Growing Squash
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor,
University of Vermont
       
Each year the National Garden Bureau picks a vegetable to feature, with the
Vegetable of the Year for 2010 being the squash.  There are many varieties of
this easy-to-grow native vegetable, in various shapes and colors.
        
One of "Three Sisters"

Evidence has been found in caves in Mexico and the Southwest that squash
existed at least by 5000 B.C., and was being grown by native peoples about
4000 B.C.  Grown together with two other native crops -- corn and beans -- it
was one of the "three sisters."

The corn provided support for the beans, and the squash provided a ground
cover for weed control.  These crops migrated with humans to eastern North
America, where they were discovered and introduced to Europe by early
settlers and explorers in the late 16th century.
       
Cucurbit Family Member

Squash is one of the many members of the cucurbit family, along with other
common vegetables such as cucumbers, melons, and gourds.  They are
generally divided into two groups, the summer and winter squash, depending
on when they are harvested.  

You'll see further groupings or types in catalogs, often based on fruit shape.  
The summer squash include either crookneck or straightneck, scallop or patty
pan, zucchini, and vegetable marrow.  The winter squash include acorn,
banana, buttercup, butternut, delicata, delicious, and hubbard.
       
Summer Squash

The summer squash need warm weather for best growth. They are harvested in
summer, before the fruits are fully mature in order to have the best flavor and
texture.  Seeds should not be fully developed, and the skin should be able to
be scraped easily with the fingernail.  They can be harvested at most any
immature stage, even quite small.  These store only a few days in the
refrigerator but are easily frozen.
       
To freeze zucchini, yellow crookneck, or other summer squash, wash after
harvest and slice.  Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes to destroy enzymes
and bacteria that break down the fruit.  Then cool rapidly in running cold
water, or ice water.  Strain and bag, using plastic reclosable freezer bags (sold
just for this and heavier than other bags) or a vacuum sealer.
       
Winter Squash

Winter squash, on the other hand, are harvested mature in fall around the time
of the first frost.   Skins should resist fingernail pressure.  Although this group
needs warm weather for seeds to germinate and plants to grow, cool nights are
needed for best flavor to develop in fruits.  

Winter squash stores well, such as in a cool room or basement which stays
around 50 to 55 degrees (F).  Acorn squash can store 3 to 4 months, other winter
squashes can last up to 6 months with proper storage.  If you are planning to
store, make sure to cut the fruit from the vines rather than twist or pull them
off.  Breaking the stem off the fruit will leave an opening that rots can enter.
       
All squash need full sun and a well-drained soil.  Squash can get large, so
make sure you check the habit and spread before planting.  Many summer
squash have been bred to be more compact, so need about 4 square feet per
plant.  You can plant several seeds per small raised hill, then thin later to 3
plants per hill.  Space hills about 4 feet apart, with any rows 5 feet apart.
       
Most winter squash have a semi-bush habit or are vining.  Allow more space
for these, about 12 square feet per vining plant.  For those winter squash with
small fruits, you can even train them onto a 4-foot high trellis in the back of the
garden.
       
Growing Squash

Many sow the large seeds directly into the garden.  Since they need warmth to
germinate and grow, wait until the soil warms or else seedlings will grow
slowly and seeds may rot.  If the season is cool, or your garden is in the north
with a shorter growing season, you may want to start seedlings 2 or 3 weeks
early indoors.  Best is to sow into a peat pot or similar which can be planted
directly into the garden (they don't like transplanting).  Keep seeds indoors in
as much warmth and sun as possible, and don't allow to dry out.
       
Since squash are vigorous, they require more fertilizer than some other crops.  
Work plenty of compost into the soil prior to planting, then fertilize once
plants get a few inches tall.  You can use a granular or liquid fertilizer, organic
or synthetic.  Fertilize again after a month or 6 weeks.
       
Mulching will help keep weeds down early on (the plants with their large
leaves do this later) that can compete with plants for nutrients, and that foster
insects and diseases.  Examples of mulches are straw (not weedy hay),
newspapers with some organic material like shredded leaves, or plastic
similarly covered.
       
Summer squash will need plenty of water (water deeply and less often is
better) through the season, especially during bloom and fruit development.  
Winter squash can tolerate some drought once they are established.  Between
you and the rain, the soil should be wet to a depth of 10 inches or more each
week.  Keeping water off leaves when watering will help prevent powdery
mildew disease.
       
Controlling Insects & Diseases

Choosing the right site, using mulches with spot hand weeding, and proper
culture will go a long way to controlling insects and diseases.  If plants
suddenly wilt, often starting one stem at a time, chances are they have a
bacterial wilt.  It, and viruses that stunt or deform plants, are spread by insects.  
Control these and your plants may remain free of disease.
       
The three main insects to watch for are the striped cucumber beetle, the squash
bug, and the squash vine borer.  The adult beetle is yellow to black, striped to
spotted, and about 1/4 inch long.  It feeds on most plant parts. Covering plants
with fine netting will keep these away.
       
The adult squash bug is flat, brownish-gray, and about 5/8 inch long.    It is
usually found on undersides of leaves where it sucks plant juices.  Put some
boards in the garden where these insects can hide under, and are then easily
found and removed.
       
The borer does just this, the larvae or caterpillar stage makes tunnels in stems.  
This causes them to wilt rapidly, then die.  You can make small cuts in stems to
carefully remove borers, cut off badly damaged stems, and early in the season
lay foil in the garden to confuse the moths that lay the eggs that hatch the
larvae.
       
Buy it Locally

Whether you grow your own squash, buy it from local farmers, or get it from
friends (as often happens with the prolific zucchini), consider putting some up
for winter.  You'll benefit from the fresh flavors well past the season, as well as
the nutrition of these vegetables.  Zucchini is lower in calories than many fruits
and vegetables.  Although winter squash has the same calories roughly as
potatoes, it has more than twice the potassium.  Winter and yellow squash  
both provide Vitamin A and minerals that may reduce the risk of certain
cancers.
       
More details on these and other vegetables of the year can be found on the
National Garden Bureau website.      






















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