Spaghetti squash (Cucurbita pepo) pictured on the trellis to the left, having its space invaded by a bottle gourd. On the right is butternut squash, black futsu pumpkin, rockmelon & glass gem corn.
Hands down, spaghetti squash is the plant we receive the most inquiries about & the most praise for. We are constantly being asked for seedlings & seeds, which is no surprise considering a single spaghetti squash fruit (yes, it’s technically a fruit, not a vegetable) will set you back between $5 – $10. They are also not very widely available in shops, although it seems likely that will change with their rising popularity.
We started growing spaghetti squash because of 2 reasons; 1) I am obsessed with squash. 2) We tried a shop-brought one once. I under cooked it slightly but was hungry (as usual) and ate it anyway, and I couldn’t justify spending another $6 on something that seemed pretty damn easy to grow. So I spent $1 on a packet of seeds instead & bided my time.
We are frequently asked for advice about how to grow a variety of food plants, which we are still puzzled about because we’ve only been doing this for a couple of years and are in the midst of having many first time successes, including squash. But it doesn’t matter if you’ve succeeded in growing something for the first time or the 100th time, there’s someone out there that could use your advice. So, here it is, our guide to spaghetti squash success.
STEP ONE – SEEDS
Spaghetti squash seeds are pretty readily available at online seed stores. See if there are some available through your usual source or google it. Simple.
It’s best to check where the company you’re buying them from is located/where they source their seed as you’ll want to source them from somewhere with a similar climate to yours (a good thing to do when purchasing any seeds or plants online.) The reason for this is that seeds carry genetic information from their parent plant. If they were grown in a cold climate, the seeds will be expecting a cold climate and might not grow so well in the heat. This is especially important for us here on the Adelaide plains as summer is pretty intense here.
STEP TWO – SOIL
In our garden, the soil is beautiful heavy red clay. Packed with nutrients & water retention ability, but the small particles make it too dense to plant straight into. So, soil improvement is a must.
The area we were planting in is roughly 3m X 2m.
First step for us was to move in half a wheelbarrow load of gypsum. We spread this around the area, watered it in & then left it for an hour or so. The reason we add gypsum is because it’s a brilliant clay breaker, and it’s pH neutral. The longer you leave it to soak into the soil, the easier it is to dig into. We then dug into the soil with a garden fork.
Next step was to bring in about 3 wheelbarrow loads of compost and just under 1 of sand. Adding a combination of compost & sand adds nutrients, & most importantly, helps with drainage. We turned this mix with the garden fork until it was even and there were no huge chunks of clay.
SIDE NOTE ON pH:
Before we added the compost, the heavy clay soil had a pH of about 8. This amount of pH neutral compost managed to bring us much closer to a 7, which was good enough for me! Most gardening books/web pages will recommend a pH of about 5.5-7, I haven’t grown squash in acidic soil before so I’m not expert. But, squash are very susceptible to downy mildew & other fungal diseases, and considering fungus generally prefers acidic soil, I would imagine there might be a slightly increased risk with more acidic soil. But really, I have no idea.
STEP THREE: SOW
Now for the easy part. You’ve got your seeds, the soil is prepared, now it’s time to sow!
A general rule of thumb I’ve heard for seeds is the plant them as deep as the diameter of the seed. Basically, small seeds are planted shallower than big seeds. Although, I have had great success with my rule of thumb for beans, which is to plant them to the depth of my thumb.
I planted my seeds about 6cm deep. I find if they are planted shallower they go a bit leggy.
Water them in and make sure to keep the soil moist but not saturated until seedlings emerge.
STEP FOUR: SPACING
Always plant a greater number of seeds than the amount of plants you want to grow. This way, when the seedlings are growing you can decide who is worthy of your garden space and prick out the smaller, weaker plants (or you can carefully dig them up & share them with friends, squash can get transplant shock so be sure to give them some worm or seaweed juice when they’re transplanted.)
Plants should be spaced 80-90cm apart, so keep that in mind when you’re picking out some of the weaker plants. If your strongest plants happen to be really close together it might be best to take a leap of faith with a smaller plant that’s a bit further away so that at least one of the strong plants will flourish.
STEP 5: SECURITY
This step is semi-optional depending on your situation.
The pictured plants are technically not my very first attempt at growing spaghetti squash, they are, in fact, the second lot of seeds that I sowed. Apparently the first batch was an offering to the blackbirds, something that I was not aware of until they had already seized them. This was not my first run in with the blackbirds, and I doubt it will be my last.
The lesson here is that if birds frequent your property, put a net over the patch after you sow your seeds. Or cut a plastic bottle in half and pop that over the top of the seed. Or make a scarecrow. Or sit at at your squash patch 24 hours a day in anticipation of winged thieves. Whatever gets the job done.
STEP 6: SEEDLINGS & SAFETY
Seedlings will generally emerge in 6-12 days. Assuming you’ve taken all the correct preparation steps, they will grow pretty damn quickly once they’ve come up. When the seedlings get to the stage of having 3-4 leaves, I like to initiate defense against fungus.
Making your own fungicide is easy, cheap & organic. Plus, it’s pretty likely that you have the ingredients at home. I use a spray made up of 80% water and 20% organic, full cream milk. Apparently a mix with more than 30% milk can actually cause sooty mold, so feel free to experiment with ratios but keep it below 30% milk! I can’t find definitive information on how milk works as a fungicide but it seems it’s down to the antibiotic properties and other agents which are produced during the milks exposure to sunlight. This works as a preventative & can also suppress diseases if caught early.
Another easy to make fungicide is a mix of 2 tsp of bicarb soda per litre of water and a few drops of vegetable oil to help it ‘stick.’ Bicarb soda is alkaline, and fungus likes acidity. The idea is that making the surface of the leaves more alkaline will kill of the fungus.
I like to apply either of these home made fungicides every 3 weeks or so.
STEP 7: FLOWERS
Well, I made it this far using only steps that start with ‘S.’
When your squash gets to roughly the size pictured above, it will start to flower. The first flush of flowers will almost certainly be entirely male, but not to fear, this means that the ladies will soon be here!
Telling the difference between male and female flowers is easy once you know what to look for.
Pictured above is a female flower a few hours after its prime. The female flowers have a tiny squash at the base which is the result of a swollen ovary ready to reproduce. The male flowers look very similar but have just a regular stem at the base. Once the pollen from the male flower makes contact with the female flower – the squash will begin to grow.
STEP 8: POLLINATION
As I said above, pollen from the male flowers needs to make contact with the female flower. This is usually achieved by one of our favorite garden helpers – bees. If you have a lack of bees or pollinators in your garden, don’t worry, you can always pollinate them yourself!
Hand-pollinating is a simple process. Just wait until you have both male & female flowers on your plant. Pick one of the male flowers and rub its stamen on the female flowers pistil. In more simpler terms, rub the protruding centre of the male flower onto the protruding centre of the female flower. Now that you’ve essentially forced the copulation of these 2 flowers, your squash should start growing pretty quickly.
STEP 9: TRELLIS
Another optional step. I chose to make a (somewhat dodgy) trellis for my squash for a few reasons. 1) Keeping the foliage & fruit off the ground is a good step towards disease prevention. 2) They can scramble along quite a distance & I didn’t want them blocking my path. There are plenty of different ways to make a trellis. You just need to make sure that whatever materials & design you’ve chosen will hold the weight of several fruits at once.
My trellis took about 10-15 minutes and is simply star droppers & lots of strong string. Honestly, I am surprised it’s holding up considering there’s also a bottle gourd growing on there (not pictured above as it hadn’t been planted yet.)
STEP 10: PATIENCE
The time frame you’re looking at from sowing to harvest is about 3-4 months. You’ll know the squash have stopped growing & are starting to ripen when they start to turn from green to yellow. Below: Spaghetti squash in very early stages of ripening, you can see a touch of yellow at the bottom.
STEP 11: HARVEST
At this point your squashes are yellow and they look like they’re ready to pick. But don’t be too hasty, just because they look ready – doesn’t mean they are.
To tell when your squash is ripe and ready to pick you need to make sure of a few things:
1) The colour is a nice bright yellow.
2) The squash will have a hollow sound when you knock on it.
3) MOST IMPORTANT – The stem is turning brown and dying off. This means the squash is totally done growing and ripening on the vine and is definitely ready to pick.
Make sure to keep 2-3 inches of stem attached to the squash to prevent rotting. The last thing you want is to have put in all that effort for months and have your squash go bad!
I would also suggest writing the date of harvest somewhere on the squash, so you know which ones to use first when it comes to eating.
STEP 12: THE CURE
Now that you’ve picked your spaghetti squash you need to exercise one last bit of patience and wait for it to cure. Curing allows for long term storage.
First you need to brush off any soil/dirt left on the squash.
You’ll need a warm, sunny position such as a windowsill or greenhouse where your squash can sit happily for 7 – 10 days. Then you need to flip it over to the other side and let it sit again for 7-10 days.
You may notice after the curing period that your squash develops a slightly deeper colour. The flavour will have also developed into a richer, sweeter flavour. This is because some of the excess water has been released which helps concentrate the sugars.
Plus the skin will become a bit harder and develop somewhat of a seal so that it stores better.
If you only need to store your squash for a short period of time, you can cure for 5 days on each side instead.
STEP 13: STORAGE
You can usually store squash in a dark, well ventilated, dry place for about 6 months. Make sure the place you choose to store it is secured from rats. If you notice any signs of pests, treat them accordingly.
If you’ve managed to accumulate lots of squash, spaghetti or otherwise, do not stack them together. This decreases airflow, and creates a large amount of ethylene being released in a single area which can speed up the aging process of your squash. (You may have heard of the old tick to ripen avocados but putting them in a brown bag with a few bananas – that’s because bananas release a lot of ethylene which will ripen them a lot quicker.)
If you see any that look like they’re staring to go bad, use them first.