Save room in the garden for Delicata

Delicata squash is a garden dleight.

On this cold, snowy Sunday in Boston, we just ate our last two Delicata squash, and I made sure I added it to the list of what I'll be growing in this year's vegetable garden.

I haven't always been enthusiastic about winter squash. Too much of it seems kinda tasteless, and it often takes quite a while -- and a fair amount of effort -- to cook. But it's quintessential New England, and so since I've been living here, I've felt that I should grow it, although for me it's a perfect fall veggie -- I tend to use mine up before Thanksgiving.

Because it's easy for me to find good-quality acorn squash -- both at my local farmers' market and, cut up, at the supermarket -- I generally save my space for Sweet Dumpling and Delicata.

Sweet Dumpling has been a long-time favorite of mine because of its excellent taste, but you have to discard the shell and a fairly large number of seeds before eating.

Jeff Cox says that Delicata is an heirloom, which surprised me. I'm not sure why it hadn't come to my attention until the past few years. But I like the idea of growing plants with a history.

I've heard Delicata called "sweet potato squash" although I think that would mislead anyone who hasn't tasted one yet. The flavor is slightly sweet -- perfectly delicious in my opinion -- but not quite like sweet potato (a favorite of mine) and not orange inside, either.

It turns out -- I'm not sure why I didn't know this earlier -- but Sweet Dumpling is one of several kinds of Delicata squash.  (Sweet Dumpling does resemble a very large -- striped -- dumpling, part of its charm. Delicata is also striped, but is oblong.)

Neither is hard to grow. Wait till at least a few weeks beyond your frost-free date to plant. You want the soil to be warm , because the seeds don't germinate in cold.

Days to maturity: Read your seed packet, but count on 90 to 100, usually.

None of the Sweet Dumpling and Delicata squashes I've grown have had long vines, so they aren't space hogs. But my favorite is Cornell's Bush Delicata, which requires only about four feet of space and takes 80 days to maturity, which is good if you live in a cold climate with a short growing season or if you want this to be a replacement crop in a hot-summer area.

One especially nice thing about Cornell's Bush Delicata is that it's open-pollinated, so you can save the seeds from year to year (provided, of course, you keep the plants away from other varieties of winter squash so they don't cross).

A vendor at the farmers' market suggested splitting Delicatas in half, removing the seeds, brushing with real maple syrup, and baking cut-side-down until done. Great idea!

But the best Delicata I ate all summer was brushed with olive soil and grilled for a few minutes (put the top of a gas grill down), until softened. Wow!

As I'm writing this, I'm already tasting next year's crop, although it'll be close to six months before I can plant. But that's OK. Good things are worth waiting for. And since Delicatas keep for about 100 days, I should have a few left this time next year. Something to look forward to.

(NOTE: To go to the Monitor's main gardening page -- which contains articles and blog posts on many topics -- click here.)

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