Powdery mildew and other fungal diseases are common, but they rarely kill the plant or harm the fruit.
This is one of those ‘partly true, partly myth’ situations in the garden. Traditional folklore warns gardeners against growing squash, cucumbers, and melons near each other. The claim suggests that cross-pollination will occur, affecting the taste of the produce. Since pollination can only happen with pollen of the same species, this cannot really happen. What can happen is cross-pollination between varieties of the same species. Cucumbers and melons are a different species, so they will not cross-pollinate with each other or other members of the cucurbit family.
Summer squash, pumpkins, gourds, and some winter squash, all being members of the same family, can cross-pollinate. This pollination will create viable fruit identical to the mother plant. The genetic changes can only be seen in the seeds that are produced. If you save seeds like I do, this may result in something really unique growing next year. Sometimes it will be edible and sometimes it won’t. Butternut squash will cross-pollinate with pumpkins, so you’ll want to keep them as far apart as possible. Oddly shaped fruit and poor taste are usually the result of over-fertilized soil, too much irrigation, or damp weather, and not weird cross-pollinations.
Harvesting & storing butternut squash
The more often you harvest the fruit, the more fruit the plant will produce. In the plant world, reproduction is the name of the game. Fruits can be eaten right away or allowed to dry out, or cure, for later use. Fruits can be allowed to cure on the vine or removed and stored in a cool, dry location.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!