Summer Squash Bounty

By Susan Littlefield

Summer squash is the generous gardener's best friend. Even if you only grow a plant or two, you will likely harvest armloads of fresh squash, enough for your kitchen and for sharing with gardenless friends and neighbors. In fact, you may reap so many you contemplate sneaking around the neighborhood after dark, leaving baskets of squash on doorsteps! All this vegetable wealth will come with little effort on your part as long as you pay attention to some basics as you plant and care for your crop.

Green and Gold

Summer squash falls into three main categories. Green zucchini may be long and narrow or as round as a miniature bowling ball. Yellow crooknecks and straightnecks are long time favorites, while scallop squash, also known as pattypan, has an interesting shape, almost like a tiny spaceship, and may be green, gold, or almost white. No matter what the shape or color, all these summer squash types are delectable when harvested when they're young and tender.

Here are just a few of the many varieties of summer squash varieties we carry that offer a big harvest with minimal effort.

'Amberpic' (42 days) - A new straightneck hybrid with smooth, glossy yellow fruits that are ready early and are produced over a long period.

'Freckles' (43 days) - Light green cylindrical squash fruits are borne on a semi-erect bush plant with a single stem. A good choice for container growing.

'Straightneck Early Prolific Improved' (42 days) - A good yielder and a very popular variety for home gardens, it produces straight fruits slightly smaller at the stem end and light cream in color.

'Sunbeam F1' (47 days) - The golden yellow, scalloped, 2-3" long fruits have a distinctive flavor and are excellent for baby use.

'Horn of Plenty' (43-45 days) - A high-yielding hybrid with bright yellow fruits, this crookneck is a good choice for both home and market gardens.

'Dixie' (41 days) - Its dependable performance and high quality make 'Dixie' a great summer squash. Fruits hold up well after picking.

Tips for Growing Summer Squash

Wait for Warm Weather: Warmth, full sun, and fertile soil are the keys to a big summer squash harvest. Wait until the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past before planting seeds in the ground. In short season areas you can get a bit of a jump on the season by starting seeds indoors in individual biodegradable pots 3-4 weeks before their planting out date. But don't start them any earlier, since larger plants do not transplant well. Make a second sowing about a month after you set out your first planting to keep up a steady supply of tender squash all season long. Gardeners in long-season southern areas can make several successive plantings.

Plant in Hills or Rows: Planting 4-6 seeds in a hill, a raised mound of soil about a foot across, is traditional. Space hills 3-4 feet apart and thin to the one or two strongest plants. Or plant in rows with plants 2 feet apart within the row, with rows 5-6 feet apart. Summer squash can also be grown in containers. Use a container at least 5 gallons in size that's at least 10 inches deep, and grow one plant per container.

Check Out Flowers: Squash plants produce separate male and female flowers. The male flowers produce pollen to fertilize the female flowers, which go on to produce the fruits. You can distinguish between the two by looking at the base of the blossom. The female flower looks like it has a small fruit at its base; this is missing on the male flower. The first flowers produced are often males, so don't be alarmed to see these flowers falling without any fruits forming. Once flowers of both sexes begin growing, with the help of pollinating bees, you'll soon see fruits forming on the plants.

Keep Plants Thriving: Consistent soil moisture is important for keeping your plants in top condition, especially as they're flowering and setting fruits. Incorporating lots of compost into the soil before planting will not only provide nutrients to plants; it will help the soil retain moisture as well.

Watch for Pests: Cucumber beetles are common threat to squash plants. These black and yellow striped or spotted, 1/4-inch long beetles dine on leaves. Their white, worm-like larvae feed on plant roots in the soil. And, perhaps worst of all, the beetles can transmit deadly bacterial wilt as they feed. Rotate the location of plants in your garden and cover seedbeds or young transplants with row covers until flowering begins to keep vulnerable young plants safe from these pests. Once flowering starts, remove the covers to let pollinating bees reach blossoms. You can also spray plants with kaolin clay, a natural product that deters beetles from feeding. For severe infestations, spray plants with spinosad, taking care to apply only in early morning or late evening when bees are not flying.

Harvest Early and Often: Summer squash tastes best when it is picked when young and tender, so harvest plants every day or two. This will also encourage your plants to keep producing new fruits. If you miss any fruits hiding under leaves and they grow to baseball bat size, pick them as soon as you notice them to keep the plant from slowing down its fruit production. If you harvest fruits with a short piece of the stem attached, they will last longest in the refrigerator.

Question of the Month:Powdery Mildew on Squash

Q: The leaves of my squash plants always become covered with a powdery white coating. How can I prevent this?

A: Powdery mildew is a fungus disease that is a common affliction on summer squash, especially under warm, humid conditions. Severe infections may weaken plants and reduce yields, but will rarely kill them outright. High humidty promotse this disease, so make sure plants have good air circulation around them, avoid overhead watering, or water early in the day so foliage dries quickly. Choose resistant varieties, if possible, such as 'Fancycrook' and 'Midas' yellow squash. Spraying plants with a mixture of one part milk to nine parts water may slow the spread of the disease. Control mild to moderate infections with summer weight horticultural oil sprays, following label instructions and precautions.

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