Cucurbits are a genus of squash in the family Cucurbitaceae. It is one of the widest genus of food used by humans and other mammals in the world. Squash grow in almost every region with such a diversity of size, texture, color, and flavor that classification among the species is quite difficult. The plants hybridize naturally and are also important cultivars as new crop species are introduced.
The characteristic growing conditions for squash are at least 8 hours per day of sunlight, well draining rich soil, a long growing season and plenty of space for the wide ranging viney stems. Summer squash tend to have edible, softer skin and a shorter period between seed and harvest. Winter squash are more tolerable of cool temperatures than summer squash and usually have a thicker skin and larger seeds inside. The flavors and textures really run the gamut on bot basic divisions.
The fun part is choosing the varieties you will grow. The yellow crooknecks, zucchini, delicatta, patty pans, butter blossom and sun drops are optimal for the short season gardener and produce all through the season. Late season squash harvested after the vines have begun to die store well over the fall and into winter. These are usually hard shelled and include fun shapes and a range of flavors. Some classics are butternut, spaghetti, turban, acorn and pumpkins. Heirloom varieties bring interest to the diet and make great display pieces for the fall table. Try cheese or blue Hakkaido pumpkins, candy roaster, Cinderella pumpkins, blue Triamble, red Warren and Yokohama. Heirloom seed catalogs carry numerous old fashioned specimens to try.
In many regions of the U.S., squash plants need to be started indoors at least 5 to 6 weeks before the date of the last expected spring frost. Sprouting the seeds in moist paper towels kept inside plastic bags or containers for a week will give you a jump start on germination. Use a good potting soil or seed starter mix and seed flats or small pots that compost into soil so you do not have to disturb the new plant's roots. Set seeds at least 1/2 inch below the surface of the soil, or for sprouted seeds, completely bury the roots. A lucky few zones can start seeds outside once temperatures are at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit and no frost or ice occurs.
Plant out to hills in compost rich soil as soon as temperatures are warm and the seedlings have at least 2 pairs of true leaves. Use a starter fertilizer after the seedlings have acclimated in about 2 weeks. Once the vine shave begun to sprawl it is important to get quick control of them. First look and see if the plant is determinate or indeterminate. Indeterminates will be growing out of control in the garden with vigorous fruiting through the season and stem growth. Determinates will be bushier, compact plants with shorter bursts of fruit production. You can force an indeterminate plant to terminate its stem growth by locating the nodes or suckers in between the main stem and the side shoots. Remove these and the vine will not sprawl as much and can be trained to a trellis or wall.
Usually they snap off quite easily but in some cases you may need to use pruners or scissors.
Teepees, wigwams and trellises are some of the easiest ways to train the vine type indeterminate squash. Use soft plant ties rather than wire ones to protect the tender stem material. As the plants grow be vigilant in removing the suckers and keep the plant well tied up especially as heavy fruit arrives. The heaviest squash can be cradled in mesh or old nylon stockings for extra support. As a rule, training vertical growth works best with the smaller summer squash, gourds and baby pumpkins.
Over the season you should feed your plants. Squash need plentiful water but prevent boggy soil. Feed them every 10 to 14 days with a high potash fertilizer. Alternately, dig in plenty of compost and manure before planting and side dress with either after the plants have established. This should provide necessary nourishment through the growing season.
Seed saving is important once you have found some favorites. However, be cautious. Squash naturally hybridize in close proximity to each other so plant them some distance from each other. In a perfect world that would be a mile distance from each species. Wait until the squash vines have begun to die back and then select a perfect specimen of the species. Store the fruit until ready to use to enhance seed viability. Remove the seeds and wash off all the pith and flesh. Let them dry on mesh or paper towels for up to 3 weeks. Then store the seed for the next season in a cool, dark location in airtight jars for up to 6 years.
Growing squash, with the endless species variety and range of color, texture and flavor, is truly a labor of love. The fascinating shapes and variety of usages enhance your familys diet. Try stewing, roasting, drying and crunchy seed recipes for an unlimited dietary experience.