To get a good crop of squash, pumpkins and other vine crops you'll need to care for them well; weeding, watering and fertilizing.
The most crucial time to control weeds is when the plants are young, before they start to run. Using a hoe, rake or cultivating tool, stir up the top quarter- to half-inch of soil around your plants at least once a week.
Stay shallow as you cultivate the soil so that you don't injure plant roots. You'll destroy the weed seeds just below the surface; you don't have to worry about deeper weed seeds -- they can only germinate if they're near the surface.
Once the vines start spreading, the broad leaves will shade out many weeds. However, you're bound to get some at the edges of the patch where you left room for the vines to travel. Rake or cultivate this area (one to two inches deep) once a week before the vines reach it and you'll diminish the weed problem.
One of the easiest weed controls of all is mulch. It also improves the growing environment.
To mulch, simply cover the ground around your plants with a layer of protective material (straw, hay, grass clippings, newspapers, black plastic). This shades the ground, making it impossible for most weeds to grow. Mulching also conserves moisture in the soil and, with the exception of black plastic, keeps the soil cool around the plants. This is especially important for southern gardeners.
Wait until the soil has really warmed up before mulching your vine crops. Straw, hay or grass clippings need to be three to four inches thick to do the job effectively. Alternately, five or six sheets of newspapers held down with stones will keep the garden weed-free.
Where growing seasons are short, however, and you want your vine crops to receive all the heat they can, stick to black plastic or use no mulch at all.
Young plants need room to develop a strong root structure and stem. If they're crowded, they'll survive, but there may be too much competition for a great crop.
If you plant six to eight seeds in each hill and they all come up, thin out all but the best three or four plants when they're a few inches high.
Thin plants in rows to stand 8 to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety. There's no trick to thinning these vegetables; just pull up the smaller, least healthy-looking plants and leave the others.
Gardeners usually discard the thinnings, but you can also transplant them to fill in a spotty row. If you try this, handle the seedlings with care -- use a big spoon or trowel to dig them and move them with lots of soil surrounding the root balls to protect them.
Side-dressing is the application of a small amount of balanced commercial or organic fertilizer to your plants once they're four to five weeks old. It's called side-dressing because you place food a few inches to the side of the plants, where it will gradually seep down to the roots. This boost helps the plants increase production of high quality fruit, and it's especially important for vine crops.
During the plant's development there comes a time when it stands upright at a height of 12 inches or more. That's the time to side-dress. The next time you see it, it will have flopped over and the vines will start to run or sprawl along the ground as they grow. At that point, the plants put their energy into producing vines, blossoms and fruit, and they can really use the extra food.
If you're using balanced commercial fertilizer such as 10-10-10, make a shallow furrow down both sides of each row, or around each hill, about four to five inches away from the base of the plants. Sprinkle the fertilizer evenly in the furrow -- one tablespoon for each two to three feet of row, and the same amount around each hill. Cover the fertilizer with one inch of soil.
If you side-dress with bulky organic matter, such as manure, make the furrow deeper and a few inches further from the plants. Spread the manure evenly in the furrow and cover it with an inch or two of soil.
Make it your golden rule to underfertilize if there's any doubt about how much to add. It's easy to do your plants more harm than good with "one more handful for good measure."
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