Ask A Master Gardener – Butternut Squash

Authored by Carol Shirk, Certified Master Gardener

Photo credit: C. Shirk

Butternut squash is considered by some to be the premier winter squash to grow and eat.  The sweet, moist, almost nutty flavor is akin to sweet potatoes, but better.  It can be roasted, baked, grilled, stuffed, or eaten raw in salads.  It can be mashed, used in stews, baked goods, soups, casseroles, and as a side dish.

Butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata) first hit grocery shelves in the 1940s when a Massachusetts farmer, Charles Leggett, developed it though a breeding program on his personal farm. He presented his product to the University of Massachusetts’ Waltham Field Station where the squash promptly took off in popularity. 

Growing butternut squash is an easy task.  It is a warm season crop in the cucurbit family.  While you can start it from seed inside, it will do quite well by direct sowing in the garden.  Transplant shock can be a problem with cucurbits in general as they do not like to have their roots disturbed, so direct sowing is a better option.  They require full sun, adequate moisture, and plenty of space.

The first decision is what variety to plant. Waltham butternut is the oldest and still the benchmark.   It is large and heavy, averaging 9 inch, 4—5 pound fruits that will keep for several months.  In a 2014 trial at the University of Maine, Atlas Butternut came in as a distinct top producer with more pounds per plot.  However, Waltham still had more fruit per plot; Atlas simply had larger fruit. 

If a large fruit is not suitable for your situation, consider one of the smaller fruited varieties.  In 2022 Dodge County Master Gardener Association members ran trials of three small varieties, Butterbaby, Little Dipper, and Butterscotch.  The fruit on these will be 1—2 pounds, just right for a person or two. The vines are somewhat smaller, but these are not bush varieties.  They are prolific producers with plenty for fresh eating and storage.  The testers determined that Butterbaby and Little Dipper tied for best flavor.   

Plant squash seeds in well-drained soil in late May to early June.  Put 3—4 seeds together in a “hill” and cover them with three-fourths inch of soil.  Plant the hills 24—36 inches apart in rows 5—6 feet apart. Once the plants have their first set of true leaves, thin to the two strongest plants per hill.  Be sure to control weeds initially until the plants get a good start.  Cultivate with a hoe around the plants gently, making sure not to disturb the roots which grow very close to the surface.  Using clean straw mulch around the plants and in the surrounding area will also help control weeds, but do not apply until the soil is sufficiently warmed.

Butternut squash is ripe when the beige color deepens and is dull with no green streaks.  Pressure from a fingernail should not leave a mark if the fruit is ripe.  Harvest before a hard frost by cutting the fruit from the vine leaving several inches of stem.  Do not handle by the stem and take care not to damage or bruise the fruit.  Once harvested, allow to cure in a warm place for a week or two before storing. 

A simple internet search will yield a plethora of ways to use this highly nutritious, easy to grow vegetable. 

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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