Getting winter squash to ripen to maturity before the first frosts can be challenging for those with relatively cool summers and a short growing season. However, there are a few things that you can do to make sure that you get fruits to ripen fully before the end of the growing season.
You can also mature certain varieties of squash off the vine in the right conditions. But where possible, maturing fruits as far as possible on the vine is always the best option. Making sure that this is possible begins at the very beginning:
Choose Quicker Maturing Varieties for a Shorter Growing Season
Certain varieties of winter squash will mature much more quickly than others. So it is very important to make sure that you choose appropriate varieties. Be sure to choose squash which are recommended for and suited to UK growing.
Sow Squash Early, Indoors
Start squash indoors, in March or early April, to get off to the best possible start. That way, you will to have the best chance of squash reaching maturity before the end of the growing season. Though you can also direct sow squash in your garden, sowing indoors earlier will usually yield the best results. Just make sure that you remember to harden off your indoors grown seedlings before you plant them out into your garden.
Consider Growing Squash Under Cover
Winter squash need a long, warm summer to fruit well and for those fruits to reach maturity. In the UK, our unpredictable summers can sometimes yield mixed and patchy results. So another good thing to consider is growing undercover. This is a good idea if you want to stand the best chance of mature fruits by the end of the year.
Choose a suitable spot in a greenhouse or polytunnel with enough space for your squash to grow. Remember to consider vertical growing solutions, which make it easier to grow large plants like squash in small spaces.
Do Not Plant Out Squash Too Early
Squash fruits may fail to mature properly for a range of reasons. But being exposed to cold temperatures early in the season is one common reason. Make sure that you do not plant out your squash to early. Wait for the weather to warm reliably before you do so. If you do not, pollination may be poor. And if fruits do set, they might drop off before they get the chance to grow and ripen.
Ensure a Fertile, Good Quality Soil or Growing Medium
Of course it is also important to make sure that your plants are in tip top condition, and as always, that means taking care of the soil. Squash have high nutrient needs, and so you need to make sure that you provide optimal growing conditions, with plenty of organic matter.
Companion Plant For Pest Control Etc.
Squash can fall prey to a number of different pests. One of the best strategies for pest control is companion planting. Including as many different plants in your garden as possible boosts biodiversity. This creates a more balanced and harmonious ecosystem in which no one pest species is likely to get out of control. Planting nasturtiums, for example, can help keep squash pest free, since the nasturtiums can act as a trap crop for flea beetles and other pests. Squash are more likely to ripen successfully if the plants are in good condition and relatively pest free.
Make Sure You Meet the Squashes Water Needs
Squash need to have consistent water over the growing season, and failing to meet those water needs may result in smaller, and less well-formed fruit. And make sure that you water the soil, where that water is needed, and not on top of the leaves of the plants. Leaving plants with wet foliage can increase the chances of mildews and other issues taking hold.
Feed a Potassium-Rich Feed
Feeding squash as the fruits grow is important for best results. But you certainly don’t need synthetic fertilizers, which do more harm than good. Make sure that you feed your squash with a good quality organic liquid feed. And remember that feed should be high in potassium and not nitrogen. A high nitrogen feed can encourage extensive leafy growth at the expense of the fruit. Potassium will aid in fruit formation and ripening.
Set Fruits on Something to Keep Them Off the Ground
As the large fruits of winter squash begin to form, you can help make sure that they ripen to maturity and do not rot. Keep them up off the soil surface or you may find yourself with a range of issues. Place the fruits on a tile or something similar on the ground. Or if you are growing vertically, add some net or a bag to support the fruits as they grow to reduce strain and increase the chances that the fruits will ripen to maturity.
Perhaps Remove the Odd Leaf To Let Sunlight Reach Ripening Squash
There are different schools of thought as to whether we should ever remove leaves to let the squash ripen in the sun. In warmer climates, with hot summers, this is rarely a good idea. The fruits do actually need some shade to protect them from sun damage. However, in the UK, where the temperatures and sunlight are usually less extreme, plants sometimes do need a little helping hand to grow outside their usual ‘comfort zone’. So a little light pruning of older leaves to let the light in can sometimes be a good idea.
Caution is sensible, however, since each pruning cut provides an opportunity for diseases to get in. So prune only a little, if you prune at all.
Cure Winter Squash to Ripen Them For Storage
Finally, before the first frosts, you will remove almost ripe fruits from their vines and cure them. Curing simply involves leaving them in the sun or a warm spot for a couple of weeks to allow the outer skin to harden off and dry out. This curing process is an essential step in ripening winter squash to the point where they are ready for storage.
In our climate, squash will not usually be left outside for this stage, but will be brought into a bright, warm spot indoors, or in a polytunnel or greenhouse. Once this stage is complete, the squash can be brought into your home and will keep in a cool place for 2-3 months, or even longer (depending on the variety).
Which winter squash have you had most success with here in the UK? Let us know your variety suggestions and other tips in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.