CAN I GROW SQUASH?
Summer squash does everything but plant itself! If you're looking for a vegetable that's easy to grow and produces huge yields, you can't beat summer squash. Anyone who has grown zucchini can tell you how prolific these plants can be.
Summer squash is a cinch to grow as long as you keep in mind that it needs full sun, warm temperatures, fertile soil, and steady moisture. Almost any friable, well-drained soil in a bed that receives full sun will suffice, but for the best production a little preparation is required. Work in plenty of organic matter (compost, well-rotted manure) to loosen the soil, help the soil conserve moisture, and provide an abundance of nutrients the plants will need throughout the season. A soil pH of 5.5-7.5 is satisfactory with 6.0-6.7 being preferred. Once you supply these requirements and plant the seeds, you basically need only wait until harvest usually about 7 weeks later.
Summer squash is also easy to grow in containers. So, even if you have limited garden space, you can grow squash (particularly the bush varieties) on your patio or deck. A 5-gallon or larger pot can contain one or two zucchini plants?and the production will be phenomenal!
Squash, corn, and beans are three of the oldest food sources grown in the Americas. Squash is believed to have originated in Mexico and Central America where people have been eating it for at least 7,500 years. To this day, squash is an important staple food in these areas.
Native Americans shared many varieties of squash with the European settlers, who carried the seeds back to their home countries. Today, squash is grown all over the globe.
After centuries of hybridizing, a wide selection of summer squash varieties is available, many of which won't be found at the local grocer.
SEEDS OR PLANTS?
Seeds are the way to go. Plan for one plant per person in your family, tops. Any more and you'll be up to your elbows in squash come midsummer! Direct sowing is preferred to transplanting seedlings. Like most cucurbits, squash plants can't tolerate having their roots disturbed. Most summer squash varieties are ready to harvest in 50 days, give or take a few days.
Because they mature quickly and require warm weather, you can plant them following early spring crops like peas, lettuce, or spinach. Direct sowings any time from spring (after all danger of frost is past) to midsummer works well with most summer squash varieties. In fact, waiting to plant a few seeds in midsummer will help avoid problems from vine borers and other pests and diseases common earlier in the season.
Sow the seeds one-inch deep, spacing the plantings about 18 to 30 inches apart in the bed, depending on the variety. Follow seed packet instructions. Allow plenty of growing space for vining types. Where space is limited, grow only the bush varieties.
If you have a short season or want the earliest possible crop, start a few seedlings indoors, preferably in peat pots, two weeks before the last frost in your area. When setting out the plants, be extra cautious not to disturb the roots when transplanting them.
Here are three cultivation tips to keep in mind for prime summer squash. Plant in a warm soil. If the soil is below 60 degrees F., summer squash seeds are more likely to rot in the ground before sprouting. The ideal soil temperature for germination is 70-90 degrees F. Seeds will sprout in 6 to 12 days. Provide plenty of nutrients. Summer squashes are heavy feeders. If you incorporated organic matter into the soil prior to planting, there is no need to fertilize early in the season. However, when the plants begin to blossom and set fruit, a side dressing of balanced soluble fertilizer is beneficial.
Water deeply. A steady water supply is necessary for the best quality fruit.
Water deeply once a week, applying at least one inch of water. Shallow watering promotes shallow root development that is detrimental to yields. Don't judge the moisture content of the soil by the dryness of the surface, if the soil is dry four inches down, water. If the soil is moist at that depth, the plants will be fine. Wilting in scorching, mid-afternoon sun is normal for summer squash. They will recover when the sun goes down.
To improve overall summer squash production, consider using the following three techniques.
To get summer squash in the ground as early as possible in the spring, plant it in raised beds. Raised beds warm up faster and drain more readily than the surrounding ground. You should be able to get an earlier start.
While squash prefers full sun and warm soil, extreme heat and drought can stress the plants, reducing production. Mulch is essential to keep the soil around the roots moist and to regulate soil temperature. When the seedlings are two inches tall, apply a loose mulch of clean straw, hay, grass clippings, chopped leaves, shredded newspaper, or any mixture of these materials. As the plants mature, you can add more mulch to keep them happy.
Black plastic mulch is also recommended, especially to warm the soil in the spring.
To ensure pollination of the female flowers (recognizable by the tiny squash that's behind the blossom), use a small paintbrush to transfer pollen from the male flowers to the stamens of the female flowers. This is especially effective early in the season, when pollination tends to be spotty.
INSECTS & DISEASES
The major insect pests that attack summer squash include cucumber beetles, vine borers, and squash bugs. Cucumber beetles can cause the most damage, particularly to seedlings, and carry wilt disease from plant to plant. Vine borers can also wipe out your plants.
A floating row cover placed immediately over emerging or transplanted seedlings, will decrease cucumber beetle and borer damage by keeping moths from laying eggs on the plants. Be sure to remove the cover when plants blossom, however, to allow pollination. Applications of pyrethrum or rotenone will also significantly reduce pest damage. Dusting the plants with wood ashes, covering the stems and base of each plant, will discourage pests as well.
If you notice squash plants wilting in the morning or evening, vine borers have probably infiltrated the plants. Check for piles of 'sawdust' at the base of the plants. Some gardeners slice the stems open to remove the borers, however, the damage is often done and the squash will no longer produce well. It's easier to rip out the plant and sow anew. The new plants will emerge after the borers have moved on, and your squash production will not be effected later in the summer.
Summer squash is susceptible to most common vine crop diseases, including anthracnose, bacterial wilt, downy and powdery mildews, mosaic, and scab disease. There are four key ways to keep these diseases at bay: Plant disease-resistant varieties. If you have problems with diseases in your squash patch, next year select only disease-resistant types. Many hybrids fit the bill.
Keep the garden clean. Remove and destroy any mildewed or diseased leaves do not place them in the compost pile.
Stay out of the bed when the leaves are wet to avoid spreading fungal and bacterial diseases from plant to plant.
Practice crop rotation. This prevents soil-borne problems from plaguing your summer squash.
If the first fruits are wrinkled or turn black at the tips and rot before attaining any size, don't assume this is a disease or pest problem. This is caused by a lack of pollination. Once the male flowers produce pollen, the female flowers will be able to set full fruit. Toss the failed fruits on the compost pile. To avoid this problem, try planting 'Sure Thing', which produces early despite the lack of male flowers or bees for pollination?or resort to hand pollination.
Although summer squash can get quite large and still be edible (zucchini can become as large as a baseball bat if left on the vine too long), you're forfeiting quality and hindering subsequent yields if you allow it to get too big. Like most vegetables, summer squash is tender and tastiest when harvested young before seeds are fully developed. Harvest when the skin is still soft enough to be penetrated by a thumbnail. Pick zucchini when it's about 4 to 6 inches long. If you like stuffed zucchini, allow them to grow to 8 inches. Crooknecks and straightnecks are best 6 to 8 inches long. Patty pans should be harvested when 3 to 5 inches in diameter.
Here are two things to keep in mind when you harvest summer squash. Cut the fruits from the vine carefully. Using a paring knife or garden shears, cut the stem about an inch above the fruit. Don't try to twist or yank the squash as you could rip the skin or damage the plant.
Frequent harvesting increases yields. With all summer
squash, regular picking will keep the plants in production all season long. Think of each plant
as a squash assembly line. When the plants are going gangbusters in midsummer, you may have to
harvest two or three times a week!
RECIPES & STORAGE
Summer squash is excellent served raw in salads or on a crudits tray with party dips. Wash and trim the squash, then cut into sticks or round 'coins' just before serving.
Most of us prefer to cook our squash, however. The key to preparing summer squash is to avoid overcooking; tender-crisp is preferred to limp-mush.
Slice the squash and steam or stir fry for only a few minutes until just tender, and serve hot with herbed butter. For interesting flavors, try seasoning summer squash with fresh herbs like basil, chives, dill, mint, parsley, and summer savory. Zucchini is particularly recommended for fresh ratatouille. Tomatoes, peppers, and squash mature in the garden around the same time.
Summer squash is best when cooked with as little water as possible to retain its subtle but unique flavors. Do not boil the fruits as the flavor and texture will be lost. For a real treat, trying grilling sliced squash seasoned with herbs. If you prefer to use olive oil when grilling, just brush a little on each slice. Squash, like eggplant, is like a blotter and will absorb a lot of oil if left to sit in it.
Because summer squash is picked in its tender, immature stage and is predominantly water, the fruits don't store well and should be used shortly after harvest. Whole squashes will keep for a few days in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator. Although you can blanch and freeze any surplus harvest, the quality is greatly reduced. You can, however, pickle the smaller fruits much like you would cukes. But, probably the best option is to give away the extra crop to neighbors or friends.