It's rare that lack of summer squash is a problem in home gardens. Most gardeners are practically begging friends to take extra squash come summer. Whether you're growing patty pans, yellow crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or regular old green zucchini, summer squashes are prolific. However, there are circumstances that may lead your squashes to ruin. While many diseases can be thwarted by growing resistant varieties, weather and insect problems call for more active measures. Here are some ways to insure a bountiful summer squash harvest all season long.
Most squash varieties need cross pollination to produce fruit. Poor pollination often results in the small squash rotting on the plant. Plants have separate male and female flowers and bees are the usual ambassadors to transfer pollen from one flower to another. If you are getting all plant, flowers, but few fruits, cloudy cool weather (which deters bees from flying) or a low bee population maybe the cause. Luckily you can fulfill the bees' role by hand pollinating the flowers. Here's how.
In the morning take a cotton swab and swish it inside a freshly opened male flower (no small summer squash behind the flower). Then take the same swab and swish it around a freshly opened female flower (has a small summer squash behind the flower). This should be enough to pollinate that flower and fruit will soon follow.
There are many insects that attack squash family crops. Two of the toughest are the squash vine borer and the squash bug. The squash vine borer is a fly that lays its eggs at the base of the stem near the soil line. The egg hatches and the small white larvae tunnels into the stem and bores toward the tip of the squash plant. If plants are wilting during the day even though they have plenty of water, check for the borer hole at the base of the plant. To control it, cover squash plants with a floating row cover until flowering. This cheesecloth-like material prevents the adult fly from laying eggs, while allowing air, light and water to penetrate. Check regularly for signs of damage and if found, inject Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the stem. Bt will kill the larvae but not harm the plant, other insects, or humans. You can also physically remove the larvae by slitting the stem with a sharp razor and picking out the borer. Cover the stem with soil afterward and the plant should reroot.
Squash bugs are grayish-brown and often group in masses on the underside of leaves. They can quickly decimate a crop with their feeding. Lay boards on the ground near affected plants to lure them. The bugs will gather under the boards at night. In the morning, lift the boards and destroy the bugs. You can also pick off any bugs or egg masses you see on the leaves (check the undersides, too). If you use an insecticide such as pyrethrin, be sure to spray it on the top and bottom of the leaves.
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Q. I have planted watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumber plants side by side in my garden. Is there any problem with the flowers cross pollinating forming odd fruits this year?
A. Even though some of the cucumber family crops such as squash, melons, and cucumbers will cross pollinate, you can grow them side by side this year. Cross pollination will only effect the seeds forming inside the fruits. This year's fruits will grow as expected. However, if you collect the seed from the fruit this year and plant them next year, be ready for all kinds of combinations growing.