How to Grow Superb Summer Squash

comments (21) May 20th, 2009

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Although summer squash is a naturally vigorous grower, it benefits from regular care. Sunken pots make it easy to water, and a cover crop of hairy vetch helps suppress weeds.
For deep watering, embed a plastic nursery pot in the soil before planting your squash.
Although summer squash is a naturally vigorous grower, it benefits from regular care. Sunken pots make it easy to water, and a cover crop of hairy vetch helps suppress weeds.Click To Enlarge

Although summer squash is a naturally vigorous grower, it benefits from regular care. Sunken pots make it easy to water, and a cover crop of hairy vetch helps suppress weeds.

Photo: John Bray

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There is no doubt about it-summer squash is a prolific producer. Around here folks lock their car doors in midsummer, not to prevent theft but to keep gardeners from throwing their excess zucchini into the back seat. We avoid tiring of zucchini by growing a wide range of the tastiest summer squash varieties and harvesting them at their peak. By planting several succession crops, watering the root zone with the help of sunken pots, and smothering weeds with a cover crop, we reap a steady harvest from healthy plants over a long season. This keeps summer squash high on the list of favorites for the members of our community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, Five Springs Farm.

Begin succession planting when the soil warms
We keep summer squash in harvest throughout the season with succession plantings. We plant half our summer squash when the ground has thoroughly warmed up after the last frost. The soil temperature must be 65°F or higher for good germination. We used to start squash (which has very delicate roots) inside and transplant out after threat of frost, but we found that seeds planted along with the transplants matured at about the same time. If you need to plant inside because of cool soil, give each plant its own pot, and carefully transplant into the garden two weeks later. Squash plants are very tender and need protection if a late frost threatens.

A month after the first planting, we do a second sowing. If we can find the space, we will do an additional planting a few weeks after that. We pull out and compost the first plants as they slow down. This gives us young, strong, prolific plants until the first fall frost.

Sink pots for deep watering

Nursery pot
  An ordinary 1-gallon plastic nursery pot with holes on both the sides and the bottom can be used to create a well in the center of the squash hill.

When we plant squash in the late spring, we are already thinking ahead about how to make summer watering easier. We begin by sowing squash seeds in hills 4 feet apart, though some garden guides suggest that 3 feet is sufficient. To prepare the bed, we mark where the hills will be and dig a hole 2 feet deep by 1 or 2 feet wide. Summer squash requires fertile soil to support its large leaves and rapid growth, so we put in a couple of shovelfuls of compost and build a hill with the garden dirt dug from the hole. As we backfill the hole, we bury a 1-gallon nursery pot in the middle. Landscapers throw these pots away by the dozen, so it's easy to find several for free. The rim of the pot should be an inch or two out of the ground when the hill is finished, and there should be no soil in the pot. We plant four to six seeds per hill, about 1⁄2 inch deep. We just poke them into the ground 2 to 3 inches away from the pots.

Prepare the planting hill   Place the pot   Prepare the seed bed
To prepare a planting hill, dig a hole 2 feet deep and fill lit half full with compost. The plant roots will respond with vigor when they reach the compost.   Place the pot in the center of the hole, with the lip extending above the ground 1 to 2 inches. Backfill the hole with the original soil.   Prepare the seed bed by raking the soil smooth around the pot and tamping it down with a soil rake. Try to avoid getting any soil in the pot.

Once the seeds have germinated, we thin each hill to the two or three strongest plants. The plants turn a deep green when the squash roots hit the compost. As the plants grow larger, the sunken nursery pots give us the advantage of watering at root level. We also shovel some compost into the pots later in the season to give the plants compost tea as we water. Summer squash is a thirsty plant; we water in the nursery pots once or twice a week, even if there has been rain.

Cross section of a squash hill
Squash hill in cross section

To make watering easier, sink a pot in the ground at planting time and sow the squash seeds around the outside of the pot. When you fill the pot with water, it drains out the holes in the bottom, immediately reaching the roots of the plants. Plant a cover crop of hairy vetch around the hills to discourage weeds and feed the soil.

Fertilize and control weeds with hairy vetch

Hairy vetch seeds
  A handful of hairy vetch seeds is all that's needed to sow a cover crop between two hills of squash 4 feet apart.

When the seedlings are up and thinned, it's time to plant hairy vetch between the hills. The vetch prevents erosion and keeps the ground cooler on hot summer days. It also crowds out most weeds in the space between the hills. But its greatest virtue is that, as a legume, it changes the nitrogen in the air into a form that can be taken up by the squash plants, a process known as nitrogen fixation.

To plant the vetch, we broadcast the seeds thickly on bare ground, starting about 6 inches from the squash seedlings, then rake them in and tamp lightly with the back of the rake. We water frequently until the vetch is well established. During fall clean up, we turn it into the soil to enhance the bed for next year's crop.

Squash pests and diseases are a challenge
As the season progresses, one of the first concerns you may have is that the plants don't appear to be setting fruit. Squash is not self-pollinating, so bees are important in the fruiting process. Also, don't worry if the first few flowers don't set fruit at all. Squash has male and female flowers, and the males usually bloom first.

Competition from weeds is usually not a problem for us because summer squash grows rapidly and has huge leaves that shade out weeds near the plants. By using the technique of interplanting the hills with vetch, we can effectively manage any weeds that may germinate.

There are several insects that do harm to our summer squash crops. One of the most serious is the squash bug, a dingy brownish insect 1⁄2 inch or more long, which has a very disagreeable odor when crushed. They resist most organic pesticides, so we handpick the bugs every couple of days to keep them in check. We look for their eggs, a little smaller than sesame seeds, shiny and orange-brown, usually clustered on the underside of the leaves. We scrape them off carefully but don't worry if we damage the leaf a little in the process; the insect can do far more harm. We also keep an eye out for the nymphs, which look a little like gray, overgrown aphids. We handpick them also.

Squash bug eggs   Squash bugs, nymphal stage   Adult squash bug
Squash bug eggs are a shiny orange-brown and can be scraped off the leaves with your fingers.   In the nymphal stage, squash bugs look like overgrown gray aphids.   The adult squash bug is an unattractive brown color with an unappealing smell when crushed. Dropping the bugs into a jar of soapy water is one way to control them.

Cucumber beetles in the squash patch can spread bacterial wilt. They prefer cucumbers, so we can handpick (you have to be fast!) the few we find on squash. If the vines suddenly wilt, it could be a symptom of bacterial wilt. Remove the infected parts of the plant, but be sure to disinfect your pruners before using them again. There is no treatment for bacterial wilt, so it is important to monitor frequently for cucumber beetles.

Squash vine borer can also cause wilting leaves. If you suspect vine borer, look for a small hole near the base of the plant. We usually slit the vine from that point, destroy the borer, and then try to save the plant. Be on the lookout for the adult vine borer, a rather pretty, clear-winged moth with a red abdomen- a sure sign of borer activity.

As the plants age, the leaves often start to turn whitish, most likely from powdery mildew. The plants will still produce fruit for a while after this process begins, but this is the time when we are happy to have planted another crop of squash. Despite these pest and disease problems, succession plantings keep us far enough ahead of the game that we are supplied with summer squash until we have had our fill.

Timely harvests and tasty varieties
Squash hill in cross section

Clockwise from top: 'Eight Ball' zucchini, Lebanese 'White Bush', a yellow crookneck called 'Sundance', 'condor' zucchini, and the yellow pattypan 'sunburst'.

Zukes the size of baseball bats are impressive enough, but they've grown far beyond their best flavor. Since squash can grow rapidly, check plants daily when they start to produce. Keeping the squash picked promotes a steady supply. Summer squash that is too large becomes bland, but is still suitable for zucchini bread.

We've tried many varieties, and our long-time favorite is 'Sunburst'. A yellow pattypan or scallopini type of summer squash, it is both attractive and tasty, especially when harvested at 2 to 4 inches. A Lebanese variety named 'White Bush' (also called Mid-East or cousa type) is a bulbous light-green squash with white speckles. It can be picked small but will not lose its flavor if left to get a little larger, around 7 to 8 inches. 'White Bush' is also useful as a stuffing squash.

'Condor' is a standard green zucchini known for its nutty flavor, perfect shape and color, and high yields. 'Condor' is best when harvested at 7 inches. We couldn't resist a new zucchini this year called 'Eight Ball'. This shiny, speckled, dark squash is mature when it is a little larger than a pool ball. It is early (40 days) and compact, sweet, and tasty.

To round out our varieties, we grow a standard yellow crookneck named 'Sundance', a prolific producer that can be harvested early (47 days) and continues to produce. Crookneck and straightneck squash should be harvested at 4 to 6 inches for the best flavor.

Summer sauash recipes:

Zucchini with Roasted Peppers, Corn, and Cream
Golden Squash Blossom Crema
• Quick-Fried Zucchini with Toasted Garlic and Lime 
Zucchini with Zip
• Mexican-Inspired Summer Squash Sauté 
Moroccan-Style Summer Squash Saute

by Jo Meller and Jim Sluyter
August 2000
from issue #28

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posted in: squash

Comments (21)

royrice21 writes: nice one

Posted: 4:10 am on August 20th
Jeanie59 writes: I love all your ideas, and I will certainly try a few so I can get my zucchini, honeydew and cucumbers back again. I have had so many gnats, squash borers, and squash bugs problems this year I'm going to do things differently. Like, first thing I tilled my garden. I added my lime and it's sitting for a month. I do however like that other member's idea, using Pyganic is it? I thought Nematodes but I don't think they worked all that well. Will rotate all the plants, but I do need a some kind of spray to keep them away. I will do the milk/soda carton over the seedling trick too.

Thank you for all your suggestions.

Posted: 6:11 pm on April 8th
dianewellness writes: I have white spots on my squash that i started in my greenhouse. we live in Seattle. I'm ready to plant outside. How can I get rid of the spots and do I need to get rid of them?
Will they spread to other melons that I am planting outside?
Posted: 4:12 pm on June 11th
themagnetlady writes: I'm so excited to try this idea. I assume it will work with my melons, cucumbers and tomatoes too. Thanks so much for the idea. Happy Gardening.
Posted: 10:18 am on May 30th
Danni63 writes: The past 3 years, I've gotten blueberries and tomatoes growing well. The stink bugs (what you call squash bugs) are a big problem on both. (I have the kind that looks like assassin bugs, the plain brown ones, and the green ones.) I read somewhere early this season that any alcohol solution will kill them, so I added a bit of rubbing alcohol to my home-made insecticidal (soapy) spray. Believe it or not it worked wonderfully. Be careful with the strength of the solution, though. It wilted the tomato plants, so I had to dilute it a little more.

Thanks, Barbara555, for the tip about radishes! Guess what's gonna be planted in the tomatoes next year! ;)
Posted: 5:10 pm on October 20th
Southengland5005 writes: I gotta tell you I have tried for two years to grow yellow squash and it was a dismal failure. It really affected my self-esteem. Using your techniques of burying a pot and planting around the pot, has turned my ashes to beauty. I have now have gorgeous yellow squash plants producing like crazy. The very first squash was consumed today. Boy did I ever savor it. Thank you ever so much for turning my life around!
Posted: 5:47 pm on May 13th
Momer writes: This reminds me of something I want to try this summer. I know some of you have seen the vegetable towers(garden towers) with the tube in the middle for scraps, which enables you to compost right in the barrel. Adding red wriggler worms completes the setup. Well I want to try this in my raised beds somehow, just working on the idea. Planting the pot in the ground is an excellent idea. Why not plant an extra pot, add your kitchen scraps, put a lid on, and let the worms have a blast making free fertilizer? The worms will go in and out of the holes, eat the scraps, and viola, worm castings. You may have to purchase some worms to get started.
Posted: 12:54 pm on March 25th
Islandgirlygirl writes: Hey this seems like a good and viable idea! I'm one of those Georgia home gardeners that plant crookneck squash every year and all I ever get is a lot of foliage but no squash.I'm willing to try anything...
Posted: 10:11 am on February 8th
belencita writes: Hi,How big should I let my eight ball squash grown.Its 3" now.
Posted: 9:34 am on August 19th
Barbara555 writes: I have found by accident, if you plant radishes (any kind) on each side of your squash plants, the "squash bugs" won't bother your squash. I just leave the radishes to grow there all the time my squash is growing in the garden.
Posted: 7:09 pm on August 9th
ArkieGardenGirl writes: Responding to the squash bug issue....let me say AMEN!!!! Such a impossible pest to control let alone eliminate!!! Have tried every organic suggestion heard of: picking off bugs and eggs, egg shells, diatomaceous earth, collecting bugs and processing and spraying solution on plants (YUCK), nicotine, Seven dust (desperate), boards turned over in the morning, you name it I've tried it!! Have discussed with every gardener I've met and all have come to the same happy for what you get and let them have the rest...Did have success a 2 years ago with an organic product "Pyganic"....(not advertising, just sharing)...ordered on line, little pricy and repeated application faithfully, best squash year ever!! Then the little villains got used to it and it did not work the next year :(...Am having success this year, so far, by moving to a new site and all looks good so applying Neem oil as per bottle directions and crossing my fingers....we'll see!!
Good luck and
Happy Gardening....
Posted: 8:25 am on June 26th
Pederslilfarm writes: Thanks so much! Great tutorial - informative and great pictures to help follow and really understand. I'm going to be planting some summer squash like this and also several varieties of melons & cucumber.

I'm planting in straw bales too and thinking that putting pots down inside with compost in the hole should work the same way - do you think? Suggestions are gratefully welcome :-)
Thanks again! Susie
Posted: 11:27 am on June 2nd
kmedina writes: I like to grow bush zucchini! DO I really need to do several plantings of these? Is it the same for spaghetti squash? Cucumbers?

Posted: 6:18 pm on April 10th
GinaMO5 writes: Just found your site on Pinterest. I read with interest your post on summer squash (our most favorite and anticipated vege in our garden). I have planted yellow squash and zucchini three years in a row and have harvested nothing. So discouraging! I went out the last two years and diligently picked squash bugs, squashed and submerged them, picked eggs, submerged in soapy water, nothing worked. About the time I get little baby squash I am completed blown over by the number of squash bugs. Thousands of them! And then... boom! Vine boarer kills the plant and it lays limp on the ground. I have tried planting icicle radish in the middle of the hills. No luck yet, but I'm a persistent little booger and will try again this year. I am trying the bucket burying idea (also with my tomatoes). If anyone has any ideas for help with these jurasic park like squash bugs and vine boarers, please help!

Happy gardening! We're so ready here in Missouri. Spring has been slow to arrive and we're all starved for warmth.
Posted: 4:27 pm on April 6th
user-766672 writes: Would this work for Winter Squash also?
Posted: 1:00 pm on April 22nd
Nevada2me writes: Thank you for all of the wonderful info on the summer squash. I have tried growing it once before and allot of it died and was full of bruises. I did not know what it was so I did not grow it again, and everyone here loves summer squash but can not grow it good.
Posted: 6:08 pm on April 9th
Schatzi writes: I enjoy your articles on growing veggies and always garner a few new ideas, but I have one problem no one has been able to answer yet: how do we get warm weather in the soggy Northwest?
Last year we had exactly 8 days of summer, and this year is shaping up to be the same or worse! I'm kidding...I think. Or not.
Posted: 9:10 am on May 18th
tleino writes: What a wonderful article! I have never seen pots used in this way to enable root level watering, and your successive planting plan is great! Thanks for the tips!
Posted: 3:35 pm on May 25th
clematislover writes: I've found that to be sure of having squash, I become the pollinator. Find a male flower, pick it off and strip off the petals. Then I find a female flower that just opened it's petals and stick the male flower in and rub against the center portion to transfer the pollen. You can pollinate a couple flowers with one male flower. I've also had a variety of squash that produced no female flowers until 2 weeks before our first frost in the fall, way too late for the squash to grow to an eatable size! It was a pattypan , I think.
Posted: 10:13 pm on October 28th
PixiePastry writes: I'm one of those rare breeds that can't grow squash. I even have that question on this site. Sad, but true. I'm tenacious (sp?) though; I'm gonna have home grown squash come hell or high water! :)
Posted: 4:08 pm on June 22nd
bunnyhut1 writes: thank you for a very interesting & informative article.learned alot. thanks again
Posted: 10:45 am on June 10th
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