To break it down even further, they are generally divided into two categories, summer and winter squash and this is generally based on when they are eaten in the season but is also down to how well they store. Summer squash are fast to grow, are often eaten whole as their skin is thin and the seeds immature and tend to be eaten soon after harvest as they don’t store well. Zucchini is a summer squash. Winter squash, on the other hand, are slow to mature and can take most of the growing season to become ready for harvest. If picked when fully ripe, they can keep for months, if stored correctly in a cool, dry and dark place. The skin and seeds are normally not eaten.
There are many, many different varieties out there; being very friendly plants, they will easily cross pollinate with a close relative resulting in a weird and wonderful offspring combining all the many genetic possibilities. Some can be surprisingly delicious, and others are best destined for the compost pile.
If you are growing more than one variety of squash in your garden and intend to save the seeds to grow again, it is best to take precautions. First thing in the morning, before the bees are out, and as the flowers are opening for the first time, take a soft paint brush and gently swish it about inside a male flower then take the brush to a female flower and give it a tickle to transfer the pollen. Then close the flower up so bees don’t have a chance to ruin your handy work. It is also a good idea to tie a ribbon or string to the stem closest to the flower, you will then know, months down the track, which one you pollinated.
All cucurbits are monoecious meaning they have both male and female flowers. The male flowers have skinny stems and often appear unaccompanied early in the season to attract the bees and then the female flowers make an entrance with their fat stems that will become the fruit. These male flowers can be eaten and are great stuffed with goat’s cheese, dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried!
Growing pumpkins is relatively easy as they are very low maintenance once you get them planted out. Be forewarned though that they need a lot of space; the bare minimum to allow would be at least a metre square, but with good fertile soil they can grow even further. If need be, you can re-direct their growth gently with the use of landscape staples on young stems that are heading off in undesirable directions. As the fruit forms, you could slip some thick cardboard underneath to prevent rotting from contact with the damp soil, this though is not necessary. They are at risk of powdery mildew in late summer which slows their growth, however you can reduce this risk by watering the soil and not the leaves.
To harvest a pumpkin, wait until all the leaves on the plant are brown and crispy, the stem is brown and corky, and you can’t leave a mark on the skin with your fingernail. Leave a long stem and don’t use it as a handle as it will easily break and won’t store well. Don’t leave harvesting too late since a heavy frost can ruin them. Clean them with a light bleach solution and leave them in the sun for a couple of weeks to cure and for their skins to strength. During this time, the flavour of the flesh will deepen, making them even more deliciously comforting in the dead of winter.