Colorful and healthy, these warm-weather veggies liven up your garden and dinner table
Story by Rodney Wilson
One of my earliest memories of gardening isn’t, in fact, from my own plot, but rather that of my childhood neighbor, an elderly gentleman who lived across the street. Every summer, his tilled backyard would be filled to bursting with oblong, green vegetables nestled beneath large, palm-like leaves. And, during these hot Kentucky days, it was not uncommon to open our own suburban front door to find a large basket stacked high with, you guessed it, zucchini, which my mother would work overtime shredding and baking into loaves of bread to disperse among family and friends.
That’s how it is with summer squash. You can’t store it (unlike winter squash), so when the weather’s right and the harvest is bountiful, it’s good to have a plan – and a good zucchini bread recipe.
While zucchini is probably the best-known summer squash, there are in fact a few varieties, and they’re all different enough to add lively aesthetics to a garden plot. Take for instance, the bright, sunny color and swan-like shape of yellow squash; the squat form and decorative edges of the multi-colored pattypan squash; or the long, elegant lines of the tromboncino (which can do double duty as a winter squash, if you’re inclined). Summer squash brings a splendid display of shapes and colors to any veggie patch.
In addition to a love of warm weather and a common lineage as members of the Cucurbita pepo family (with the exception of tromboncino, which is C. moschata), summer squash have another trait in common: baked, grilled, or sautéed, they all make excellent additions to a summer meal. And with ridiculously high levels of vitamins and minerals, you may want to eat summer squash as much as possible.
So how easy are these veggies to grow? Luckily they’re not difficult at all, as long as you follow a few simple guidelines. First, plan to provide your plants with full sun, as they need six to eight hours of sunlight a day. If you’re starting seeds indoors, get them into dirt in mid-April; otherwise, you can direct sow at a depth of 1 inch in fertile, well-drained soil between May and June – just make sure that all threat of frost has passed, as the plants are very sensitive. Give your summer squash plenty of room to grow, spacing plants 8 inches apart, and be patient with them – they can be prolific, but a plant will take around 60 days to mature.
And while growing summer squash isn’t difficult, the plants do face their fair share of pests and problems, such as the squash borer. The larval form of an orange-bodied moth, caterpillars bore into squash stems, where they block water flow to the rest of the plant, causing it to wilt and eventually die. Vigilance is key to controlling squash borers, so monitor plants in mid-June for signs of infestation (usually sawdust-like frass beneath the stems) and cut caterpillars out through a lengthwise slit. Squash bugs also pose a significant threat; they suck out sap, carry plant disease, and lay eggs on the leaves. Again, monitoring is key, though an organic pesticide containing pyrethrin can help.
Powdery mildew is another common problem that can affect taste and yields, and it’s been a real challenge for Kentucky gardeners in recent years. Proper sunlight and spacing will go a long way toward prevention, and it’s a good idea to remove affected leaves when the white powder first shows up. Commercial fungicides can be effective for heavy infections, and some organic gardeners claim a 1:9 cow’s milk and water mixture helps slow mildew growth. Additionally, baking soda and water sprayed on leaves can help protect plants from mildew.
Edible flowers are all the rage in high-end restaurants, but you can enjoy summer squash blossoms at your own kitchen table – you just need to know a little bit about the flowers before heading out to harvest. First, only pick the male flowers, as the females will become fruit. Males are hairier with a thin base at the stem, where females have a thick base (though, if you’re up to your ears in squash, go ahead and take some female blossoms, they’re said to be tastier).
Harvest in the morning, and try to pick when they’re still buds; fully formed male flowers can be somewhat challenging to cook. It’s best to eat blossoms the day they’re picked, though they can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator. Remove the interior anthers and then use blossoms as a garnish, stuffed and cooked, pickled, or even deep-fried. Delicious!