Squash, Summer

Most every gardener grows some summer squash, and it is sometimes seems they grow too much! But the dreaded “zucchini glut” is really a testament to the plant’s productivity. With a little attention to detail, however,  a few summer squash plants can provide an enormous amount of really tasty food to the kitchen without overwhelming the local food pantry.

Summer squashes come in myriad forms: there the standard, long dark zucchini, the strait yellows, the crookneck  yellows, the lumpy, disc-shaped “patty pans” in a range of colors, plus some old European heirloom types like the round zucchini of France, and the large, long ribbed Costata Romanesco. It seems that every region of the world that grows summer squash has its unique, and favored, varieties.

We put summer squash in the second part of our rotation. The planting method is essentially the same as for cucumbers or melons: plant a single row of squashes down the center of a three-foot bed. As with these other heat-loving vegetables, we lay drip irrigation tubing along the center of the bed, put a shovelful of compost every 18-24 inches, then cover the bed with black plastic mulch.

Once the frost-free date has arrived, we make a small cross-like incision at each lump in the plastic, and press two or three seeds into the compost heaped there. If we have started plants indoors—you can sow the seed two weeks earlier in a large soil block or a 50-cell plug tray—we set one in each spot. Immediately after planting we cover the bed with a floating row cover to keep out flying insect pests, and then turn on the drip irrigation for an hour or so to thoroughly wet the soil around the seed (or plant).


Once the plants flower we remove the covers. From that point on, a few cucumber beetles may find the plants and take up residence, but by then the plants are growing so fast that not even a cuke beetle can hold them back. We used to spray them with a mixture of rotenone and pyrethrum, but eventually decided it was too much trouble for the amount of control we got. Two bigger problems — especially for gardeners below USDA Zone 4 — are squash bugs and squash vine borers, both of which have a hard time surviving the harsh winters of the north. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) is also becoming a serious pest in the parts of the US where it has become established.

With any of these pests, the best control is prevention. Keep the row covers on until flowering; look closely for eggs and destroy them; and if an infestation starts to harm the plants, pull them out immediately, then wait a few weeks and plant again, somewhere else in the garden. Most pests have a relatively defined reproductive season and if wait until after that window has closed, you will have fewer problems.


Don’t despair if the first few flowers on your summer squashes don’t produce fruit; the first few to appear may fail to grow, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that there are two kinds of flowers. Those borne on long, slender stalks are the male flowers; the ones borne on the ends of small, nascent fruits are the females. Until the first male flowers appear the females can’t be fertilized, and so they fall off rather than growing to harvestable size. Weather can have an effect on the proportion of the two types. Be patient: once both types are flowering together, you will start to see the fruits grow to usable size. 

Summer squash can be harvested at any time. While most American gardeners wait until the fruits are, say, eight inches long before harvest, we believe in harvesting much sooner, at the four- to six-inch stage. At that size the fruits are much more tender. The French call them courgettes (courge is the word for mature squash), but we just call them delicious. And for the ultimate delicacy, harvest them at one inch across, with the unopened flower still attached. I guarantee that if you start picking and eating your summer squash early, as we do, you will never again have to complain about a “zucchini glut” in your garden.

ShepherdSquash, Summer

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