Zone five denizens probably have rather barren home kitchen garden plots at this point; repeated frost and occasional deeper freezes have shut down all but the hardiest plants. This shouldn’t discourage a kitchen gardener. Fruits of winter squash still abound in local markets. If you can find them in good condition, they may last for months without special treatment; I’ve kept butternut squash on my dining room floor well into spring.
However, there are many easy ways to preserve winter squash so it lasts until next year’s harvest. Perhaps the most complicated of all preservation methods is canning… but canning really isn’t hard to do if you have the right equipment.
You can preserve high-acid and high-sugar foods such as fruits, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves in a boiling water bath canner. To can low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats, you must use a pressure canner. Some microorganisms simply won’t die at the temperature of boiling water. However, when you increase the pressure in the cooking environment, you also increase the temperature. Generally, the increased heat is enough to kill every microorganism so low-acid foods can survive for a year or more without refrigeration.
Squash is a low-acid food. Unless you want to pickle it before canning, you must use a pressure canner to make it safe for long-term storage (alternatively, you can freeze squash or dry it… but we’ll talk about those preservation methods in later posts).
Neck pumpkin is a magnificent squash that’s common in central Pennsylvania. I wrote about neck pumpkin in Your Home Kitchen Garden at the end of October, and I wrote more about it in my other blog under the topic of Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden. There, I explained one method of preparing winter squash for cooking—and, perhaps, the most reliable way to prepare it for blanching and canning.
The photos in this post show the steps I took to can my neck pumpkin. I ended up canning all but a pint it. Of that pint, I cooked a small amount to taste, and used the rest to make pumpkin bread.
My neck pumpkin had the same consistency as butternut squash. The flesh was lighter in color and tasted sweeter than butternut. Also, my neck pumpkin’s flavor wasn’t as “squashy” as butternut… it was a little bland. Still, there’s room for slightly bland squash in my larder; most pumpkin breads and cakes have enough seasoning to make up for blandness in the pumpkin itself… I imagine my family will eat a lot of pumpkin bread and cake in the next year.
I photographed my neck pumpkin next to 2/3 of the butternut squash that grew this year in my home kitchen garden (we’ve consumed a third of the butternut squash). The neck pumpkin in this photo weighs 20 pounds. The combined weight of the butternut squash in the photo is 22 pounds.
I love to grow butternut squash in my home kitchen garden. Winter squash has a rich, sweet flavor, and it’s filling. What’s more, a typical single fruit can easily feed a family of four… maybe even for two meals.
Since moving to rural Pennsylvania 14 years ago, I’ve eyed these butternut squash-like fruits that are omnipresent at farmers’ markets, farm stands, and road-side kiosks. These fruits look like butternut squash that took steroids that had taken steroids. While the fruits have fascinated me, I’ve dismissed them as impractical because of their sizes. How could I possibly use a squash of that size before it started to rot?
During a Twitter exchange the other night, I shared that I’d heard neck pumpkins are great for pumpkin pie. My Twitter friends weren’t familiar with neck pumpkins, and I realized that I had little to offer… so I did some research.
Neck pumpkins, it seems, are kind of a central Pennsylvania phenomenon. In fact, Cornell University’s web site acknowledges that some people call neck pumpkins Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck Squash. I’ve photographed neck pumpkins in local gardens, and there’s clearly no trick to growing these squash goliaths: they grow as readily as butternut squash. I imagine they haven’t taken the world by storm mostly because of the crazy size of their fruits.
In any case, after researching neck pumpkins, I decided it’s time I get some first-hand experience with one of these bad boys.
At the farmers’ market, there were many piles of neck pumpkins from which to choose. Vendors were asking about $2.25 for the small ones, and up to $3.75 for the large ones. Actually, one vendor had neck pumpkins marked at 79 cents a pound which is a crazy price to ask when shoppers can get a 15 pound pumpkin for $2.25 from the vendor directly across the walkway.
To help put the neck pumpkin’s size in perspective: that’s me holding the pumpkin. I’m 6’1” tall. Another point of comparison: our local grocery store is advertising a sale price for winter squash of 79 cents per pound. I’d have paid $15.80 at the grocery store sale price. Their normal price is $1.49 per pound, making this $29 worth of winter squash. I paid $3.50 at the farmers’ market.
I chose a large neck pumpkin, but not an extraordinary one. On my way to the car, I stopped to buy apples and pears from a different vendor. The man who served me commented, “Making pie?” That seems to be the main purpose of neck pumpkins: to become pumpkin pie. Many times in the past month I’ve heard people comment about what great pies you can make using neck pumpkins.
So, I’m going to make pies. I estimate that I can make 12 to 16 pies from my neck pumpkin. No, I won’t make them all at once. Rather, I’ll make a few pies… and a pumpkin cheese cake. I might even serve neck pumpkin as a side dish for dinner once or twice. Maybe I’ll make a pot of pumpkin soup. Oh, and I’ve been hankering to make pumpkin ravioli.
With the ten pounds of neck pumpkin meat that remains after all that cooking, I’ll finally try out my pressure canner. It’ll be nice to have a few dozen jars of canned pumpkin so I’ll be able to make more pumpkin pies, pumpkin cake, pumpkin fritters, and a dozen loaves of pumpkin bread.
Oh, and I’m saving the seeds. Next year I’m growing neck pumpkins in my home kitchen garden.
I found a few other posts about neck pumpkins that you might find interesting. Please enjoy them:
Cooking Soup in a Pumpkin – Buy a neck pumpkin or two. My initial mistake was trying to use a jack-o-lantern type pumpkin (so much wasted effort!). I think we get about 4 c. of puree from one neck pumpkin. 2. Peel the neck pumpkins. Cut them into thick 1-2″ slices …
“Mistaken Identity” « Daily Encouragement – I prefer neck pumpkin because it is less watery than other more common types, has fewer seeds and very little stringy pulp. It is solid pumpkin until the very bottom (see photo below) so you really get your money’s worth. …
Brown Long Neck – Another heirloom: the Brown Long Neck pumpkin. This crook-neck pumpkin makes an excellent pumpkin bread or pie. The Brown Long Neck is the pumpkin used by our regional Amish for their markets’ baked goods. …
In May, it was apparent that my home kitchen garden’s spring crops would not mature on time. By “on time” I mean “on my time;” I have no illusions that plants growing outdoors are going to follow my schedule. Still, for the sake of comparison, in 2008 my garden put out its last load of peas in mid June. This year, the plants continued producing till the third week of July… and even as the vines were dying, cool weather coaxed a burst of flowering.
To prepare for this year’s late transition from spring crops to summer crops, I started squash seeds under lights on my ping pong table. These, I captured in a time lapse video as they popped out of the soil, and I posted it in blog entry titled, Squash Babies for my Home Kitchen Garden.
By early June, my squash babies were ready to move into the garden, but the spring crops weren’t even close to done. I didn’t want to “pot up” the squash seedlings (transplant them into larger pots) because I’d run out of large peat pots and my gardening budget was stressed. So, my squash babies sat in their infant-sized pots and yearned for greater things.
And there they sat, and sat, and sat.
When a plant spends too much time in small pot, it feels stress. Roots grow into any open space they can find without actually growing up out of the soil. Eventually, there are so many roots in the pot that they quickly suck all the nutrition out of the soil. Most plants shut down; they don’t die, they just stop growing… or they grow very slowly.
What is most problematical is that pot-bound plants continue to mature… even when they put on virtually no new growth. For most plants, this maturation includes what I call “hardening down” (forgive me if there’s a horticultural term for this that I ought to know). When a plant hardens down, it strengthens the distinction between the root system and the above-ground stem.
For many types of trees, hardening down is obvious as the bark turns from smooth to rough and it eventually develops deep furrows. For garden vegetables, hardening down produces similar textural changes in the stem. The surface of the stem nearest the soil becomes woody and it eventually stops thickening. Some plants produce flower buds even though they’ve grown only a few small leaves.
Once a plant hardens down, the hardened stem will not thicken—or will thicken only a little when the plant reawakens… if the plant reawakens. And that brings me back to the transition from spring crops to summer crops.
My sad little winter squash seedlings were hardening down, and my pea plants hadn’t yet produced peas! A vaguely unfortunate turn of events provided a partial solution: My spinach plants met an abrupt and unexpected end.
I had planted only four feet of a row with two types of spinach. The plants took forever to grow big enough for harvest, and after providing for only two salads, half the plants wilted and died. I guessed a plant disease or insect was involved, but the wilting death didn’t spread to the other half row of plants. Then, about seven days and two more salads later, the remaining spinach plants bolted. In early July, I pulled the spinach plants, turned over soil in the row, and planted two of my squash pots just three feet apart.
At the opposite side of the garden, I planted another squash pot snuggled between two rows of peas. A week later I planted the last squash pot between adjacent rows of peas. I figured to spend the next month stepping over those plants to pick peas… but I also figured the squash plants would stretch their roots and break out of their pot-bound stupor.
It was a short month; we had some heat in July that cooked the pea plants. On July 15th I removed the pea trellises and the plants, and I pulled the weeds that had grown from the exposed soil along the pea rows. I worked around four volunteer tomato plants and a few volunteer herb plants. In the two weeks since, the squash plants I had placed in the vacated spinach row have exploded outward in all directions.
As the vines have lengthened, I’ve trained them toward the newly-opened space. They obviously have overcome being pot bound, and are already setting fruit. It’s clear that four plants from the first two squash pots will completely fill the space the pea plants had occupied.
Clearly, starting the squash in pots gained two or three weeks on the summer growing season. This means extra days for the plants to produce squash before frost shuts them down. Even if we don’t have wacky spring weather, you can bet I’ll start my squash in pots early in coming seasons.
When I’m feeling ambitious, I manage multiple plantings in my home kitchen garden. By this I mean I plant the same garden zones two or three times through the growing season. When weather cooperates, cold-weather vegetables planted early grow themselves out as summer approaches. I remove the dying plants and introduce other crops.
Usually, I plant peas, lettuce, and spinach in adjacent rows so there will be space in which to plant something large in June… and my first choice is almost always winter squash. Squash is a great late-season vegetable that stores well; it’ll keep for months on your dining room floor unless your spouse makes you move it to the garage.
Weather has not cooperated. This has been an unusually cold spring for my zone 5/6 home kitchen garden, and I’ve heard similar observations from gardeners all over the northeastern United States. I’m used to planting summer crops in April, but we had so many cold days in April and May that my spring crops are about a month behind where they’ve been in past seasons.
It dawned on me this could become a problem when it’s time to plant the winter squash: if the spring crops are still hogging garden space, where will I plant four hills of squash?
So, for the first time in my life, I started squash seeds in containers. When they go in the garden, they won’t have lost the month the cold weather crops lost in April.
As my squash seeds started to sprout, I got the urge to capture some of them popping out of the soil: I wanted to create a time lapse movie. I don’t have the best equipment to film such a sequence: my video camera shoots at only one speed, and my digital picture camera has no features to simplify shooting a sequence of photos over an extended period. Here’s what I did:
I mounted my camera on a tripod, and set it on the ping-pong table pointing at my squash pots. I shot one photograph every fifteen minutes for 24 hours. The 24 hours were deadly; I pulled an all-nighter to complete the sequence, and it wasn’t long enough.
Turning on my digital camera consumes a lot of electricity, and I had to turn it on for each photo I took. It ran through three battery changes. Also, to get consistent framing and focus, I had to push buttons on the camera about thirteen times per photograph. Unfortunately, all this button-pushing caused tiny but perceptible reorientation of the photo frame.
After shooting the photos, I expected to load them into Windows Movie Maker (free software you can download from Microsoft’s web site) and package them as an AVI file. But Windows Movie Maker couldn’t sequence the photos as I wanted. The shortest period it will display a photo is an eighth of a second… but the shortest transition from one photo to another is a quarter second. Whatever settings I chose, the time lapse sequence was choppy.
So… I Googled. My search uncovered a handy piece of free software called Photolapse 3 (you can download a copy at the Photolapse web site). The programmer built this software specifically to create time lapse movies in AVI files. The download was painless, and the software proved easy to use. Within minutes I had built an AVI file that was no better than anything I’d done in Windows Movie Maker.
Through experimentation, I learned it’s important to use small image files when making a time lapse movie. That became the second biggest chore of my project: my photo-editing software doesn’t have a batch mode for reducing an image’s size and jpeg compression, so I manually adjusted all 99 images down to 640 by 480 pixels. For future time lapse sequences, I’ll shoot the photos at that resolution in the first place.
Photolapse 3 produced a lovely movie.
The output from Photolapse 3 was just a time lapse sequence of seeds sprouting. To add titles and a soundtrack, I pulled the time lapse movie into Windows Movie Maker. There, it was easy to dress it up and save the assembled components as a new AVI movie file. It was a lot of work for a 33-second video, but it was also a lot of fun for a gardening/photo/technology geek. In any case, I expect to harvest a lot of squash in October.
Here’s the movie: