IN THE GARDEN: Summer means time for squash
Squash are separated into two main types, summer, (Cucurbita pepo) and winter, (Cucurbita maxima). We will concern ourselves with summer squash in this discussion. Summer squash varieties include zucchini, straight neck squash (“yellow summer squash”), and crookneck squash.
Summer squash varieties are best sown directly in the garden in full sun. Transplants must be handled very carefully to not disturb the roots. You will want to plant your seeds three-quarers to 1 inch deep in hills, 3 to 6 feet apart, with six seeds per hill; thin down to three per hill after germination. In Alaska, after our soil warms and can be worked, placing seeds out in the garden in raised beds works best. If planting in a high tunnel or hoop house you can take advantage of the early summer sun, but you need a way for the pollinators to get to your plants so leaving the ends open for pollinators is a must.
If you hand pollinate your squash, morning is the best time to accomplish this task. It can be frustrating sometimes when the male and female blooms are not opening at the same time and then closing before you’re sure pollination has taken place, and it seems the number of male blossoms always outweighs the number of female blossoms. When this occurs and your flowers have closed already, simply open the end of the fruited female blossom and take a male, long stem (without fruit), pull back the blossom and use a Q-tip and take the pollen from the male (stamen) and place it on the female (pistil). Inside the female’s blossom they have a stigma and multiple stems inside with the ovary below. Without pollination the squash will not continue to grow and will wilt back. You essentially are acting like the bee. If you have plenty of pollinators outside working the blossoms this is usually not a problem.
Squash blossom end rot — when the end of the squash fruit turns back — can be very frustrating. Luckily, blossom end rot is preventable. One of the reasons squash blossom end rot will occur is due to a calcium deficiency. Calcium is important to create a stable cell structure in the fruit. With not enough calcium available to the fruit, the end will rot. To help prevent this, use a low nitrogen fertilizer added to the soil before planting. Nutritional supplements are available in the gardening centers and these products work wonders for your plant’s ability to provide ample squash throughout the season. Add lime for a soil ph range of 6-6.5 for optimal calcium uptake. Lime is best added in the fall and should be worked into the soil. Some sources I read said that it is too late after end rot starts to add the calcium. Prepping the garden with the proper nutrients would seem to be the key with squash ahead of time. Remove any affected rotted fruit, and evidently you can try a calcium-rich foliar spray to help the next round of fruit to prevent further rotting. I have not tried this spray, but it comes recommended and evidently is helpful. Let me know if you have used this product and if this has worked for you.
Watering evenly is another factor that is important to the prevention of blossom end rot. In other words, not too little or too much water is the key. Drastic changes in watering causes the squash to not be able to take up the calcium needed by the plant.
Summer squash is harvested before they reach full maturity and when their skin is tender and edible. These squash have a relatively short shelf life (about 10 days in the refrigerator) and are best eaten fresh. When harvesting your squash, cut the vine and leave an inch on the vine instead of breaking off. Always use a sharp, clean knife to avoid the introduction of bacteria to your plant. Harvest when the squash are small, about 6 to 8 inches, and you will find the flavor is better. Squash will grow very fast, so keep picking to reduce the demands on the plant for moisture and nutrients.
You can only eat so much zucchini bread, so consider zucchini relish, squash pickles and baked zucchini. Breaded zucchini rounds are delicious and my favorite. We like to make zucchini noodles with a spiralizer and use them in a tomato sauce like spaghetti. I have never tried them, but squash flowers are supposed to be tasty when fried in a light batter. They are so beautiful and neat that they are able to be used. If you grow these summer squash, I hope this information has been helpful to you. I am still practicing growing these delicious little squash. Enjoy the journey and stay calm and garden on.
Eagle River’s Chris Wood is a certified master gardener and president of the Greater Eagle River Garden Club. Write to her at [email protected].