Sunday, April 18, 2010

Alternative Squashes for Hot and Cold Climates

Taiwan Pumpkin

Jamaican Pumpkin

my kitchen as the fall harvest progresses

Seminole Pumpkin

Thai Small Pumpkin

Something that is evolving in my yard


La Primera


There’s nothing like savoring a baked Butternut squash, especially during winter months. But all too often they fail to thrive in Florida's muggy summer gardens, falling prey to bugs and fungi. Yet several closely related tropical squashes loosely referred to as both "calabazas" and "pumpkins" glory in the summer months and can fill our homes with "winter keeper" squashes that will keep for up to 6 months indoors without refrigeration.
Many of us have been disappointed by the bland flavor of the tan-skinned "calabazas" that show up in many grocery stores vs. the now rarely seen dark green calabazas of old style Cuban cuisine. But reliable mail order seed houses provide a host of tasty ones, like the Japanese "kabocha", the Everglades native "Seminole Pumpkin", the various "Thai Pumpkins", the hybrid ‘La Primera’, plus assorted "calabazas" from Central America and southern Mexico, all being members of the species Cucurbita moschata. Over the last few years I have tested over 30 varieties of squash and pumpkins of that species and two others, C. mixta and C. maxima, in my yard and friends’ yards in a quest for the best growth, flavor and keeping qualities.
My years in Denver tell me that folks in northern climates, when ordering winter squash seeds, might consider buying ones bred from those last two species ( for example, 'Buttercup' was derived from C. maxima, perhaps one reason why it grew spectacularly in my Denver gardens but is rarely seen in central Florida gardens).

Their needs are simple; full sun, rich fertile soil, summer rains, and ROOM as the vines can sprawl 20 or more feet! Sow the seeds April through June in a fertile garden, or create a special "compost pit" to grow them in. Dig a deep hole 2 feet wide and 18 inches deep and pour in 5 lbs. of cheap dry dog food nuggets. If you have access to horse manure dump in about 5 pounds of that too. If you live inland and have acid soil sprinkle in 2 cups of dolomitic limestone sold in 50 lb. bags at garden centers for about $4 per bag. Then fill the hole with organic wastes like raked leaves, bush trimmings, and kitchen scraps like coffee grounds and eggshells, plus soiled kitty litter and compost. Cover this all up with the soil you dug out till you end up with a low dome, water it deeply, mulch with leaves or chipped tree trimmings mulch, then plant 3 seeds 1 inch deep at the top of the dome. Water deeply again. In a week, plump seedlings will emerge.
As summer deepens and the rains come and nights get warm, the vines’ growth rate will astound you, as will the lack of bug or fungus problems.
I enjoy eating the lovely yellow male flowers (a long thin stem instead of a baby squash behind the bloom as in female blooms) as a raw plate garnish, and the Japanese dip them in tempura batter and deep fry them. And the tender vine tips and newly unfolded baby leaves are delicious if cut into thin strips and added to stir fry and casserole dishes, another Asian cooking tradition. Immature green squashes may be harvested all summer and used like zucchini. So long before the bountiful fall harvest, "calabazas" will be feeding you and your family.

Late in the autumn, as the vines wither, your pumpkins and squash will be ready to cut off the vine and store in a cool room or garage. Don’t let them touch to reduce rotting problems and they’ll keep very easily for 4-6 months, sweetening as they age. Try them baked with honey and butter and salt, or with garlic powder, butter and salt, baked into "pumpkin pies", or cut raw into strips much like carrot sticks. Drop chunks of the rich orange flesh into winter soups and find many recipes on-line for Jamaican and Asian pumpkin soups. And be sure to rinse the seeds in a colander and let them dry on a paper towel...eaten raw they are very healthy and nutty tasting, or pan fry them in a skillet with a little roasted sesame oil and salt for a hearty snack. And of course any of these varieties will provide kids with some creative Jack-O-Lanterns for Halloween.

My fifteen years of gardening in Denver tell me these varieties would resent the cool summer nights and low I KNOW they'd barely have time to produce in that painfully short growing season. But if your area has long hot humid summers maybe give them a try.

One last thing: those rampant vines will choke out nearly all weeds, so create a "compost pit" garden for your calabazas wherever you have a weedy sunny area you’d like to wipe clean. What a treat to turn weeds into bounty for the kitchen.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds:
Ph. (417) 924-8917
Evergreen Y. H. Enterprises
Ph. (714) 637-5769


  1. e.c.h.o. nursery also carries the seminole indian pumpkin

    soo cool to see other people into this stuff

  2. Yes I love ECHO.....I got my Seminole Pumpkin, Velvet Beans and Sword Beans there. They do GREAT work!


  3. hi, how are you? I hope that all is well.

    I wanted to know if you can tell me exactly which seed company I can get seeds for the jamaican pumpkin and La Primera.

  4. I am growing seminole pumpkin in a very large pot vertically here in Dallas. Quite a amazing plant. It loves the heat, but one has to keep the roots wet which is a challenge in our dry climate.

    Question. I have never heard using dry dog food as a soil amendment. What does that bring to the party as far as a growth factor?

  5. @Tucanae Dog food is loaded with nitrogen as well as micronutrients.