Time For Summer Squash
By Nancy Pierson Farris
Photos by Don Farris
When sunny summer days arrive, I think summer squash. Summer squash are low in calories (15 per half cup) and they contain the phytochemical lutein, which is helpful for eyes. That interests me because I have battled glaucoma for 35 years.
To get the earliest squash in the neighborhood, I have tried various techniques. I have started plants in peat pots about four weeks before my last frost date. During the last week, roots are coming through the pots and the plants may need water two or three times daily. When I set them out, I place them into holes deep enough so I can cover the rims of the pots with soil. Otherwise, peat pots will wick moisture out of surrounding soil and plants will suffer from dehydration. I have found that plants not started this way suffer transplant shock and don’t start growing much for several days. Direct seeded hills sprout within a week and make fast, steady growth, often producing within a few days after the transplanted squash.
My favorite method is to create a mini greenhouse for early hills of squash. I save gallon jugs emptied of milk or vinegar. I wash the jugs and cut off the bottoms. Two weeks before my last frost date, I prepare the squash hills. I dig a hole about a foot deep and dump in about a pint of compost from my henhouse. I throw a shovelful of dirt over that, pour in about a pint of water, and sow four squash seeds. After covering with dry soil, I set the jug over the hill. As the chicken waste rots, the composting produces heat beneath the sprouting seeds. The jug collects solar heat. On warm, sunny days, I remove the jug because temperatures inside the mini greenhouse can get too high. I replace the jug in late afternoon to protect the hill from cool night temperatures.
Squash grown under the jugs will usually produce about 10 days before the seeds I plant after frost danger has passed. I prepare all squash hills the same way, using compost beneath each hill. I think my squash have a richer flavor than what my neighbor grows using only chemical fertilizers. I grow several varieties of zucchini; my favorite scallop squash is Sunburst. (Park, Burpee, Harris.) It has an attractive golden color with a splash of green at the stem end. I cut big slices for sautéing; or, cut it crossways and make strips to stir fry.
I grow many hills of my favorite stewing squash: the yellow crookneck. I found Horn of Plenty’s squash flavorful, and Dixie Hybrid produces well for me. I also grow some straight necks. Multipik (Harris) produces well and the plants are resistant to Cucumber Mosaic, which can appear with summer heat and put ugly green mottling on an otherwise gorgeous yellow squash.
Some gardeners report that a white or silver plastic under the squash keeps away the aphids which carry mosaic. Paper or plastic under plants will also block pickle worms, which come up out of the soil and bore tiny holes in the squash. I hate to cut into a squash and find rot inside then discover the tiny hole where a pickle worm entered, dragging in corruption.
Squash enemy #1, the squash vine borer, is the larva of a day flying moth which lays its eggs on the stem, just above the soil line. Hatchlings burrow into the stem, destroying the plant’s root to leaves food transport system. Leaves wilt, and the squash slowly dies. Meanwhile, the larva eats the pith out of the stem, then flees the scene, disappearing into the soil where it pupates and later emerges as a moth.
The first preventive measure is deep tillage early enough to expose the pupa to cold night temperatures. The next preventive step involves injecting bacillus thurengiensis Thuricide (Bt) into the base of the stem, about an inch above the soil. Begin this treatment when the first blooms appear (they attract the moth) and repeat about 10 days later. The Bt will give fatal indigestion to any worm that eats on your squash stems.
The third step is to heap soil over stems at a leaf node so roots will form there. If borers manage to infect the original plant, new young plants will carry on with production. Enemy #2, the striped squash beetle, sucks sap from the leaves, dehydrating the plant to death. Row covers keep out the egg-laying moth. I interplant with marigolds, which may repel the moths. I also check undersides of leaves periodically and crush any egg masses I find.
Squash is one of the least labor-intensive crops I grow. I take out weeds for the first few weeks, then the big leaves shade out the weeds. It takes only moments to bend over and pick two squash for lunch, unlike legume crops, which must be picked one pod at a time. Then comes the fun part. In the kitchen, squash only needs a light scrubbing, the ends cut off, and the whole thing cut into chunks for stewing, slices for sauté, or strips for stir fry.
If you have a problem getting your children to eat vegetables, try adding some yellow squash to macaroni and cheese. They probably won’t even notice it; but the squash adds fiber and vitamins, and also cuts calories and carbohydrates. Zucchini, by shredding it into spaghetti or chili macaroni, just seems like extra noodles.
I can squash the same way my grandmother did, except I use a pressure canner and half as much salt. I cut up squash, and cook it until it’s soft enough to pack solidly in jars. I like to add sweet onions to my squash when I cook them. Then I pack them into the jars, put on lids, and process for 20 minutes at 10 pounds pressure. When I open the jar, I only have to heat the squash and it is ready to eat.
I also freeze some squash. For this, I cook it until it’s quite tender, then cool and pack into freezer containers. I also stir fry zucchini with yellow squash and onion, cool it, pack into containers and freeze it. If I have snow peas and/or broccoli, I add that to the stir fry.
If you haven’t grown summer squash before, maybe you should pencil it into your garden plan for next year. Plant hills about 30 inches apart, and leave a little width between the squash row and whatever is beside it, so you can get in to work the soil and to pick the squash.
Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.