In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Squash come in every shape, color, and size!
Hail to the Mighty Squash!
In honor of this holiday season, I'd like to dedicate a few lines to the noble family of squash, which is most likely a part of your holiday feasts. Pumpkin pie is the traditional end of the meal, but there are so many other types of squash that deserve mention: winter squash, such as the popular acorn with its hard skin and sweet, tender flesh; and the fast-growing summer squash -- pattypan, crookneck, and abundant zucchini -- that matures in as little as 40 days. Then there are the ornamental gourds used for decorating and making bird houses. All these are members of the same family of plants, the Curcubita.
The squash family is divided into many groups, including; the Banana group, the Buttercup group, the Hubbard group, the Mammoth group, the Turban group, the Scallops, and the Zapallitos. Each group is identified by its uniquely shaped fruit.
People aren't the only species on the planet who love a good squash. If you have ever seen elephants at the zoo rolling a pumpkin with their feet and trunks, you know even these creatures recognize that there is joy awaiting inside that orange ball.
In the nineteenth century, farmers grew fields of squash to feed their cattle over the long winter months. Squash will last a very long time if stored properly. A temperature of 50 to 60 degrees F and relatively low humidity is ideal for storing winter squash and gourds.
Squash prefer warm to hot weather and sandy, slightly acidic soil. They will not tolerate cold. The hard-skinned winter squash take up to five months of frost-free weather to reach maturity. Sweet sunshine is stored inside these tough-skinned beauties, the flesh storing sugar from long days in the sun.
Plant squash seeds after the soil has warmed in the spring, usually around mid April here in the Bay area. The seeds should be planted no more than 1 inch below the surface of the soil and should be kept moist at all times. Most types of squash seed germinate within one week. Planting squash in a hole poked through a protective blanket of landscape fabric or black plastic mulch will increase the heat in the soil and get your plants off to an early start. Add a floating row cover once the plants have germinated to act as a temporary greenhouse, and you are in business.
The floating row covers will have to come off when the plants begin to bloom because you want pollinators to visit early and often. I have hand-pollinated pumpkins in the past. The trick is to find and select a male flower with which to pollinate the females. Male flowers do not have the fat bulb at the end and usually grow directly from the stem on straight petioles.
Once the fruit begins to grow, continue watering. Pumpkins are notoriously thirsty, and roots will only grow where the soil is moist. The more foliage you have, the larger the pumpkin it can support. Large squash should be set on plastic bucket lids to prevent them from rotting on the bottom side that touches the earth.
Summer squash should be harvested when the fruit is still tender and immature. Harvest tough-skinned winter squash when the stem turns brown and the skin hardens, usually in mid to late October.
So let's honor the versatile squash family this season and serve it up for family and friends.
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