Squash, beans and corn, known as the “Three Sisters” comprised the trinity that was the staple diet of ancient America. Unbelievably, remains of wild or, possibly, cultivated squash have been found in Mexico that date to 9000 BC. Similar archaeological evidence has been unearthed in South America, Central America and northern, North America.
The wild varieties of squash were quite small and unpleasantly bitter tasting. Ancient peoples were not attracted to these vegetables for food. Instead, it is hypothesized, that ancient peoples collected the squash and dried them to make rattles and instruments for ceremonies and containers for storage and eating. Eventually, the ancient peoples came to appreciate and value the squash seeds which were rich in nutritious oils. After, perhaps centuries, ancient farmers began to select for and cultivate varieties of squash that produced pleasant tasting flesh.
The squash family can generally be divided into two classes – winter squash and summer squash - and fundamentally four species: c. maxima, c. mixta, c. moschata and c. pepo. Of the four species, three represent both summer and winter squash. The maximas are exclusively winter squash.
C. maxima are native to Bolivia and Argentina. They are the biggest fruits on earth. Some weigh more than 1000 pounds. The first maximas appeared in seed lists around 1830. Today’s giant pumpkins have all descended from a popular French maxima variety known as Jaune Gros de Paris.
C. mixta are believed to be native to Guatemala and some areas of the southwestern United States where they have been cultivated since ancient times. This group includes the winter squash known as cushaws. Mixtas are drought tolerant and their flesh is stringier and less flavorful than other squash.
C. moschata are native to the tropical areas of Central and South America. They grow best in high humidity and warm nighttime temperatures. The plants have very large leaves, long vines, and five sided stems. Butternut squash is a member of this group.
C. pepo is the family of squash that includes zucchini and most of the varieties of summer squash. These squash grow on bushy or vining plants and are eaten in their immature stage when they are still tender. The group also includes many of the pumpkins used for pies and carving as Jack O’ Lanterns. Acorn squash are also part of this group.
Start squash and pumpkin seeds indoors, 3-4 weeks before the last frost date. Prior to transplanting, work generous amounts of compost or dried manure into the soil because squash and pumpkins love rich, well-drained soil. Never crowd squash. Competition for sun, space or nutrients will decrease the number of female flowers and thus the production. Transplant squash to hills, 3-4 plants per hill with at least 12 inches between plants. For bush varieties, hills should be 5 feet apart. For vining varieties, hills should be 10 feet apart. Covering the hills with 6 mm black polyethylene plastic is recommended. The plastic keeps the soil warm, protects against insects and soil borne pathogens, reduces weeding and leads to earlier and higher yields.
Harvest summer squash when it is still young and tender – usually when the plants are 4-8 inches long or the patty pans are 3 inches in diameter. The more you pick summer squash, they more they will produce. If the squash get overgrown, harvest and use them for baking. Harvest winter squash when they are full grown, their skins have turned color and hardened and they pass the “thumbnail test”. That is, when the skin resists puncture by a thumbnail. Winter squash will keep for months if left in a cold, dry, dark storage area.