Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Butternut Mountain

For the past few years I have been trying to grow butternut squashes with only modest success. When the kids were little, they preferred the more eye-catching pumpkin because of its Halloween association; but the butternut, with its comparative solidity and sweet nutty flavour, was always superior for us grown-ups. However, as the kids’ taste buds have developed, butternut soup, roasts and risotto have all become a key part of the family diet. And this year, for the first time, I have finally grown enough to see us through the winter. Twice over.

Winter squashes, such as butternut, are originally sub-tropical: they are not keen on frosts and prefer a minimum temperature of 10C. This means that the outdoor growing window begins at the start of summer and ends with arrival of the first autumn frosts. This year, the weather has been so mild that the growing season survived the one slight frost in October and extended into early November. This probably explains our bumper crop of nearly sixty fruits from half a dozen plants; that, and the cow manure. Butternuts love a rich soil and I top-dressed the plot with a whole load of muck from a dairy farmer in the previous autumn, digging it in in the spring.

Plants can be grown from seed in a greenhouse in March or April or bought from a nursery in May, as I did. Either way, they can be planted out in June, well clear of any cold snaps. If there is one group of plants that I always water regularly on the allotment and vegetable patch it is the Cucurbits: if cucumbers, courgettes and marrows need to be well-irrigated, pumpkins and butternuts more so. And it is not just plenty of moisture that they need; some require quite a bit of room. The vines and tendrils will stretch up to ten metres from the plants, so training them to double-back is essential if space is at a premium.

Butternuts fall under the generic term of winter squash because of their late harvest and ability to be stored and consumed right through the darkest months. Once harvested, they should be allowed to cure outside for a week or two before being stored in a well-ventilated place at a temperature between 10C and 15C. An outdoor shed will become too cold once the lowest temperatures arrive; but if you can find the right conditions indoors, butternuts can keep for up to 6 months. Living in a small terraced cottage with too many children and animals, storage is an issue for us. This means that friends, family and work colleagues are currently reaping the rewards of the butternut mountain, which might just stave off a kids’ mutiny over the endless spicy butternut soup.

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