If vegetable gardening was only about producing the most vegetables possible per square foot, I would pick summer squash to be on my team. Summer squash and zucchini are easy to grow and productive. We've all heard stories about people secretly leaving fruits of summer squash on neighbor's porches, car backseats, and baby strollers as a way to get rid of the excess.
While summer squash are very productive, they also are very tasty. Whether it be the dark green-skinned zucchini, yellow-skinned straight or crooknecks, or light green-skinned Lebanese summer squash, they all have a creamy flavor that tastes great baked, steamed, sauteed, and grilled. So if you want to feed an army (or your neighborhood), grow summer squash. Here's how.
Summer squash varieties vary by skin color and shape. Which variety you grow really becomes a matter of personal preference. They all grow quickly from seed or transplant to produce fruits in about 40 to 50 days after planting. Summer squash thrive in full sun, on well-drained fertile soil. Give them a little compost and keep them watered and you'll more than likely be rewarded with a bountiful crop.
Like all squash and pumpkins, summer squash and zucchini grow best with warm soil temperatures and plenty of water. Although they can be bought as transplants from a garden center, summer squash are easily sown directly into the soil once the soil temperature is above 60°F. In cold weather areas, consider laying down a layer of black plastic mulch two weeks before planting to preheat the soil, and then plant into holes poked in the plastic. Amend the soil with a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of compost before planting.
There are various planting methods you can use. Plant seeds in rows, dropping the seeds about 8 inches apart in furrows about 6 inches deep. You also can plant summer squash in hills or mounds. Plant 6 to 8 seeds in hills or circles spaced 4 feet apart. Thin after the seedlings emerge, leaving the two to three strongest seedlings. If you have heavy or wet soil, raise the hills into mounds about 8 inches high and flat on top. Plant and space the seeds as you would in the hills. Once they start growing, side-dress plants at first flowering and then monthly with an all-purpose fertilizer to keep the fruits coming. Keep plants well weeded, and once the soil has warmed, mulch with an organic product such as pine straw. Keep the squash well watered as well.
Most summer squash varieties have separate male and female flowers. Insects, especially bees, are needed for pollination and fruiting to occur. Because of bee colony decline across the country there are fewer honey bees in gardens. Also, during periods of cold, cloudy weather bees may not be flying so pollination may be reduced. You can improve the harvest by helping with pollination. In the morning when the flowers are fully opened, go into the garden and swish a cotton swab in the male flower (the one with a straight stem behind the flower). Then take the cotton swab containing the yellow pollen and swish it around the female flower (the one with a small squash behind the flower). This should help insure the flower gets pollinated, and young squash are bound to follow.
Summer squash are attacked by a variety of pests. Squash vine borer adults lay their eggs on the squash stems near the ground. The eggs hatch and the young tunnel into the fruits and can eventually kill the plant. Protect your squash plants by covering them with a floating row cover until they start to flower. Place aluminum foil beneath the plant to confuse the adult flies so they can't lay eggs. Surgically remove the young larvae with a sharp knife or inject Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki) into the plants. This bacteria kills the bugs without harming the plant, wildlife or humans.
Squash bugs are flat-shelled, brown or gray colored insects that form groups on the undersides of squash leaves. Their feeding can cause leaves to turn yellow and die. To control squash bugs, lay boards in the garden at night. The bugs will hide under them during the day, so in the morning collect and destroy hiding bugs. Powdery mildew and various blight diseases attack summer squash. Control these by planting disease-resistant varieties and cleaning up the squash patch well in fall.
Summer squash fruits are best harvested when young and immature while the fruit skins are still soft. If allowed to mature, the fruits because seedy and tough textured. Begin picking summer squash even while the flower is still attached. The ideal size is 4- to 6-inches long. The more you harvest, the more the plant will produce. Don't let squash get overgrown. Not only will you be at a loss as to what to do with the giant fruit, it will slow down the production of additional squash.
Q. My lettuce seedlings are growing great, but I noticed an abundance of slugs on the leaves. I don't want to use a beer trap to control them. What else can I do?
A. Slugs and snails thrive during periods of cool, wet weather. It's no surprise they love the young lettuce seedlings in spring when temperatures are still cool. To control slugs you need to change the environment around the plants, create barriers, or use non-toxic baits.
Remove mulch, weeds, and other hiding places for slugs around your plants. Cultivate frequently to dry out the soil. If growing on a raised bed, consider placing copper flashing around the bed to stop slugs from invading. Remove all the slugs within the bed and attach the copper to the top of the raised bed. The slugs don't like crossing the copper barrier.
Use non-toxic baits such as iron phosphate to control the slugs. The golden-colored pellets have a slug attractant that lures them to eat the bait. It also contains iron phosphate which is toxic to slugs, but safe for pets, wildlife, and the environment. Reapply after a heavy rain.