As a kid, summer squash ranked number one on my most hated food list. My granddaddy planted it every summer. Then he picked it and committed what I now know was the ultimate squash crime—he gave it to my grandmother. She was a marvelous southern cook, award-winning actually, but squash was not her thing.
Take sliced yellow squash and a sliver of onion, add water, and boil it to death. That was my grandmother’s go-to squash recipe. She served it several times a week, normally at supper. The rule was simple. If she put it on your plate, you had to eat it.
Yes, that rule applied to children, grandchildren, and even greatgrandchildren.
Looking back at the slimy yellow disaster, it’s a miracle that I ever gave squash a second chance, but I’m glad I did.
Today, I eat squash grilled, roasted, sauteed, baked, fried, and grated in zucchini bread. The despised vegetable of my childhood is now something that I proudly serve to my friends and family. Its earned its place in my garden and on my table.
Despite difficulties keeping the pests at bay and one memorable incident with a row of baby squash plants and our chickens, squash is a permanent part of my annual garden. I hope you love it as much as I do.
Understanding Summer Squash and Winter Squash
The primary difference between summer and winter squash is its maturity at harvest.
Think about the last time you ate zucchini or yellow squash and how the delicate peel and tender seeds added a pleasant texture to the dish. These characteristics are typical of summer squash because it’s harvested and consumed before maturity.
Winter squashes are mature fruits with hard rinds and seeds that taste best roasted. The skin is technically edible, as in it won’t kill you, but it’s not something we typically eat. Due to their maturity, they take longer to grow and reach their harvestable period several months after summer squash.
Cucumbers, melons, watermelon, pumpkins, and squash are all members of the Cucurbitaceae family. These crops should not follow each other. To protect your plants from disease, use a minimum two-year rotation. Some researchers suggest rotating this family with a small grain cover crop, which may help control nematodes.
Speaking of nematodes, squash is extremely susceptible to these infestations. They can cause complete loss of your squash crop. Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any commercially available, nematode-resistant squash cultivars. Please let us know if you know of one!
In one test, following spring-planted nematode-resistant peppers with fall cucumbers improved cucumber yield and minimized root-knot nematode infestation. If you have nematode issues like I do, following a nematode-resistant crop with squash may be worth trying.
During pre-planting, apply 40-50 lbs/acre of nitrogen, 70-120 lbs/acre of phosphorous, and 80-100 lbs/acre of potassium. When the squash blooms, apply an additional 20 lbs/acre of nitrogen via side dressing.
Please note that these are general recommendations. Adjust them as needed based on your actual soil nutrients.
Before planting your squash, check whether its a bush or vining variety as these require different seed spacings. You can grow vining squash vertically. Some only need a simple cucumber trellis, but larger varieties like acorn and spaghetti squash may require a support sling.
Sow your squash outdoors after the soil temperature reaches 60⁰ F. If you experience an uncommonly hot spring and your soil heats up before your average last frost date, wait until the frost date passes.
To maintain a steady harvest throughout the summer, succession plant summer squash every 10 to 14 days. However, be aware that disease and insect pressure increases as the summer progresses.
Typically, growers plant their first crop of winter squash two weeks after planting summer squash.
Soil pH: 6.0-7.5
Start squash in either 2” soil blocks or 1 1/2” to 2 1/2” cell trays 2-4 weeks before your desired planting date. In general, these plants start producing 10 to 15 days before directly sown seeds.
Vining (Winter) Squash
Row spacing: 4’ – 8’
Seed spacing: 2.5’ – 5’
Planting depth: 1.5” – 2”
Drill seeding rate: 1 – 2 lbs/acre
Days to Harvest: 80 – 120
Bush (Summer) Squash
Row spacing: 3’ – 4’
Seed spacing: 12” – 36”
Planting depth: 1” – 1.5”
Drill seeding rate: 2 – 4 lbs/acre
Weed Control, Pests, and Diseases
For small growers, disposing of plastic mulch is often more trouble than the mulch is worth. However, if you’ve experienced issues with viruses like squash mosaic virus, a reflective mulch may delay the symptoms. Like greenhouse starts and temporary low tunnels, this mulch buys you a little time before the aphids arrive and start spreading diseases.
Check with your local extension office for common pests in your area and establish a pest control schedule before planting. Garlic extract, spinosad, neem oil, and BT work for most squash-loving bugs. These should be applied at least once per week.
Squash Vine Borers
Row covers, which prevent the moths from laying eggs on the plants, help. Yellow sticky traps also help. You can also slit the vine and remove the larvae. Replant the slit spot afterward. Entomopathogenic nematodes also show some promise. These can be used as either a spray or an injection.
Applying BT every 5 days prevents most squash vine borer problems. Injecting BT into the stem—the amount varies from 0.7 to 11.7 ml—can also help prevent and treat an infestation. That said, the injection method is time-consuming and likely only useful if you have less than a dozen plants.
Regardless of which method you chose, it’s easier to prevent squash vine borers than it is to cure them.
Harvesting, Storage, and Marketing
Squash blossoms, particularly zucchini blossoms, are a delicacy. You can store them for a few days, but they work best when they’re fresh-picked. Whether they’re fried, baked, or, better yet, stuffed and fried, these delicious morsels will leave you wondering whether you actually want full-sized squash. They’re that good.
Squash blossoms feature in Mexican and Italian cuisine. There is a market for them both as a farmer’s market novelty and with restaurants.
Warning: The soft-looking hairs on squash leaves and stems can cause skin irritation. Wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves, and closed-toe shoes. Personally, I prefer loose-fitting, woven cotton button-up shirts for summer gardening. They’re hard to find, but they’re comfortable during hot and humid Georgia summer days.
As your summer squashes ripen, they’ll both grow in diameter and turn glossy. Harvest yellow and crookneck squash when it reaches 1.5 to 2.5 inches around and zucchini when it’s about 8 inches long. To harvest them, cut the stem an inch above the fruit using a sharp knife.
Summer squash spoils quickly, both on and off the vine. Ideally, use or sell it within a few days of harvesting.
Harvest it every few days. Store it at 45⁰ F to 50⁰ F; 85-90% humidity.
For the longest storage time, harvest winter squash before your first frost when the lows are the mid-40s. If the storage time isn’t a concern, harvest it after the first frost as this squash is the sweetest. In warmer regions like zone 8, harvest it when the vines die back.
Spaghetti squash is the exception to the above. Harvest spaghetti squash after the rind hardens and it turns yellow. Do not wait.
At the Market
Display summer squash in a cool, shady place. Avoid placing it in the sun. Keep most of your squash selection in a cooler and either replenish your display throughout the day or sell from the cooler instead of the display table. This will give your customers an extra day or two to enjoy their squash.
Use apple crates or bins for your winter squash display.
If you have a bumper crop, reach out to your customers both at the farmer’s market and through your email list and invite them to purchase a larger batch for freezing and canning.
Contrary to popular belief, you can freeze both summer and winter squash.
To freeze spaghetti squash, bake it first, scoop it out, and set in a colander for a few hours. (It’s a bit like making homemade yogurt cheese.) Then, put it in the freezer.
For summer squash, blanch and freeze it. The same method works for winter squash, but it should be peeled and deseeded first. That said, cooking and mashing winter squash cuts down on cooking time, making it my favorite method for butternut squash.
Winter squash also cans well.
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