Friday, August 9, 2013

Episode 12: Wherein Organigirl's Garden Is Taken Over By Squash Plants



Do you like squash? (Please don't say no, please don't say no!) I do. In fact, so great is my love for squash that I currently have somewhere around forty squash plants taking over my garden. I planted twenty-one varieties of squash in my raised beds this year. Of those twenty-one, nineteen varieties are growing. And taking over. They have a mind of their own, and it's no joke. One particularly prolific variety called "Jumbo Pink Banana" found a low branch of my lemon tree and has started to climb up, up, up! Soon I'll be picking squash AND lemons off of the tree.



Did I mention that the squash is taking over? I have no regrets.

If you're a lover of squash, as I am, and you have a space in your garden that needs a little action, it might be time to start learning about all of the many, many, many varieties of squash that exist so you can pick a few (or twenty-one) to plant in your garden next year. I typically purchase my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and let me tell you - they sell more than a few varieties of squash seeds.

Planting Squash


Squash is an easy vegetable to grow if you get it off to a good start. It needs plenty of nutrients, but I've had great success growing it in raised beds with a mix of 1/3 organic compost and 2/3 planting mix (the standard ready-to-go dirt that you can get from your local garden supply). For established raised beds, just add a couple inches of compost before you plant and mix it in well with a garden fork. If you don't have a garden fork, a shovel will work fine.


For each variety of squash you plan to grow, build a small mound of dirt in your raised bed about 6 inches high and 18"-24" across. Mounds should be a few feet apart to give your squash plants room to grow. I’ve had great success with four mounds in a 4’x8’ bed. If you’re growing winter squash you may want to give your plants a little extra room or use trellises. Make sure to incorporate a generous shovelful of compost into each mound. Form a little "crater" about 6 inches in diameter at the top of the mound (it'll look somewhat like a volcano) and place five seeds in a circle around the inside edge of your "crater". Then cover your seeds with ½”-1” of soil. I also like to dig a shallow trench around the perimeter at the base of each mound to encourage water to stay near the mound (which can be nice if you’re having a heat wave and you get some rain!).

Watering


I highly recommend installing drip irrigation to your mounds. If you plan to do so - create a ring of drip line about the same size as your crater and use landscaping staples to fix the drip irrigation to the top of your mound. We have our drip irrigation set to water the squash for about 30 minutes early each morning, however, until the squash seedlings emerge you’ll likely need to  water by hand each morning or evening. Once the seedlings appear, the drip irrigation will be sufficient.


Summer squash in a raised bed. By the way, see how the leaves are touching
the pressure treated fence? Avoid that. Soon our side of the fence will be
 finished and we won't have to worry about our food plants touching
chemical laden wooden posts anymore.

To Thin or Not to Thin?


I’ve read in many places that once seedlings emerge it’s a good idea to select the best one or two plants from each hill and remove the rest. I don’t do this. Here’s why:


1. It’s more work, especially if you have forty plus plants to deal with.


2. Often times not all five seeds will sprout, so there are fewer to begin with as it is.


3. I love squash and I want as much of it as possible! They say that thinning to the best one or two plants per hill increases the amount of squash each plant will grow, but honestly, I can’t imagine my squash plants being able to produce more than they already do! They seem very happy as they are. However, if the soil weren’t healthy I might reconsider.


4. I like it when the vines go crazy and my garden starts to look like a jungle.
Once your squash plants start to take off, keep a close eye on them. Once squash start to appear you’ll want to check your summer squash plants about every other day to make sure a zucchini doesn’t turn into a baseball bat sized squash. Keeping the fruit picked also allows the plant to grow more fruit.

Winter Versus Summer Squash


Winter squash and summer squash are generally planted at the same time, however, summer squash are ready sooner. Summer squash are squash plants grown with the intent of harvesting the fruit early at the stage where the skin is still thin and tender. Winter squash plants are grown with the intent of harvesting the fruit later in the season when the skin becomes hard. Some varieties of squash are grown both as summer and winter squash. Those varieties can be harvested early and used as you would any summer squash. You can then leave a few squash on the plant to become winter squash.

Harvesting Squash

Picking squash can be an unpleasant affair if you aren't prepared. Squash leaves have prickly hairs which can cause skin irritation. Wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting squash to avoid contact with the leaves. Keeping squash plants pruned by cutting back a few leaves here and there (don't overdo it!) can also make it easier to harvest your squash without touching the leaves.

To remove summer squash fruit, use a clean, serrated knife to cut the stem about 1/2"-1" above the top of the squash. I typically store summer squash in the fridge. Winter squash can be more difficult to harvest because the stems grow harder and are sometimes even dry. If a serrated knife can't easily cut through the stems, try using a clean pair of pruning shears.


A recent day's worth of harvest from my garden - notice that there's plenty
of squash. By the way, it was delicious!
Crop Rotation Considerations

If you're new to the concept of crop rotation, be sure to check out my post on crop rotation for an overview. Squash is part of the "fruit" category in our crop rotation. The fruit category also includes vegetables like cucumbers and fruits like melons. Squash should be planted after "leaf" category plants like lettuces and spinach and should then be followed by "root" category plants like radishes and beets.

Powdery Mildew


Sometimes leaves on a squash plant may begin to look “dusty” and wilted. This is called “powdery mildew” and you’ll want to keep an eye on it or it can spread to affect every squash plant around it. Remove affected leaves and dispose of them far away from your squash plants.


This is how powdery mildew looks at the beginning. Left unresolved the
leaves will soon be completely covered with white mildew and they'll
begin to look wilted. And sad. 

Never hand water squash in the evening once seeds sprout. Water that sits on your plants leaves all night without drying will only encourage powdery mildew to grow. Drip irrigation is a perfect choice for watering squash because it gets the water to the roots and keeps it off of the leaves. It’s also much easier to keep your plants watered when the watering is done automatically - especially if you’re taking care of forty squash plants!

Have any questions or tips about growing squash? Wanna tell your “tall tale” about that four foot long zucchini Aunt Ida grew back in the summer of ‘89? Leave a comment below!

3 comments:

  1. I only planted two mounds of zucchini and they have taken over the garden! have given all the neighbors some and the food pantry several and still plenty left over to eat. Not sure when the harvest will be over, but next year may not plant as much! Yikes.

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  2. Maybe next year you can try one mound of zucchini and one mound of winter squash. Then your squash harvest will last from summer through fall!

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