One of the great delights of summer for the vegetable gardener is summer squash. Squash is fast growing, sizable and highly productive. Kids love to find the squash growing under the large roundish leaves, and the dark green plant is very attractive in the garden setting.
Growing squash is almost fool proof. With some basic pest control, adequate water and simple fertilization, you will have a very good harvest. If you’re new to edible gardening, or haven’t been an active gardener for some time, I highly recommend you include squash in your roster of plants this year.
One of the great things about summer squash is that it produces early and often. In fact, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce. Summer squash should be harvested when the fruits are quite young and before the seed cavity develops. The younger the squash, the more tender it will be. This means you will need to look thoroughly, and often, to find squash that are hiding. This is more a problem with zucchini, as the skin of the fruit is green, and camouflages quite readily in the shade of the plant’s big leaves. Yellow varieties are more easily found, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll need to be any less vigilant in picking early and often. Squash seem to have the ability to have a fingerling sized squash one day and something a foot long the next. If they are allowed to grow to “monster size,” the plant will slow down production. When it comes to squash, it’s better to err on the side of taking too much. The plant will rebound and respond with even more fruit.
What’s the difference between summer and winter squash? They are both members of the cucurbit family. They both must be planted only after all danger of frost is past. And, for both types, other plants must keep their distance. This is to avoid being overrun and shaded out. One exception to this is corn, which happily reaches through the squash plant to the sun, and likes the shading and cooling effects the squash plant gives its roots. Summer squashes are harvested when immature. The skin is still tender, and the less seed cavity, the better. Winter squashes are harvested when they are mature, and the skin is hard. The mature winter squash will sound hollow when it is tapped. I’ll devote another article to winter squashes such as pumpkin, hubbard, turban, and my personal favorite, butternut.
Common summer squashes are green zucchini, yellow crookneck or straight neck, and the pancake shaped, scalloped varieties such as “White Patty Pan.” These small squash are best harvested at about three inches in diameter. Zucchini and the yellow varieties should be harvested when they are between six and eight inches long. If you feel like you harvested a bit hastily and you cheated yourself on the volume of squash, don’t worry — there’s more coming along soon. If you don’t harvest yellow squash and let it reach full maturity, you’ll get a gourd that’s decorative, but not edible.
When you do pick them, be careful with them, as the skin is quite tender. They can be eaten raw with a dip or chopped on a salad. They can be gently steamed, or sautéed with a little butter and topped with your favorite spice combo. My tastes are simple — as far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to beat salt and pepper. They may be cut either across the squash to yield discs of deliciousness or cut long way to make sticks of scrumptiousness. They pair nicely with onions as well as sweet peppers. For a real taste treat, create a mix of squash, bell pepper, and loosely slivered onion. Toss the mixture in olive oil and cook them in a grill wok out on the barbeque. If you’re not familiar with a grill wok, this is metal cooking pan that is perforated to allow the heat and grill flavor to infuse the item being cooked while not allowing the food to fall out into the flames. Try it.
What are some of the basics you need to know to successfully grow this great crop this year? There are two basic categories. First, let’s cover what the plant itself needs to grow big and fruitful. Then, let’s address how to control some common pests that can infest your crop.
The plant loves heat, and will grow rapidly as the season heats up. To accomplish this, it will need loose soil with lots of organic material. With all the stems and large leaf growth, the plant needs lots of water and nutrition. It is a heavy feeder, so make sure you have fertilized adequately and keep the roots moist with deep but infrequent watering. If at all possible, apply water at the base of the plant. Slow release fertilizer, lots of organic material in the soil, and a reserve of moisture will give great results. All those big, beautiful leaves are literally solar collectors, so it stands to reason that the plant prefers a lot of sun. Don’t disappoint it by putting it in shade.
To successfully fruit, the plant needs pollinators to visit it. While squash plants have both male and female flowers, the pollen from the male flower must make it’s way to the female flower. In case you haven’t guessed, we are literally talking about the birds and bees now. Both types of flowers look similar, but the female bloom will have an enlarged area at the base of the flower that will quickly grow into a squash once pollination occurs. If you don’t see squash forming on a continuous basis, you can assist the process by using a small brush or cotton-tipped swab to transfer pollen from the male blooms to the female ones. I suggest you do this either early in the morning or very late at night. There’s not horticultural reason for this. You just don’t want your neighbors to think you’re strange.
As for pests, you will need to be vigilant. You can avoid most mildew problems by not overhead watering or soaking the leaves — leaving them wet for extended periods of time. Watering at the base of the plant is best. Insects are another matter. Regardless where your garden is, they will find your squash plants. Borer worms inflict the most damage when the plants are young and less able to withstand an attack. Counter attack by keeping mulch away from the base of the plant so borers and bugs can’t hide, and by wrapping the base of the stems with some tin foil strips. Borers can also be controlled by carefully slitting the stems and removing the larvae or by using a needle to pierce the insect. You can do it — this is no time to be squeamish.
Once the plant matures, you will have squash bugs visit you. There’s no way around it. Squash bugs are shaped like a shield and are grayish-brown in color. Again, keep mulch away from the immediate area of the base of the plant. Inspect your plants ongoing for eggs on the underside of the leaves. Hand-destroy both eggs (little amber globes) and immature squash bugs. Lay small boards under the plants for the adult squash bugs to hide under, and destroy them by hand.
For a great fact sheet that goes into more detail on squashes, varieties and pest control, visit http: http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/factsheet/hg_2004-09.pdf.
One last thing. Practice moderation when planting summer squash. A couple of plants will likely produce more than a single family will need. You don’t want to be the person in your neighborhood that makes people pretend they’re not home when they see you coming up the sidewalk with yet another armload of zucchini.