Growing summer squash in the home garden
By A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
Squash: People either love it or hate it. Squash (Cucurbita pepo) has a reputation for being mushy, but not if you grow your own. How could something so beautiful be tasteless and mushy? It’s not! These are not your old grammar school lunchroom nightmares. New varieties have spruced up its image. Right off the vine, grilled, sautéed, or even pickled, give summer squash a second chance. It is easy to grow and produces abundantly. They are a great way for new vegetable gardeners to delve into the dirt and be successful.
Summer squash is a tender warm-season crop that prefers a site that receives seven to eight hours of sun daily. Squash thrives in soil rich in organic matter with a pH range of 5.8-6.8. Proper soil preparation includes providing good drainage. Squash do not like wet feet.
Mid-March, when soil temperatures have reached 60 F and the danger of frost has passed, squash can be direct seeded in the garden. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep and 3 feet apart, as squash plants become quite large. They will germinate in seven to 10 days. Transplants can be used, but direct seeding is easier. Two plants can easily supply a family.
Zucchini, crookneck, straightneck, and scalloped are the major groups of summer squash grown in Louisiana. The long slender zucchini squash now comes in light green, striped, dark green, and bright gold. Green zucchini has soft, thin skin with firm, mild-tasting, white flesh. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It’s ideal for both savory and sweet dishes. ‘Golden Delight’, ‘Enterprise’, ‘Revenue’, ‘Spineless Beauty’, and ‘Seneca’ grow well in our area. The small, round zucchini’ Eight Ball’ is perfect for stuffing with shrimp. Lastly, there is a white zucchini, ‘Lungo Bianco’ from Italy, which boasts sweet, mild flesh.
Crookneck squash looks exactly how you would expect: It has a slender, crooked neck and a bulbous body. These are best picked when they are 5-6 inches long for the best flavor and texture. ‘Dixie’, ‘Gold Star’, ‘Sundance’, and ‘Medallion’ are proven producers in our climate.
Straightnecks are similar to crooknecks except straightnecks are easier to slice and are preferred by cooks because they stay tender longer. Recommended varieties include ‘Cheetah’, ‘Supersett’, ‘Superpik’, ‘Multipik’, and ‘Tigress’.
Scalloped or pattypan are thin-skinned, flat-topped, and fluted squashes that resemble miniature flying saucers. They are prolific and come in mixed colors of greens, golds, and whites. They are tastiest when picked at 4-5 inches while the skin is still glossy. They are less likely to be spongy or have mature seeds at that stage. Stuffed and presented in their own shells, pattypans will garner many compliments at your next dinner.
‘Zephyr’ is a beautiful new hybrid you should try. Even the name sounds inviting. It is a hybrid of yellow crookneck, delicata, and yellow acorn squash. It has firm flesh and a long, cylindrical, pale yellow body that’s slightly tapered at the neck and a distinct bottom portion that can vary from pale to deep green.
All types require the same cultural practices. Side-dress with 13-13-13 two weeks after transplanting or when the first true leaves emerge. Be careful not to overfertilize. Excess nitrogen can cause foliar problems. Water deeply and infrequently, 1-2 inches per week. Use drip irrigation if possible. Avoid wetting the foliage to prevent leaf diseases. Irrigate so that moisture goes down into the soil and reduce watering as the fruits ripen to avoid fruit rots. Applying organic mulch around the plants will conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth. Grass clippings can be used to mulch between your rows. The large squash leaves will shade out weeds, making your job a little easier.
Diseases to be aware of are blossom-end rot, powdery mildew, and bacterial wilt. The major insect pests are aphids, squash vine borers, and cucumber beetles. Carbaryl and pyrethroids provide effective control of these pests. Try to spray or dust before the insects have a chance to harm young plants. The cucumber beetles spread bacterial wilt, so it is very important to inspect your plants regularly and treat when necessary.
Squash plants have both male and female flowers. The female flowers are easy to identify because they have a tiny squash below the blossoms. Male flowers open a week or two before the female flowers and they sit directly on the stem. To help female flowers develop into squash, bees and other small insects visit the male flowers and then take the pollen to the female flowers. Male flowers (which are edible) often drop to the ground at the end of their life cycle – don’t be alarmed because this is completely normal.
Harvest squash that are small and tender with shiny skin free of blemishes. Avoid overripe squash with a hard rind and dull appearance; those contain mature seeds and tend to be spongy and bitter. Continue to harvest immature fruits so that the plant continues to produce new squash. Blossoms should be harvested early in the morning for best results.
Squash can last a week or two in the refrigerator. One of the challenges with zucchini and summer squash is their tender skin. They tend to get scratched and pitted if handled roughly, so it is best to use them as soon after picking as possible.
Let this Southern summer staple dazzle your menus with its versatility. Summer squash can be included in sweet and savory dishes – from appetizers to desserts.