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19 November 2014

Growing Butternut Squash

A vegetable which is growing in popularity is the butternut squash, which is classed as a type of winter squash, as while it grows over the Summer and Autumn, most varieties will store for three or four months over the winter, in a cool dry place.

They originated in the Americas, the word “Squash” coming from the native word “askutasquash”, meaning “the green thing to be eaten raw”. They are even better cooked!

Butternuts have been mostly derived from Cucurbita moschata, which prefers longer and hotter summers than we usually enjoy in the UK. This means that there is a very limited time available to raise your crop, especially in the North of the UK. They cannot be planted out before the last frost without cloche protection, and must be hardened off before the first frost of the Autumn, giving an available “growing window” of roughly 105 days in a bad year. The traditional varieties of Butternuts are likely to take some 125 days before the first one is ripe, so measures must be taken to extend the growing period, even though new varieties, specially bred for the UK climate, are becoming available.

If you live in the North of the UK, you would be advised to start the seeds of one of the specially bred, early ripening Butternut varieties indoors in a propagator in April, transfer the seedlings to a greenhouse, then cold frame, before planting them out in early June under cloches or a purpose made cold frame.

Do not plant out these sub-tropical plants before the last expected date for frost in your area, which could be mid May for the mildest areas such as Southern coastal areas, and early June in the North. Even then, provide cloche or fleece protection for the first few weeks as cold nights and winds will cause plant damage. Just one night of a late frost will kill your sub-tropical plants.

When the plants start to flower, several male flowers will usually appear before the first female flowers form with an embryonic butternut underneath the flower. You will then need to provide access for bees to carry out the pollination, unless you are prepared to hand pollinate the female flowers. When a squash has quite clearly set and is growing in size, remove the dried up remains of the flower petals to prevent them rotting in damp conditions.

Butternuts like fertile ground which is kept well-watered during the growing season. They also require plenty of space as they can trail for several metres in a season, though you can keep them under control by stopping them after they have set the first few fruits. This will also encourage the squashes to ripen. As the squashes form, place a tile or something similar under each one to keep them off the ground and prevent rotting.

Your crop should be ready for drying off in late September or October. Remove the fruits, leaving plenty of stem attached to prevent rot reaching them, then place them on a dry sunny shelf in the greenhouse, or sunny windowsill, for several weeks to allow the skin to harden. Once the skin has become hard, store them in a dry, cool, frost free place indoors, where they should remain in good condition until Spring.

Varieties of butternut squash are available which have been bred with the UK climate in mind, which are claimed to ripen about four weeks earlier than traditional varieties. The following come into this category:-

Harrier F1. Claimed to be ready to harvest in 95 days from sowing, but expect longer in the North of the UK. It has sweet flesh, good storage and about 800 g or 1.75 lb size.

Hawk F1. Claimed to be quick maturing with sweet flesh, good storage and about 700 g or 1.5 lb size.

Hunter F1 Claimed to succeed as far north as Lancashire, with sweet flesh, good storage.

Once you have been successful in growing butternuts you might try one of the other varieties available.
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