Gourds, Squashes And Pumpkins: Plant Care and Collection of Varieties

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A type of squash, pumpkins are best known as a Halloween decoration, but many varieties are also excellent substitutes for winter squash in soups and stews.

About gourds, squashes and pumpkins
Summer squash are harvested when tender and still immature. They're usually separated into yellow, straight or crookneck varieties; green zucchinis; scallop-shaped "patty-pan" fruits; or round, softball-sized types. Summer squash grow fast, usually maturing within 2 months of planting, and continue to produce all season long. They are prolific, reliable producers, but they don't store well, so use them right away.

Most winter squashes are vine-type plants whose fruits are harvested when fully mature. They take longer to mature than summer squash (3 months or more) and are best harvested once the cool weather of fall sets in. They can be stored for months in a cool basement-hence the name "winter" squash.

Pumpkins are the quintessential fall crop in many parts of the country. There are many varieties to choose among. Some are best for carving into jack-o-lanterns, some are bred for cooking and still others were developed just for their tasty seeds. The "Atlantic Giant" types were bred purely for size -- they can be truly enormous. Pumpkins are grown similarly to winter squash and require plenty of space to vine.

Choosing a site to grow gourds, squashes and pumpkins
Select a site with full sun to light shade and well-drained soil. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost.

Planting Instructions
If space is limited, choose bush, rather than vining, varieties. Squash can be direct sown or started indoors. If starting indoors, plant seeds in individual pots 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. Wait until all danger of frost has passed before planting squash in the garden, then set transplants 18 to 36 inches apart at the same depth as their container. If sowing the seeds directly in the garden, plant seeds 1 inch deep, 2 to 4 seeds per foot. Winter squash tend to grow on long vines, although some bush varieties are available. Vining types are often grown on low mounds spaced 6 feet apart, with 2 or 3 plants per hill. Thin seedlings to 1 plant per 18 to 24 inches, or in hills to the best 2 or 3 plants per hill, when the first true leaves appear.

Pumpkins require a long growing season -- from 75 to 100 frost-free days. Plan to sow seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Plant six seeds 1 inch deep in a circle about 2 feet across. Space these circles 2 to 3 feet apart in rows 6 to 8 feet apart. Cover the seeds with soil. When several true leaves have appeared, thin each direct-seeded circle to the healthiest two or three plants.

In the far north start seeds indoors 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost. Set out two to three transplants per circle after all danger of frost has passed and the plants have about six leaves.

Ongoing Care
When the first five leaves appear, mulch to eliminate weeds and retain moisture. Do not over cultivate or the shallow roots may be damaged. Water plants during the summer if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week; provide about 1 inch of water per week. Periodically pinch off the fuzzy ends of winter squash vines after a few fruit have formed. Contact your local County Extension office for controls of common squash pests such as cucumber beetles and squash vine borers.

How to harvest gourds, squashes and pumpkins
Summer squash develop very rapidly after pollination. Plan to go through your patch and harvest every day or two. Squash that are small and tender have the best flavor and table quality. Pick elongated varieties when they reach 2 inches or less in diameter and 6 to 8 inches long. Harvest patty pan types when they are 3 to 4 inches in diameter.

The first sign of a ripening winter squash or pumpkin is a deep skin color. To make sure it's truly ready to pick, press your fingernail into the skin. If it resists puncture, it is ripe. You can also thump the pumpkin with your fingers -- a ripe pumpkin will sound hollow

Use a sharp knife or pruners to cut the fruit from the vine. Leave a piece of stem attached -- if it breaks from the fruit, it creates an opportunity for rot.

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