Winter Squash at High Altitude

Cranberry Squash diffuseAs I pulled up the driveway and into the garage, I noticed a large object in a plastic grocery bag, nestled against the front door. Upon inspection, I realized it was a Kabocha squash. What was it doing on my doorstep? My first guess proved correct—our elderly neighbor, a former master gardener, had grown it and was showing off his gardening prowess by sharing his harvest with us.

I was quite impressed. We live at an altitude of about 7,000 feet and long-season veggies don’t have time to mature during our short growing season. Still, the evidence was right in front of me. Somehow, Oscar had managed to grow a (very delicious) Kabocha squash. I was determined to do likewise.

When I baked the squash, I had first made sure to scoop out and save the seeds. The following spring I started those seeds indoors, about three weeks before it would be safe to move the seedlings outside. Squash plants resent transplanting, and I didn’t want them to outgrow their pots. To be on the safe side, I also purchased some seeds online, looking for the earliest variety I could find. I planted those seeds at the same time.

While I waited for my baby squash plants to reach transplant size, I double-dug the raised bed where they were to grow, incorporating a generous helping of compost and aged chicken manure. Squash have a reputation of being “heavy feeders” and I wanted my plants to grow rapidly. Black “IR” plastic preheated the soil. I was using every short-season trick I knew.

Finally, around Memorial Day, I moved my seedlings into the garden. Some bottomless milk jugs offered protection from the erratic temperatures and biting wind. Springtime in the Rockies can be vicious.

The plants sulked at first, then finally started growing. I nursed them along, watering, weeding, side-dressing with added nitrogen (the only nutrient my soil is short on). They had three leaves, then five.

Go, squash, go!

By the end of August, my squash had vines an underwhelming two feet long, with a smattering of hail-shredded leaves and not a single blossom. It snowed on September 16.

Shortly after our first snowstorm, I came home to find another Kabocha squash on my front porch. How did he do it?

The following year was pretty much a repeat performance. I started the squash a week earlier and used a plastic tent instead of milk jugs. This time we were lucky and had no severe hail storms. My vines had flowers on them when they froze to death.

The Kabocha appeared right on schedule.

This time I’d had it. I walked around the corner and down the long driveway to Oscar’s house, and banged on the front door. When he answered, I demanded to know his secret. How I the world did he manage to mature winter squash with our growing season?

He shared his secret, and I’m passing it on to you.

  1. Buy the earliest variety you can find.
  2. Build a large, heated greenhouse.
  3. In early March, plant squash seeds in #5 cans full of potting mix and compost.
  4. Place cans in greenhouse.
  5. Nurture growing vines.
  6. Plant large vines laden with blossoms outside on June 1 or when weather permits.
  7. Harvest squash and share with neighbors.

That’s Oscar’s secret, but I have an even better way to get homegrown winter squash at high altitude. Buy it at the farmer’s market!

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