The Sensational Squash
by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
Examples of Winter Squash
It would be hard to find a family of crops with more to offer than squash. Ingredients for salads, soups, main dishes, breads and desserts - and, of course, vegetable dishes - are all to be found in the squash family.
The variety in the squash family is extensive. You have long-season and quick-maturing varieties, vine and bush crops, a continuous summer harvest and crops for storage, as well as the makings for household decorations and roasted, salted snacks, not to mention scary jack-o-lanterns.
The two general categories of squash are winter and summer. Winter squashes include pumpkins and ornamental gourds. They take the whole summer to grow and mature their hard-shelled fruits, which then can be stored for use in the winter. Summer squashes are quicker to reach the table and eaten in a more immature state, when they are still small and thin-skinned. Even overlooked zucchini that matures to monster size can be salvaged and the flesh grated for use in breads, cookies and cake.
The most difficult part of growing squash may be deciding which types to plant. Both summer and winter squash come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, from straight green zucchini to yellow crookneck summer squashes and white and more traditional orange pumpkins to pink banana and silvery Hubbard squash. Gourds come in a host of knobby and smooth shapes resembling crowns, penguins, eggs and even geese, with colors ranging from white to tan, yellow and green.
Squash family plants have a well deserved reputation for production. One way to sample a variety without being inundated is to plant two or three hills of summer squash using seeds of several kinds in each hill. Plant four to six seeds in each low mound in late spring, after the soil has warmed up and the danger of frost is past, and thin to one plant of each type. A month or so later, plant again. This staggered planting increases the likelihood that you'll have healthy plants producing all summer and protects you against loss of the first planting to frost, hail or some other mischance.
There's usually less competition to have the first zucchini than the first tomato, but gardeners who want to push the season can warm the soil with black plastic and plant seeds through it before the local frost free date. If you try this, you need to have hot caps or some other cover handy to protect the tender seedlings in case of frost.
Another strategy for getting a head start on the season - plant seeds indoors and putting crops into the garden as transplants - doesn't work as well for squash as it does for tomatoes and peppers. Squash family crops don't tolerate having their roots disturbed, so by the time transplants get over the shock of transplanting, plants grown from seed sown directly into the garden have generally caught up with them.
When selecting varieties, be sure to check the days to maturity in the seed catalog or on the seed packets. Winter squash and gourds, particularly, may require a relatively long growing season. If the variety you want to grow takes 200 days from seed to harvest but our growing season may be 150 days, it very likely won't have time to mature a crop. Generally, the larger the fruit, the longer it will take to mature.
Choosing varieties for a small garden usually means selecting summer squash or bush-type varieties of winter squash rather than the vining types of winter squash, which tend to sprawl and take up a lot of space.
Squash family crops need full sun and plenty of water. The best soil is well drained and high in organic matter. Mulching helps conserve soil moisture and controls weeds.
Vining squash are often planted in hills several feet apart in both directions. Bush types may be planted closer together in either hills or rows. Follow packet directions on spacing and depth of planting.
Winter squash are left to mature on the vine until their shells are hard. Summer squash are picked while they're immature and their skins are tender. Gourds mature on the vines and then dried and may be varnished for long-term use. Winter squash and pumpkins for storage must be harvested before frost to prevent damage that will shorten their shelf life.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office