Bred for optimum flavor, the adorable honeynut squash is a delight to grow in the garden and produces an abundance of single-serve squash that cooks up beautifully and tastes great.
Fans of winter squash know the sad truth about the butternut: it’s an awkwardly cumbersome squash that we really want to love, but also falls short in ways that we don’t want to admit to ourselves.
Hello, honeynut squash! An intentional improvement, the honeynut solves butternut’s most annoying flaws: the honeynut actually tastes great, and it’s nice and small and unlikely to cause a knife accident in the kitchen.
Gardeners will love it, too, because while it’s still a viner — it is a winter squash after all — the vines are more compact, and you can easily grow several plants in an 8′ x 8′ space.
What is a Honeynut Squash? Is It the Same as Butternut Squash?
Honeynut squash (Cucurbita moschata × Cucurbita maxima) is a butternut squash cultivar that was bred specifically for flavor. See below for more info on how it came about.
Taste-wise, honeynut squash definitely has a bolder, more pronounced squash flavor. It’s nuttier and earthier, and also sweeter, but not in a sugar-sweet cloying way. It makes delicious pies and soups, as well as an amazing side dish when roasted.
More importantly — and I didn’t fully appreciate this when I first decided to grow them — honeynut squashes are smaller than butternuts. This is a very good thing. Buying butternuts at the store for a dinner of roasted squash is an exercise in guessing.
Butternuts come in all shapes and sizes and scaling a recipe up or down is a big question mark. Weighing the squash doesn’t help as much as we’d like, because it’s not possible to know how much of the weight comes from the bulbous seed pod and skin vs. the usable flesh in the often too-skinny neck.
The honeynut, however, is much more uniform in shape and weight, with a broad, hefty neck where the flesh lives (the rounded bottom is the hollow seed pod and contains little usable flesh). You can generally assume one squash per person because of its small size.
The squash in the photo above probably look huge, but they’re just a bit longer than my hand.
In the garden, the honeynut squash grows similarly in habit as other winter squashes: it’s a robust viner with big, beautiful leaves. It’s considered a “dwarf” variety, but you’ll still need to commit space in the garden for the vines — just not quite as much as when growing pumpkins or butternuts.
How to Plant / Sow
Honeynut squash, like most winter squash, can be seeded directly in the garden. I often get a head start by starting seeds indoors, but that’s completely optional and generally not encouraged. The sprouts are a little on the fragile side, so you’d need to take extra care when transplanting.
To seed outdoors, create mounds (aka hills) of soil about a foot wide and 4 to 6 feet apart in full sun. Sow two or three seeds per hill, an inch deep and several inches apart.
Firm the soil over the seeds and water well with a gentle sprinkle that does not dislodge the soil from the mound or flood out the seeds.
The seeds should germinate within two weeks. Once they sprout, thin to 2 plants per mound.
The plants in the photo above were started from seed indoors and transplanted to the garden on the day of the photo. That’s why there are no mounds around the plants in the photos.
Plan to grow a minimum of three plants. In a healthy season, you can expect three to six squashes per plant, but fruit quantity is not the only reason. You also need a sufficient number of flowers open at one time to produce pollinated fruit (more on this later). The more plants you have, the better.
How to Care for the Plants
Once the plants sprout and leaf out, you can apply a standard fertilizer once every couple of weeks. Early in the growing season, you want the plant to vine out quickly with a nice leaf canopy.
Winter squash are hardy plants and will grow quite happily and independently in areas with moderate rainfall. Their thick leaf canopy also shields the soil from the sun to efficiently preserve moisture.
If the leaves start looking a little droopy, water well, allowing it drain and not puddle.
The plants are disease resistant, although they can attract insect predators, such as stink bugs (which can do a lot of damage to leaves and leaf stalks).
Note that the squash leaves are actually variegated, with white patterns along the veins, which can look like powdery mildew. It’s noteworthy that, unlike every other squash variety I’ve ever grown, the honeynuts have never had powdery mildew.
I live next to a community garden, which means that just about every vegetable disease known in the Midwest thrives there and makes its way into my yard. No powdery mildew is a minor miracle.
How Do Fruits Form?
Like all winter squash, fruit is formed by a pollinated flower.
Honeynuts produce two types of flowers, male and female. They’re big and bright orange-yellow, shaped like a gramophone horn with a frilly edge.
The female flower produces the fruit embryo, while pollen from the male flower fertilizes the embryo, kicking it into growth mode.
At the beginning of the growing season, once the plants have sufficiently vined out, you’ll see far more male flowers — identifiable by the flower sitting atop a thin stalk, not a miniature fruit — than female flowers. This is nothing to be concerned about and is perfectly normal.
Because the plants rely on insects to deliver pollen from male to female, the plants produce more male flowers to give pollination its best chance.
This is also why you’ll want to grow a minimum of three plants (two is the bare minimum), all in the same garden plot. The more plants you have, the more flowers will be open at the same time and the better the odds of pollinating the female flowers.
The challenge here is that squash flowers are only open for a short time in the early mornings. So, you have to cross your fingers and hope that there are a lot of early-bird bees, ants, and others visiting the squash flowers while they’re open.
When the female flower has received enough pollen, the embryo (shown earlier) fills out quickly, plump and green, like the next photo:
When an abundance of flowers is present during the growing season, you can expect three to six squashes from each plant.
To learn more about squash flower pollination, read my squash pollination guide, which also covers how to hand-pollinate squash flowers, if the insects in your yard are laying down on the job.
Can Honeynuts Grow in a Container or Grow Bag?
Yes. Technically, they’re compact viners and should produce somewhat satisfactorily in a container with nutrient-rich soil. But, you’ll still need to provide ample room for the vines to stretch out and provide support for the growing squash, if the vines are elevated.
Grow at least two plants in each container because you’ll still need a sufficient number of male and female flowers open at the same time to achieve pollination.
Place the containers in an area with a lot of insect traffic, or plan to hand-pollinate the flowers yourself.
When Can You Harvest?
Young honeynuts have dark green skins for most of their growing season, which eventually ripen to a dark tan or burnished orange (or “honey” color; hence their name) after going through a mottled green/orange phase.
The photo above shows the color changes that the squash goes through while maturing. #1, 2 and 4 are the same squash. I included #3 because the coloring is so beautiful.
Keep an eye on the squash stem. The squash will be ready to pick when the stem is fairly dry. Use clippers to snip the squash from the vine. Do not pull the fruit from the stem, as that could rip the vine.
In the photo above, you can see in photo #4 that the squash is mostly orange, but it’s still not ripe: the stem is a very vibrant green. At this stage, the squash still has a few weeks to go before it’s ready to harvest.
Whatever their state, finish the harvest before the first snow flies, even if the stems aren’t quite dry. They’ll finish ripening off vine.
Can You Save the Seeds from a Honeynut Squash?
Honeynuts are hybrids – a cross between butternut (Cucurbita moschata) and buttercup (Cucurbita maxima) squashes – so future generations are not necessarily going to be the honeynuts you grow in the first year. They might be similar; they might be different.
There’s no way to predict what you’ll get, but you can always try if you enjoy experimenting!
It’s also important to note for seed-saving purposes, that squash plants can be successfully pollinated by any squash variety. So, if you’re growing honeynuts and zucchinis — or if a neighbor is growing, say, pumpkins — there’s no way to ensure that your honeynuts are being pollinated only by other honeynut flowers, unless you’re taking specific steps to protect the plants.
I’m sure you’ve seen bees with their legs covered in orange pollen. They can travel great distances and spread that pollen among multiple locations.
How Long Does Honeynut Squash Store?
Honeynut squash has a thin skin that does not protect the flesh as efficiently as butternuts. So, they don’t last quite as long in storage.
For storage purposes, let newly harvested squash rest in a coolish, dry, sun-protected area for a week or so. This hardens off the stem and helps the squash last longer.
In cool, dry conditions — such as an unheated basement around 55 degrees F — it’s reasonable to expect honeynuts to last 1 to 3 months. Discard if they show signs of wrinkling or mold.
They freeze quite well, though, so you can slice them in half, remove the seeds, chop them up and store them in freezer-safe containers through the winter.
Other Fun Facts:
Who Created the Honeynut Squash?
The honeynut squash actually has a long history, even though it’s only been on the consumer market for a few years.
The squash we know now was developed by Cornell professor and plant breeder Michael Mazourek, in consultation with chef Dan Barber. The goal, which Barber encouraged and supported, was to create a better-tasting and smaller version of the butternut squash.
The two continue to work together to this to improve the cultivar.
Can You Eat the Skin of a Honeynut Squash?
Yes! Unlike butternuts, which have thick, papery skin — that’s papery in texture, not fragility — that should be removed, honeynut squash skin cooks up tender and is easily cut with a knife, like the famous delicata squash.
If you’re a winter squash aficionado, I hope you’ll give the honeynut a try in your garden this year!
- Hoe or rake
- Hand shovel or dibber
- Turn over the soil in the area where you'll be sowing the seeds. Amend the soil, if necessary, with plenty of rich compost.
- Rake to smooth out.
- Using additional compost or garden soil, create low mounds about a foot in diameter, one mound for each pair of seeds. Dig the mounds about 6 feet apart.
- Using a hand shovel or dibber, create two holes 1" deep and 6" apart in the center of the mound.
- Push one seed each into the hole and cover with soil, pressing firmly. You can sow up to 4 seeds per mound, but plan on thinning back to two plants per mound after germination.
- Water the mounds thoroughly with a gentle spray of water, so as not to hollow out the mounds and disturb the seeds.
- Keep the mounds barely moist, watering every few days if necessary. Seeds should germinate within two weeks
- Once the seedlings leaf out, you can use standard fertlizer every two or three weeks. The plants require minimal care once vines are established and well leafed. Honeynut squash are disease resistant but be on the lookout for insect infestation, especially stink bugs - juveniles can do a lot of damage.