Bring on the summer squash!
Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton
Oh the bounty of summer squash, a true sun-loving vegetable that has most gardeners crying uncle under bushels of produce. When we were growing up, my mom would instruct us to lock the car doors whenever we went to town for fear of finding a box of zucchini in the back seat when we returned. It’s the only time of year we locked our car in our little hometown.
Summer squash, a member of the cucurbit family, come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. Summer squash does best in full sun and warm soil – keep that in mind when spring fever hits and you’re tempted to plant seeds just as the last frost is behind us. Wait until the soil is around 70 F and nighttime temperatures are consistently around 50 F. The garden to table time will be shorter and the seeds won’t rot in the cold soil. My father who has raised food his whole life often reminds me that balance is key to any garden, so use the best soil you can afford, or amend what you have with lots of organic matter (compost) and know your pH (squash prefer 6.0 -6.5).
There is really no need to buy squash plants since summer squash is so easy to start from seed. Buy fresh seeds, as plants in the cucurbit family tend to cross. A package of seeds can last two or three years if stored properly.
In conventional gardens, sow groups of two or three seeds 1 inch deep, 18 inches apart in rows that are 2 feet apart. You can also plant five seeds in hills about 2 feet across and 2 feet apart. In raised beds, plant two seeds per hole, 1 inch deep and 15 inches apart. After the second set of leaves appear, choose the strongest and thin others for improved growing conditions.
Water deeply every four or five days in hot weather and consistently when there is no rain. A good 1 inch per week at the base of the plant should do it. Remember to water at dawn or early afternoon to avoid any interference with pollinators. Soaker hoses or irrigation tape are good investments.
Scout the garden daily; just grab your cup of coffee and go hunting. Squash bugs and their eggs can be removed by hand and squished or stomped (gardeners cannot be squeamish … it’s a war out there). If you just can’t do that, you can drop them into a bucket of warm soapy water.
Cucumber beetles spread diseases so be vigilant. I like to spread food grade diatomaceous earth around squash plants as soon as they start popping up to combat these beetles. Be sure to clean up debris from your garden in the fall to prevent cucumber beetle eggs from overwintering in any leftover residue. Use mulch to block them – straw, hay, fabric, or plastic all help. Row covers also work well; just remove in time for pollination. To reduce problems in general, rotate planting sites every two to three years.
Start harvesting as soon as squash looks big enough to eat. Squash are generally best when still on the small side, no more than 6-8 inches long or round. But no worries if your zucchinis grow larger, which they do quickly. Do what we used to do – my grandmother would whittle out the center of overgrown zucchinis and stuff them with breadcrumbs, veggies, and cheese and call them stuffed boats. We would gather all the monster zucchinis and play squash ball. Much like baseball only we would use the zucchinis for bats, and hit tennis balls. Made quite the mess but the chickens loved it!
Be prepared to harvest, cook, preserve, and share your bounty!
Here are a few of my favorite varieties
• Tricolor mix (jade, gold, and emerald).
• ‘Tigress’ (F1), a hybrid that is resistant to various viruses common in the South.
• ‘Zephyr’ (F1), vigorous, high yielding, yellow with green stripe.
• ‘Ronde De Nice’, a French heirloom that is round and tender.
• ‘Romanesco’, an Italian heirloom, dark green striping with improved disease resistance and early harvest. ‘Trombetta’, an Italian heirloom climbing vine with trumpet-shaped fruit that is seedless and not watery.
• ‘Astia’, compact French bush variety perfect for containers.
• ‘Superset’, mildew resistant with strong necks.
• ‘Gold Star’ (F1) hybrid, adaptable, and disease resistant.
• ‘Summer Scallop Trio’, combination of three hybrid pattypan squash: ‘Sunburst’ (yellow),
• ‘Starship’ (dark green), and ‘Peter Pan’ (bright green).
• ‘Benning’s Green Tint’, a pattypan/scallop heirloom with great yields.