Gardening : Acorn Squash Can Be Grown at Home Now : They can be delicious in immature stage or stored for tasty eating when full grown.

Smaller is better when it comes to winter squash.

For instance, a huge banana or hubbard squash usually provides too much eating for the average family. Once cut, the remainder of the squash tends to lose its quality rapidly.

That's where acorn squash has its advantage. When cut in half, each half is a perfect size for an individual serving, and it can be baked and served right in its shell.

In years past it wasn't practical for the average gardener to grow acorn squash. Although the squash themselves were small, the vines were huge and sprawling. Now, however, plant breeders have developed new varieties with compact bush habits that fit well in the average or even small home garden.

Among these newer bush types are four varieties which I have found to be outstanding: "Early Acorn Hybrid," "Burpee's Bush Table Queen," "Bush Table King" and "Jersey Golden Acorn," an All America winner a few years ago.

The first three varieties resemble the traditional acorn squash with the acorn shape and deeply ribbed, dark-green skin. However, "Jersey Golden Acorn" is quite unusual.

Sweet Flavor

As its name implies, it has a gold rather than a green coloring, but what makes it really different is that it can be picked while the fruit are immature (about the size of a golf ball when the outer skin is still soft) and eaten raw or utilized like a summer squash.

The flavor in this immature stage is sweet and the flesh is tender and delicious. The fruit that are not picked in the immature stage will develop into full-size, golden-colored acorn squash with the typical hard shell and good storage capabilities.

Although acorn squash are classified as winter squash, don't let the name winter squash confuse you. They are not grown in the winter. They require the same warm weather as summer squash. They are called winter squash because their hard outer shell allows for good storage for winter use.

Acorn squash is easy to grow. It loves warmth and may be planted from April through early summer. To grow acorn squash, locate a sunny, warm area of your yard and prepare the soil by spading and enriching it with compost, peat moss or other organic materials. Add to the soil an application of an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer; follow the label directions as to amount. Water the soil thoroughly and allow it to settle for two days.

Retain Only Strongest

Sow the seeds one inch deep in round groups. The rounded areas should be about 18 inches in diameter and contain eight seeds spaced about 4 inches apart. Allow 4 feet between groups. When the young plants get to be 3 inches tall, thin out all but the three strongest plants in each group.

Acorn squash have a high water requirement and should be watered deeply on a weekly basis or more often during periods of extreme heat. Avoid overhead watering as this promotes mildew. They should receive a supplemental feeding of a vegetable fertilizer on a monthly basis.

Always water immediately after feeding. Although they are not immune to insect damage, winter squash are not as prone to insect pests as most other vegetables. If you have a specific insect problem, consult your local nursery for the proper controls.

Acorn squash (with the exception of "Jersey Golden Acorn" as noted above) should be harvested when the plants start to yellow and dry up and the outer skin of the fruit is quite hard. Leave 3 inches of stem on each squash and let them cure in the sun for two days before storing them in a cool, dry area.

Baked or Steamed

Acorn squash are good either baked or steamed. They are especially tasty sliced in half and baked with sherry and chopped walnuts, then served with butter and pepper. By the way, the blossoms of acorn and other squash are delicious when prepared in a tempura batter and fried in a wok, or stuffed and baked.

Choose only the male blossoms (the female blossom has a bulge at its base below the petals) or you won't have any squash reach maturity.

Seeds for acorn squash varieties mentioned here should be available in local nurseries.

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