Somewhere between the giant pumpkin and the tiny Sweet Dumpling squash there is a happy medium, though it’s not always easy to find.
Judging by what’s in the catalogues this year, small is increasingly beautiful in the eyes of gardeners, and that’s understandable, up to a point. We are a more urban country than we used to be, with small yards. We have small families. The phrase “portion control” is part of our vocabulary, if not our daily practice, and food waste is the eighth deadly sin.
So little squash are everywhere. Take any type of squash - butternut, buttercup, acorn, hubbard or spaghetti - and you can find “baby” varieties (or “single-serving” or “personal-size”). But in horticulture, there are small fruits and dwarf plants, and the two traits don’t always coexist in one variety. For example, Angel Hair spaghetti squash (from johnnyseeds.com) and a small butternut called Nutterbutter (highmowing seeds.com) are both small-fruited for their type but grow on standard-size vines. And there are numerous varieties that grow like a zucchini, with a bush or compact habit but with fruits that are normal size, such as Bush Buttercup from Baker Creek (rareseeds.com) and High Mowing’s Sugarbush F1, a bush acorn.
Some varieties bear diminutive fruits on small vines; these include Reno, Honey Bear, Gold Nugget and Bush Delicata.
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But size isn’t everything. Just because a squash has been miniaturized doesn’t mean it will grow fast. If you’re planting behind schedule or have a short growing season where you live, the baby butternut and Sweet Dumpling types may not mature before frost. Go for acorn or delicata squash instead. Direct sowing is best, but you can start transplants ahead to gain time, as long as they are no more than two or three weeks old when they go into the garden, after frost danger has passed.
Whether a squash keeps well matters, too. Winter squash are easy for a home gardener because they don’t need - or even like - the cold, moist air of a root cellar. A cool shed or spare room will do fine. Catalogues sometimes note storage times: High Mowing says that its Sugar Dumpling, an attractive, green-striped semi-bush squash with sweet orange flesh, will keep for a full six months. Burpee’s Butterbush (burpee.com) stores well, too. Honeynut, from Harris (harrisseeds.com), does not, but, oh, that’s a tasty little squash.
For many, flavor is the final arbiter. So what if heirloom monsters such as Blue Hubbard and the magnificent red-orange Rouge d’Étampes are too big for two? Cut into chunks, they keep for weeks in the fridge. Roasted, pureed and frozen, they’re the making of many a rich soup.
They are also works of art, and I’d much rather set one of them on a table than gold candlesticks or a silver bowl. Especially if they’re unusual. There’s a spectacular squash on the Baker Creek website, Musquee de Maroc, that is orange with vertical stripes of what looks like petrified broccoli. I want it, no matter what its other traits might be.
I also want to try inscribing a squash with a sharp pointed tool, while it’s still young, and watching the design emerge when it’s fully grown.
Barbara Damrosch is the author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.