Growing your own squash in Georgia

Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield

Squash should be a staple of every summer garden – it is easy to grow and produces abundantly. There is certainly no shortage of varieties to try; you can find an assortment of shapes and colors, ranging from striped green to flying-saucer-shaped yellow. When it comes to planting squash, you also have the option of planting summer and/or winter varieties. Surprising to some, both are warm-season plants that can provide a nutritious delicacy to your table all year long. 

Harvest zucchini while it is still tender.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining the difference between winter and summer squash. Summer squash is typically the yellow straightneck and crookneck varieties that you think about, as well as the green zucchini types. It also includes “the flying-saucer-shaped” pattypan varieties. All of these are fast developing, warm-season plants, from which we harvest the young developing fruit on a continuing basis from the maturing plants. Depending on the health of your plants, you may be able to harvest for several months. Despite the name, winter squash is also planted in late spring. It is a sprawling-type vine that takes up a substantial area of your garden, so allow plenty of space. The fruit of winter squash varieties are allowed to remain on the vine until completely mature. At this point, the rind of the vegetable will be very hard. Winter squash is normally harvested in late summer, but when properly stored, your harvested fruits can last through the winter – thus the name. 

Perhaps the best reward of growing squash is that it can be prepared in so many ways. From stir-fry to barbecue on the grill, it is a delicious complement to any meal.

Whether you choose to plant summer, winter, or both types of squash, begin by direct seeding into fertile, organically amended soil. Since they are both warm-season crops, soil temperatures should be at least 65 F. For faster germination, soak your seeds water overnight before planting the next day. Traditional summer squash can be planted in rows or hills at a spacing of 3 feet between rows and 3 feet within the rows. I like to put about four or five seeds at each planting spot and thin them down to two plants if they all germinate. Winter squash gets much larger as it spreads along the ground, similar to cucumbers. Allow a minimum of 6 feet between plants on all sides. Seeds should be planted about 1 inch deep and the soil lightly firmed by patting it down with your hand. It is always a good idea to have some starter fertilizer in the soil as well. In the absence of a soil test, about 25 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of garden should get you started. The pH of the soil can only be determined by soil testing and should be done at least every other year. Like most vegetables, squash does best in a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8.

After young squash have been pollinated and begin to form small fruit, add some additional fertilizer to help the developing plant. Summer squash should always be harvested at an immature state, or they will tend to have a “woody” texture. Winter squash, as I mentioned earlier, should remain on the vine until the plants begin to wither and the squash break off the stem easily. The rind of the winter squash should be difficult to penetrate with you fingernail when ready to harvest. In addition to fertilizer, provide proper irrigation, approximately 1 inch of water per week. I prefer to use drip irrigation when possible. Weed control is also critical to reduce competition for water and nutrients. Organic mulch or synthetic weed fabric can help tremendously at keeping invasive weeds under control. 

Butternut winter squash; synthetic weed fabric helps keep competing weeds at bay.

I wish I could say that squash were problem-free when it comes to diseases and insects. It seems like the past five years have even gotten worse in terms of dealing with pesky issues on squash. Powdery and downy mildew are often a problem in early squash plantings. These can easily be controlled with proper applications of fungicides. 

While winter squash is resistant, the greatest challenge of growing summer squash is squash bugs and squash vine borers. While there are other pesky insects out there, these two hoodlums account for more squash deaths than any other insects I know of. While insecticidal controls, both organic and systemic, can provide some relief, I have found the only way to have squash throughout the entire growing season is to rotate in fresh plants every two to three weeks. As the older plants become bombarded with these pests, I simply pull them out and discard them, allowing the young crop to produce in their place. 

Perhaps the best reward of growing squash is that it can be prepared in so many ways. From stir-fry to barbecue on the grill, it is a delicious complement to any meal. My favorite winter squash is the spaghetti variety that we often bake in the oven, adding in ground beef and seasoning for a delicious meal. Regardless of how you like to prepare them, add some squash to your garden this season and allow your culinary imagination to run wild.

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