Cucumbers, squash, melons, pumpkins: all so essential to our summer dinner tables and our vegetable gardens. All of these are members of the Cucurbitaceae plant family, commonly called "cucurbits".

Members of this family are easily recognized as kin. All have large leaves on prickly, fuzzy stems. The plants don't stand up on their own, but may climb using tendrils, or creep across the ground. If you've had success with ANY cucurbit, you should be able to master them all.

The natural tendency of these plants is to form a vine and go rambling. Not surprisingly, the bigger the hoped-for fruit, the bigger (generally) the vine must be. The first step in cucurbit success is to plan a large growing area. Soil for cucurbits should be well enriched with organic amendments like compost, aged manure, or leafmold. Cucurbits are consistent in their love of warm weather. They are planted at the beginning of the warm season, to produce fruit well before frost. Cucurbits are started indoors for northern gardens where the warm season is brief. These transplants do not like their roots disturbed. Peat or other plantable temporary pots work well. Handle roots gently.

Planting "in a hill" is a common recommendation for cucurbits. The hill helps ensure warm soil that these plants need. As you create a hill, you can easily incorporate additional organic matter to the soil. (I use this task for spot double-digging, and work plenty of last year's compost into the soil.) Build the soil into a flat mound several inches above the rest of the bed surface. Plant seeds or plants in the top of the mound.

Unique flowering

All cucurbits, (except certain white-flowered gourds,) have medium to large flowers of yellow or orange . They can be stunning! But each flower is only open for one day. And each flower of any of these crops has only one gender. The first flowers to form on cucurbit plants will be male only. Notice that there is a long thin stem just below the base of the flower. Wait a bit and you'll see new flowers forming with a much thicker stem. Female flowers have a swollen stem. The tiny beginnings of the fruit are there in that swelling.

Male and female flowers must be open at the same time, and pollinated by insects or gardeners, for fruit to form properly. Some cucurbit crops can pollinate each other, which helps ensure fruit set. Remember this cross-pollination ability before trying to save seeds to grow next year. If multiple cucurbits are growing in your garden this year, the offspring (fruit grown on your saved seed) may be unique in looks and taste.

Keep the cucurbits well watered in the beginning of the season. Harvest cucumbers and summer squash as soon as they are big enough for your taste. Ease up on watering melons later in summer, to allow the fruit to sweeten. Let melons, winter squash, and pumpkins mature on the vines.

These crops are not pest free. Watch for cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and bean beetles. Sudden wilting of summer squash is the trademark destruction caused by the dreaded squash vine borer.

Container cucurbits

Cucumbers are naturally on the smaller scale of this family. Cukes grow well in pots, if given a place to climb. Beyond cucumbers, your choice of container cucurbits is very small. Tiny ornamental pumpkins, novelty mini melons, and small pretty gourds can also be containerized. Deck railing, nearby fences, or tomato cages can serve as "cucurbit jungle gyms."

Plant breeders are doing their darnedest to accomodate container gardeners' needs for cucurbits. Summer squashes are more bush-like, in that the vine is very compact and the large leaves emerge close together. The plant will tend to lay low on the pot and sprawl down its side. Look for zucchini, patty pans, or yellow summer squashes described as 'bush' or compact varieties. "Bush" winter squashes form shorter vines than their "vine" predecessors. However, all squashes will spill out of a container. Pumpkins, watermelons? Forget it; they'll be growing halfway across the deck before you get a glimpse of fruit.

As for all container culture, potted cucurbits depend on you to supply plenty of fertilizer and water for good growth. They cannot reach out beyond the pot to get what they need!

Novelty cucurbits for the curious gardener

Cucurbits are popular in many cultures. Specialty seed catalogs and sites offer traditional Native American varieties, or cultivars from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Gourds are in the cucurbit family, and some gourds are eaten when small and tender. Ornamental gourds can be found in myriad shapes, sizes, and colors.