Learning how to grow winter squash at home is a great way to add variety to your garden and it’s easier than you might think.
The first step is understanding what it takes to grow winter squash vines successfully. This complete guide will teach you everything you need to know.
Discover how much sun, water, and fertilizer they need, plus how to prune, control pests, harvest, troubleshoot any potential problems, and much more.
Quick Winter Squash Care Overview
|Yellow, blooms summer-fall
|Keep soil evenly moist, do not overwater
|High phosphorus, slow-release, or liquid fertilizer, spring-fall
|Rich, fertile, well-draining
|Squash vine borers, Squash bugs, Caterpillar beetles, Aphids
Information About Winter Squash
Winter squash is an annual vining vegetable from the Cucurbit family that is native to Central and South America.
They have shallow roots and sprawling growth that can reach between 3-15 ft in total length, depending on the variety.
The long vines feature large green leaves that range in shape and size. They produce slow-growing squash from bright yellow flowers.
The fruit has a hard rind and is known for its long shelf life once cured. Color, flavor, shape, and time to maturity varies widely across the many different types of winter squash.
Why Is It Called Winter Squash?
Despite what you may think, winter squash does not get its name because it’s grown in the winter. It actually does most of its growing in the summer.
The name comes from the fact that the fruit is often stored to provide vegetables throughout the winter season due to the fantastic, long shelf life.
With proper handling and storage conditions, they can last for 3-6 months in your pantry or root cellar.
Related Post: How To Grow Summer Squash At Home
Different Types Of Winter Squash
There are hundreds of varieties of winter squash that feature a huge array of interior and exterior colors, shapes, flavors, growth habits, and more. Thankfully they all require the same basic care.
It can be fun finding your favorite type of winter squash to grow. But to get started, here’s a list of a few of the most popular ones:
- Butternut squash – The slightly pear-shaped, often large fruits have a tan colored rind and rich orange interior that has a nutty, sweet flavor.
- Acorn squash – The deep green-black rind is ridged and acorn-shaped, giving it the common name. The exterior and sweet, orange-yellow flesh are both edible once cooked.
- Delicata squash – This more tender variety is smaller than others and has an edible rind. They’re elongated cylinders with yellow, white, and green mottled exteriors and yellow flesh.
- Spaghetti squash – This fun variety is large and oval, with a bright yellow skin and pale yellow inside. The mild flesh shreds into spaghetti-like strips when cooked, and is a popular pasta replacement.
- Pumpkins – From jack-o-lanterns to edible sugar pie pumpkins, they come in a wide range of sizes and textures. The exteriors are orange, white, or blue-green, with orange insides that are often sweet and nutty in flavor.
Winter squash are annuals that grow well in zones 2-11. Despite the name, they are not cold hardy, but can tolerate temperatures as low as 32°F (0°C) for very short periods.
They have a long growing season, and require about 75-110 frost-free days to produce mature squash.
How Does Winter Squash Grow?
Winter squash grows when female flowers are pollinated by male ones. Every plant contains both types of flowers.
The first ones to show are males, followed quickly by females. They can be differentiated by the base of the flower. The females have a small, miniature squash beneath the blossom, but the males do not.
Insects move pollen from the males to the females and the squash will begin to grow a few days later. Learn how to tell the difference between male and female squash flowers here.
How To Grow Winter Squash
Before we talk about providing the best care, first we need to chat about where and when to grow winter squash. The right timing and location are key to a successful harvest.
Where To Grow Winter Squash
Winter squash needs a full sun location and plenty of space to grow its best.
Some dwarf and bush varieties can be grown in a large container with good drainage. But most vines are too big for pots and do better in the ground.
They need loamy, fertile soil and at least 4’ between each plant so they don’t compete with each other or take over other vegetables.
When To Plant Winter Squash
Winter squash needs to be planted as early as possible in the spring to ensure they have enough time to grow large enough to produce mature fruit.
Soil temperatures above 60°F are ideal for germination, and if it’s too cold they may not grow. You can use a soil thermometer to check it.
In cold climates you can start them indoors 2-4 weeks before the last frost date, but the roots are sensitive to transplanting.
Always start the seeds in biodegradable pots so the roots are not disturbed when you transplant them.
Winter Squash Plant Care & Growing Instructions
Now that you have the right time and location in mind, it’s time to talk about how to take care of winter squash plants. These tips will help you tend to your vines all season long.
Winter squash plants need full sun to grow, at least 6-8 hours of unobstructed exposure daily.
Too much shade will stunt the growth of both the vines and the fruits, lowering their potential yield.
In very hot weather the afternoon sun may cause wilting, but light shade or additional water can prevent that.
Slow, deep, and thorough watering is the best method for growing winter squash plants. They need at least 1” per week.
They have shallow roots, so give them a drink when the top two inches of soil is dry. You can check it with a probe meter gauge.
Be careful to only water at the base of the plant. That will help avoid soil and moisture splashing on the leaves and fruits, which can cause and spread disease.
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The ideal temperature range for growing winter squash is between 65-90°F (18-32.2°C). Anything lower can delay or stall growth, and temps below 32°F (0°C) will eventually kill the plant.
Extreme heat of 95°F (35°C) or higher can stop flowering and cause wilting. Additional hydration and light shade in the hottest part of the day are the best methods to prevent that.
Regular fertilizer throughout the season will promote growth and fruiting. Start with a natural, all-purpose balanced fertilizer in the spring.
Then when flowering has begun, switch to a high-phosphorus fertilizer to promote healthy fruiting and increase the amount of blossoms.
The ideal soil for growing a winter squash plant is fertile, well-draining, and rich, with a pH between 5.5-7.0 on a probe gauge.
Amend garden beds with up to 50% aged manure or compost at planting time to give them a good start, and improve drainage and available nutrients.
A trellis is very beneficial for freeing up your garden space, and also the health of vining winter squash plants.
It gets the vines and fruit off the ground and away from pests, and makes it much easier to harvest. Sturdy options like A-frames, arches, and arbors are good choices for the heavy fruits.
Get more details on selecting the right support and how to train the vines in my guide on trellising squash.
Related Post: How To Build A Squash Arch For Your Garden
Pruning a winter squash vine isn’t necessary, but it can refocus the plant’s energy on maturing fruit, and control the sprawl that tends to happen late in the season.
Wait until they’ve started setting fruit, then use sharp, sterile pruners to cut away the non-fruiting vines.
You can also pinch back tips on long growth. Find the last fruit on that section, then move toward the end of the vine and snip it off just past the outermost leaf node.
Pest Control Tips
Pests like squash bugs, squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, and aphids may become issues for your winter squash vines.
Row covers, diatomaceous earth, hand-picking, neem oil, and insecticidal soap are all effective control methods. I make my own spray by combining 1 teaspoon of gentle liquid soap with 1 liter of water.
Be on the lookout for signs of pests, like yellowing or brown leaves, soft vines, wilting, and a yellow sawdust-like residue on the vines.
Disease Control Tips
Bacterial leaf spot and powdery mildew are two potential issues for growing healthy winter squash vines.
Leaf spot presents as brown-yellow ringed spots on the foliage and small tan pebbling on the fruit, while powdery mildew causes white spotting on the leaves.
Both can be reduced with proper watering practices, and growing disease resistant varieties. Avoid overhead watering to prevent moisture and soil from splashing on the foliage.
If you see the beginnings of mildew, an organic fungicide early on can slow down the spread.
Tips For Harvesting Winter Squash
My guide on harvesting squash has tons of detailed information on properly picking them from the vines. But here are a few essential tips:
- Leave them on the vine until the plant dies back, or until just before the first hard frost, so the fruit has the longest possible time to mature.
- The skin should be hard and vibrant, and the fruit should sound hollow when you tap on it.
- Use sharp pruners to cut them from the vine, leaving 2-3” of the stem still attached to the squash. Never pull them off the vine, or it can break off the stem or damage the fruit, and they won’t store well.
- Don’t carry them by the stem, and handle the fruits carefully. Damaging the rinds or stems will shorten their potential storage time significantly.
Storing Winter Squash
Winter squash can be stored for up to 6 months when properly cured first. Leave them somewhere sunny and warm for 2 weeks after harvest to allow the rinds and stems to fully harden.
Then transfer the squash somewhere cool, dark, and dry until you’re ready to use them. Temperatures between 55-61°F (12.7-16.1°C) are ideal.
Troubleshooting Common Problems
Winter squash vines are a great vegetable for beginners, but you may run into one of these issues over time. Use my tips to troubleshoot the cause and get them back in good health.
Fruits Rotting At The Tip
Rot forming at the tip of your squash is called blossom end rot. It’s caused by stress, most often from uneven watering, root damage, or extreme temperatures, which results in depleted nutrients.
Keep the soil evenly moist and avoid going from bone dry to extremely wet. Never water to the point of puddling the soil. You can also test your soil and amend it as needed.
Plant Suddenly Drooping
Dehydration, extreme heat, or squash borers are the main causes of sudden drooping or wilted foliage. Make sure your winter squash is receiving even, consistent moisture to prevent drought conditions.
Inspect the vines for holes or saw dust mush, which are the telltale signs of a borer infestation, and remove the borers from inside the vines immediately.
If the plant is well watered and there are no signs of borers, then it’s likely caused by heat. Hot weather can stress squash plants, but they should return to normal when it cools down.
Squash Dying Before They Get Big
If the baby winter squashes on your vines are shriveling, turning yellow or brown, and dying before they grow larger it’s a problem with lack of pollination.
White Spots On The Leaves
White spots on winter squash leaves are caused by powdery mildew spread from airborne spores, which thrive in wet conditions.
Make sure you’re following best watering practices, and that the vines aren’t crowded by other plants.
If you see powdery mildew beginning to form, trim off the affected leaf with clean, sterile pruners and destroy it. Then begin treating the remaining leaves with an organic fungicide.
Flowers But No Fruit
If you have flowers but no fruit forming you’re likely dealing with an issue of pollination or lack of female flowers.
If your plant doesn’t have any females, it could be due to timing or temperature. Extreme heat or cold can delay them from forming, but it’s also natural for the males to appear first.
It’s usually just a matter of giving the plant more time to produce both types of flowers. But you can also try either top-dressing with high-phosphorus granules or applying a liquid, like compost tea or fish emulsion.
Here I’ve answered some of the most commonly asked questions about growing winter squash. If yours isn’t listed, please add it to the comments section below.
How long does it take winter squash to grow?
How long winter squash takes to grow depends on the variety, but on average they’re ready to harvest between 75-110 days after planting.
What is the easiest winter squash to grow?
All winter squash plants can be easy to grow with the proper space, sun, and healthy soil. But acorn or delicata squash are great choices for beginners because they mature in as little as 80 days.
Can winter squash be left in the ground until frost?
Yes, winter squash can be left in the ground until frost, however it may kill the vine. Be sure to harvest all of the remaining squash before it drops below 32°F (0°C) though, because freezing temps can damage the fruits.
Can you grow winter squash in the fall?
You can grow winter squash in the fall, but only if you live in a very warm climate that stays above 60°F. Since they have such a long growing season, most gardeners will need to start them in the spring so they have all summer in the heat and sun to properly form fruit.
What do you do with squash plants in the winter?
Squash plants are annuals and will not survive the winter in most climates. So simply harvest all fruit in the fall, then remove and discard the dead vines.
If you’d like to learn how to make the most of your space and get as much homegrown food as possible, then my Vertical Vegetables book is perfect! It will teach you all you need to know, has tons of gorgeous photos, and includes 23 DIY projects you can build for your own garden. Order your copy today!
Learn more about my Vertical Vegetables book here.
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Share your tips for growing winter squash in the comments section below.