Posts Tagged growing squash

Sweat Equity in the Vegetable Garden

Rainbow Chard lives up to its name

In case any of you handful of folks who actually read my blog on purpose were wondering why I haven’t posted in a week, this entry is my explanation. With the invaluable aid of the Wonder Spouse, I’ve been working hard to get all the summer vegetables situated in the garden. I’m happy to report that I’m nearly done. A half dozen Queen Sophia marigolds and a couple of nasturtiums still need to be tucked in somewhere, but everything else is planted, watered, and mulched. And, in the case of the tomato plants, they’re also tied to their trellises.

I’ll show you shortly, but first I want to spend a bit of space on the wonderful spring vegetable garden that is still growing strong — for now. The weather seers are predicting temperatures in the 90s and no good chances for rain for the rest of the week, so I’m not sure they’ll be looking this lovely by next weekend. Thus, a brief photo tour is in order.

Here’s the bed of greens — lettuces, spinaches, and the astonishing rainbow chard dwell happily together:

They taste even better than they look.

The absolute hit of the salad greens has been the Red Cross lettuce. This buttercrunch type is so tender that chewing is almost optional. And it’s gorgeous, as you can see here:

Red Cross lettuce -- a salad star is born!

Not all the spring vegetables have been as cooperative as those shown above. The beets were slow to get going, although they are finally starting to look like they might become productive in a few weeks — if the heat backs off.

Red Ace beets in foreground; mesclun mix in back

Carrot germination was almost nonexistent for me this year. I blame the absurdly warm, dry spring. I think I’m nursing about a half dozen tiny carrot plants mixed in with the beets.

The Sugar Sprint Snap peas took way longer to start blooming than I expected. However, now they are blooming bigtime, and I can see numerous small pea pods dangling from the vines. I watered them thoroughly again this morning in an effort to push them to harvestable size before the heat melts them.

Lots of flowers on my row of Sugar Sprint Snap Peas

Will the pods reach harvestable size before the heat destroys them?

And here’s a view of the quarter of my vegetable area dedicated (mostly) to spring veggies this year:

Peas in the foreground; greens behind

In addition to harvesting, watering, and encouraging the peas to plump up faster, I’ve been busy in two of the other quadrants. First I sowed Fortex Pole Beans and Jade Bush Beans, both varieties that have worked well for me before. Amongst the Fortex seeds, I sowed seeds of a climbing nasturtium that is supposed to produce flowers in vibrant shades of orange and red. I’m hoping they’ll look spectacular mingled with the vigorous green bean vines. Almost every seed I sowed sprouted in just over a week’s time, as you can see here:

The beginning of a green bean avalanche.

I also transplanted six squash plants — two of each of the three varieties I’m growing. I interplant them among other vegetables in an attempt to make it harder for squash predators  to find them. And, as is my practice, after I mulched them, I immediately tucked a lightweight garden fabric over them to prevent insect attacks on the young plants. When they start blooming, I’ll be forced to remove the fabric. I explained my reasoning and methodologies on squash growing in a long post last year, which you can find here.

Here are a couple of the plants hiding under their cloths in this year’s garden:

The garden cloth produces more vigorous plants better able to withstand insect assaults.

As you may have read in earlier posts this year, I started my tomato seeds much earlier, because the absurdly warm winter/spring caused me to fear we are in for a sweltering, dry summer. Consequently, my tomato plants were enormous by the time I decided it was finally safe to transplant them in the last week. I waited this long, because we had two recent cold snaps. My hill went down to 28 degrees during the first plunge, and lingered around 30 during the second snap — way too cold for tomatoes, which is why mine remained in their cozy greenhouse during that time.

Finally, the long-range forecast looked worth the gamble, and I knew my horrendously pot-bound tomatoes couldn’t wait any longer. Because they were so huge, the Super Marzanos and the Sweet Treats already had fruits! I ended up planting sixteen tomato plants. This is more than I had planned on, but they were all so lovely that I just couldn’t bring myself to give that many away. I donated all but two of my extras to a local community garden. The last two went to a neighbor down the road.

Three Super Marzano tomatoes promise almost frightening productivity.

I only planted two Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes. I remember their productivity from last season.

I also planted four each of three pepper varieties. I’m not a fan of the hot ones, so all three are sweet peppers. Carmen is an Italian Bull’s Horn variety that we always enjoy. I was tempted to try a bell type called Merlot, because it produces dark purple fruits. And I planted a freebie sent with my order called Golden Treasure. All twelve plants appear to be adjusting well to their summer homes.

Peppers and squashes

More peppers at the end of the chive bed

I’ll end this post with a shot of one of the Bronze Fennel plants that I grew from seed last year. It’s really taking off, and I expect it to be a magnet for Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year. Behind it is a large shallow saucer that I keep filled with water for birds, toads, and other critters that might get thirsty while they’re patrolling my plants for tasty insect pests. Anything that helps draw pollinators, insect-eating birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and other predatory insects is welcome in my vegetable garden. That’s why I mix the veggies with herbs and flowers, and I think my results speak for themselves.

Bronze Fennel and friends

Here’s hoping we all enjoy a productive — and tasty — summer gardening season.


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Squash 101

Honey Bear Acorn Squash

Here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, summer temperatures have been keeping me sweating in the garden for about a month now. Because I had the best spring garden I’ve had in years, I rapidly fell behind on preparing the summer vegetable beds, which is why my squash plants are only just now ready to yield their first fruits. However, we’re still pulling onions, carrots, and even a little spinach from the spring garden, so I’m not too upset about the slower start to the summer vegetables.

As fast as the summer vegetables grow, you can barely tell I got behind at this point. The tomatoes are all now taller than me (I’m 5’4″), and I’m going to need a step stool to stand on to harvest the ‘maters, since they’re clearly heading straight for the moon this year. But tomato talk is for another day. Today, I want to write about squash.

Two Categories of Squash: Summer and Winter

This veggie is divided into two broad categories: summer squash and winter squash. Summer squashes include zucchinis, crooknecks, and pattypans. You pick them when they reach a size you like, and you eat them right away. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for a week or two, but not much longer.

Winter squash include acorn, butternut, delicata, and hubbard types, among others. These squash take longer to mature, and when stored in a cool, dark place (not the refrigerator) after proper curing, will keep for months.

In my Piedmont NC garden, I have great success with the summer squashes — at least for a while — long enough for us to grow tired of eating squash every day. However, I’ve never had much success with winter squashes, mostly because I don’t seem to be able to keep them alive long enough to mature. It’s the bugs. Squash varmints are tough.

Squash Insect Troublemakers: Borers and Bugs

The two insects that eventually kill my squash every year are Squash Vine Borers and Squash Bugs. All the gory details you need to know are here, but I’ll give you a few highlights.

I usually see the Squash Bugs first. In fact, this year, I caught one loitering on a basil plant waiting for me to uncover my young squashes, which were sealed away safely under a spun lightweight garden fabric designed to thwart the bugs. This fabric lets in light and water, but the bugs can’t get through it. When I transplant my squash seedlings into the vegetable beds, I immediately cover them with this garden cloth. They stay under it until they begin blooming.

Protecting with barriers

I an forced to uncover the plants when they begin to bloom so that pollinators can do their work. But until then, the plants are able to grow strong and unmolested, which I think makes them better able to withstand the bugs and borers after I remove the covers. Here’s what my little plants looked like right after I transplanted them out and covered them on May 16:

Squashes just planted and covered

Note that I didn’t plant them all together. In between them are peppers, basils, marigolds, and even some bush beans. By increasing diversity, I make it harder for the squash bugs and borers to find their targets, and I think the strong smell of the basils and marigolds may help disguise the squash scent a bit too — that’s my hope anyway.

Transplants work better than direct-sowing

I stopped direct-sowing squash in favor of greenhouse sowing some years ago. I have better control. Seed packets tell you to sow squash in hills containing several seeds. I’ve found this just creates a big mess as the plants grow and become entangled, and it’s much easier for the bad bugs to hide from you. Now I plant individual plants, mulch them, and keep them covered until they begin blooming. We are all happier with this arrangement — not counting the squash predators, of course.

Here’s what the plants looked like just before I removed their covers:

Almost ready for their big reveal

This year’s squash varieties

This year, I’m growing three summer squash varieties and one winter squash. I am weak when I peruse the seed catalogs in January, and the description of Honey Bear — an acorn type — sounded too good to pass up. That’s it with its first bloom in the photo at the top of this entry. I grow two plants of each type — that’s eight squash plants, for those doing the math. I know — that’s a lot of squash.

But when we’ve got more than we can handle, I generally give my excess away to friends and the local food bank. All the fruits find appreciative stomachs somewhere.

Summer varieties this year are Raven zucchini — a deep green fruit producer we really liked last year, Plato zucchini — a new variety that produces over a longer period than Raven, which tends to produce all its fruits at once, and Summer Sunburst — a pattypan type with lovely flavor and color that we’ve enjoyed for years.

My insect-management strategies

As for the bugs, I don’t use poisons. You’ll just kill the pollinators trying to get to your squash blossoms if you use them anyway. Instead, I patrol my plants almost every morning before the sun gets too hot. If you water the base of the plants, any hiding Squash Bugs will hightail it out of the mulch and onto the stems and leaves, where you can grab them and dispose of them. I keep a jar full of soapy water handy for the disposal part. I also inspect the leaves for the metallic bronze eggs of the Squash Bug; they’re quite distinctive. If I am diligent, I can usually keep my squash plants free of serious Squash Bug damage for at least six weeks after they begin producing.

Squash Vine Borers are tougher. Borers are the larval form of a clear-winged, inconspicuous moth that lays its eggs on the stems. The eggs hatch, and the larvae burrow inside and start eating. Goopy sawdust-looking yucky stuff along the stems is usually the first sign that the borers have moved in. Your options from there are all difficult, and after trying every one of them, I’ve settled on burying the affected part of the stem in hopes that the stem will grow new roots and keep going. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. But I’m usually pretty tired of eating squash by the time the borers kill the plants anyway.

At the same time borers begin to impact the squash plants, I’m usually dealing with unrelenting drought. Often my garden well has gone dry by then, and when squash plants don’t get enough water, the bugs cannot be stopped. It’s all downhill from there.

Some folks have issues with powdery mildew on their squash. I suspect I rarely see this because of the way I space out my squash plants and interplant them with other veggies, herbs, and flowers, but that’s just a theory.

Don’t forget to feed and water them

One more thing — feeding. I add a good organic vegetable fertilizer to the soil when I transplant my squashes. Then about every two weeks, I foliar feed all the vegetables, including the squash, with a dilute mix of fish emulsion and sea weed extract. I use a sprayer to spray the mixture onto the leaves of the plants, coating both sides as best as I can. You must do this early in the morning before the sun is strong, or you will boil your plants. And you don’t want to do it in the evening, because the moisture will linger and encourage mold growth. Foliar feeding has been shown in many studies to strengthen plants against predators and diseases, and the nutrients are absorbed directly into the leaves.  And until the solution dries, your garden has a nice ocean smell — just don’t let your cats lick the leaves before they’re dry. 🙂

All vegetables need an inch of water a week. If it doesn’t rain, you must add the water. This is especially important for members of the squash family (includes pumpkins and cucumbers), because so much of their fruits consists of water. Without adequate water, fruits will develop slowly, strangely, or not at all. When I slip my finger beneath the mulch around my squashes and I feel only dry soil, I know they are overdue for water. I try to keep the dirt beneath the mulch around my squash plants moist at all times.

Now you know everything I know about growing squash in the Southeast Piedmont of the United States. So get out there and get growing!

First blooms of Plato zucchini

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