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Easy to love and easy to grow, squash (Cucurbita pepo) is the vegetable lover’s and vegetable gardener’s go-to edible. With so many varieties to choose from, you can grow a rainbow of squashes in more shapes than you can imagine. All squash is grown to be harvested in summer, but there is summer squash, which is best eaten soon after picking (such as zucchini and crookneck), and there is winter squash, which is harvested in late summer and can keep for several months after picking (such as butternut, delicata, acorn, or pumpkin). Some squash plants are very prolific, and every zucchini grower knows the pressure of the crop that just keeps coming or the squash that didn’t get harvested until it had grown to the size of a watermelon. It’s one of the most reliable producers in the vegetable garden, and by following a few simple steps, you can be harvesting more (and more varied) squash than you’ve ever seen in a grocery store.
When to Plant?
Plant squash in the spring when the weather has warmed. In areas with short growing seasons, start seeds indoors a few weeks before the last frost date.
Where to Plant?
Squash can be grown throughout California. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil that has been amended with organic matter.
How to Plant?
Sow squash seeds 1 inch deep. Bush varieties should be spaced 1½ to 4 feet apart; space vining varieties 5 feet apart. Keep the soil moist; seeds should germinate in seven to ten days.
Care and Maintenance
Keep plants evenly watered, preferably with drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Water on foliage and stems creates a welcome environment for disease. Squash plants are heavy feeders, so apply fish emulsion or a balanced fertilizer regularly. Early in the growing season you should be on the watch for certain pests. Cutworms, cucumber beetles, and slugs can cause considerable damage and should be handpicked. Row covers can help prevent them getting access. Mildew can be a real problem on squash plants, particularly late in the season. It helps to plant mildew-resistant varieties, but if mildew does become severe, it is sometimes best to just tear out the plant.
Summer squash can be harvested in fifty to sixty-five days when the fruits are still tender and the blossoms on the fruit have died back. Be careful not let to them get oversize (which can happen seemingly in the blink of an eye!) because the flavor and the texture start to degrade when they get too big—and production stops! Summer squash can produce as much as one fruit every one to two days.
Harvest winter squash in sixty to one hundred ten days when they are full size and the skin is hard. Cut the squash from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem attached. Keep the squash in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place for two to three weeks to cure, then move them someplace cool (50° to 60°F) to store them. They will keep for several months. You can expect to get two to six winter squash per vine.
Winter squash is so-called not because it grows during the winter, but because it develops a hard shell and can be stored during the winter. In the case of winter squash (such as pumpkin and butternut), you want the fruits to mature fully so that they store for the longest time possible.
enough, but if you find that you’re getting lots of blossoms but not much fruit, the problem could be that there aren’t enough pollinators doing their job. It’s easy to hand-pollinate squash. Just take a soft -bristle artist’s paintbrush and brush it over the pollen-encrusted stamens of the male blossoms, then carry the pollen over to the female blossoms (which have the immature fruit at the base of the blossom) and brush it over the stigma at the center. You should see an increase in the fruit development.
I love most kinds of squash, but because of the amount of space needed for each plant, I’m usually limited to just a couple plants per year. For those of you with more planting space than I have, here are just some of the delectable varieties to try:
For green zucchini and pattypan squash, check out ‘Clarimore’ (bush, forty-four days), ‘Raven’ (bush, forty-eight days), ‘Ronde de Nice’ (round fruit, forty-five days), ‘Starship’ (pattypan, fifty days), ‘Peter Pan’ (pattypan, fifty days), and ‘Romanesco’ (striped skin, forty-eight days).
For yellow summer squash, try ‘Early Yellow Crookneck’ (bush, fifty days), ‘Golden Dawn’ (forty-seven days), ‘Supersett’ (crookneck, forty days), ‘Sunburst’ (pattypan, fifty days), and ‘Sunny Delight’ (straightneck, semibush vine, forty days). ‘Tromboncino’ is a unique summer squash that grows on a very long vine and produces long-necked fruit up to 24 inches in length in fifty-six days. It looks impressive grown on a pergola so that its pale green fruits can hang down.
Butternut squash is one of my very favorite vegetables. Try ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ (bush, seventy-five days) or ‘Waltham Butternut’ (vine, one hundred five days). Other recommended winter squash varieties include ‘Buttercup’ (vine, ninety-five days), ‘Cornell’s Bush Delicata’ (bush, one hundred days), and ‘Sunshine’ (vine, ninety-five days).
And don’t forget about pumpkins! There are pumpkin varieties with orange or white skin and in every size from miniature (3 to 4 inches) to giant (hundreds of pounds—a recent record-breaker was 1,725 pounds!). Some varieties are favored for soups, some for pies, some for jack-olanterns. Sugar pumpkins such as ‘Winter Luxury Pie’ (one hundred days) and ‘Spookie’ (ninety days) are good for making pies. French pumpkins such as ‘Cinderella’s Carriage’ (one hundred ten days) and ‘Rouge Vifd’Etampes’ (one hundred fifteen days), which are flatter and more scalloped than other varieties, are good for soups. For jack-o-lantern carving, try ‘Autumn Gold’ (one hundred days). And for novelty mini-pumpkins, there’s ‘Jack-Be-Little’ (ninety-five days) and ‘Mini Jack’ (eighty to eighty-five days). Want to grow a giant? ‘Atlantic Giant’ (one hundred twenty days) is one of the favorites of the behemoth-growers, but there are also ‘Wyatt’s Wonder’ (one hundred ten days) and ‘Big Max’ (one hundred twenty days).
Pumpkins have much the same growing requirements as other squash, but they may require more space, depending on the variety. In late summer, slide a piece of wood or some other protection under each pumpkin so that it doesn’t rot on the ground. Pumpkins are ready to harvest when the skin is fully colored and hard. Cut the pumpkin from the vine, leaving a couple inches of stem attached.