November 23, 2012

by Helen Parks, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by
Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
Channing Metzler, at age 2, granddaughter of Master Gardener Helen Parks, poses in this keepsake photo of fall fairytale pumpkin decor.
A cornucopia filled with small pumpkins and winter squash of various colors and shapes provides a decorative holiday image for this time of year.
Varieties of winter squash are likely still available in the produce section of your local supermarket. See if you can identify the acorn, butternut, turban and sweet dumpling varieties shown here.
Images remind us of the holidays this time of year, and from those images come traditions. Nothing is more true than when our own family members, like my granddaughter Channing, are included in themed photographs that become part of family keepsakes and tradition.

Other images of the holidays include decor and favorite food dishes. For example, picture a cornucopia . what image comes to mind? Bounteous foods . pumpkins, gourds and squash. Whether we use them as decorations or for foods, pumpkins and winter squash with their various colors, shapes, sizes and textures have led us into fall.

Gourd family 'easy keepers'

Winter squash, thick-skinned fruits of the gourd family, are grown on vines and known as 'easy keepers.' This terminology dates back to our ancestors who depended on hearty, seasonal harvests for survival during the long winter. They are best harvested in the fall and can be stored for several months in a cool, dry place.

To grow your own

Start in the summer months to have colorful fall and winter squash this time of year.

Planting seeds - Winter squash seeds must be planted in warm soil, about four months prior to the first frost. Plant about six seeds to each mound of fertile soil and thin to three healthy plants when mature.

Harvesting fruit
- Expect three to five fruits per plant and do not harvest until skin is tough and plants die back. Allow a 1- to 2-inch cut stem when harvesting.

Preventive properties

While not promoting them for medicinal purposes, they are said to have some preventive health care properties. According to, a natural health and wellness resource, studies show, because of their carotene properties, winter squash exert a protective effect against many cancers, particularly lung cancer. Reports also indicate that starch-related components in winter squash have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, as well as anti-diabetic and insulin-regulating properties.

It has become more commonly accepted that diets rich in carotenes (especially pumpkins) offer protection against cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that pumpkin seeds are helpful in reducing symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Consult your health care provider to confirm these potential benefits.

Look for colors, shapes

Look beyond pumpkins when you are at the grocery store this time of year. Winter squash varieties are usually still available in the produce section of your supermarket right after Thanksgiving. See if you can identify the following varieties:

Acorn squash: Most common, acorn-shaped, fibrous flesh, dark green and multi-colored

Spaghetti squash: Watermelon-shaped, noodle-like strands, nutty flavor, golden yellow

Sweet dumpling squash: Miniature flat top pumpkin, corn-taste, cream-colored skin with green specks

Turban squash: Blossom end cap, hazelnut taste, bright orange to green or white

Ambercup squash: Small pumpkin, dry, sweet taste, bright orange flesh.

Butternut squash: 1 to 3 pounds, bell shaped, sweet nutty flavor, pale beige skin with deep orange pulp

Fairytale pumpkin squash: Medium to large, whimsical decorative, sweet and firm, ashy-orange cream skin

Culinary tips

All varieties are great for pureeing, roasting and baking. The Internet provides all kinds of 'how to' ideas to include winter squash in culinary treats that you can prepare for the holidays.

Purchase squash, heavy for its size, with thick dark, spot-free skin. To retain flavor and nutrients cook with less water than more. When using a whole winter squash, pierce the rind with a fork and bake in a 350-degree oven 45 minutes or microwave squash on high about five minutes.

Cool, scoop out the cooked pulp and place in a blender for required consistency. Use similarly to the recipe instructions found with this article in soups, main dishes, breads, muffins, custards and pies, or cut into pieces. Add butter, sauces, syrup and nuts. Unlike summer squash, the winter squash skin should not be eaten.

Prepare a winter squash recipe for your family this holiday season. Look in your trusty old favorite - or newest - cookbook. Search the Internet to find that "special" recipe. Then, surprise your family with a new holiday dish. It may become as much of a new tradition as those keepsake images of family and holiday decor.
• 1 acorn or butternut squash
• Hot water
• Salted butter
• 1 cup cranberry sauce
•2 tsp. cinnamon
•1/2 cup brown sugar

Peel, de-seed and slice acorn or butternut squash in half.
Cover bottom of baking pan with 1/2 inch of hot water. Bake squash cut-side down 40 minutes at 400 degrees. Drain water and brush squash with salted butter.
Mix together cranberry sauce, cinnamon and brown sugar. Fill squash cavities with mixture and bake for 30 minutes. Pecans, raisins, and miniature marshmallows can also be added to the filling depending on your taste.

Source: Helen R. Parks

Try this healthy snack or add to salads for a toasty crunch.

Wash and dry seeds.
Place single layer of seeds on cookie sheet and bake in 300 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.
Stir until light-brown and toasted on both sides.
Sweet or savory:
First, toss the seeds with a little honey or oil to add flavor and help your seasonings stick then try these tasty combos:
•Sweet: Honey, cinnamon, sugar
•Spicy: Olive oil, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, salt, pepper
•Zingy: Peanut oil, soy sauce, crumbled seaweed, ground ginger, spicy red chili sauce
•Addictive: Melted butter, thin slices of garlic, coarse sea salt

Tabitha Alterman, motherearthnews. com
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at