Growing Squash

Plant summer squash for a huge harvest.

Summer squash are so productive that most gardeners need only a few plants to provide all they need.

Grow butternut squash for winter storage.

Winter squash such as butternut are grown in summer for fall harvest and winter storage. These vines need plenty of room to grow.

Growing squash is easier than you might think. Plant a buttery Yellow Crookneck, delicately flavored Golden Scallop Pattypan, and a Black Beauty zucchini, and by time peak season rolls around, you could be picking several squash a day — more than enough to eat, freeze, and gift to friends and neighbors.

There is no hurry to harvest nutrient-rich “winter” squash like Acorn, Buttercup, and Butternut, which ripen to full maturity before they are picked. These varieties grow through the summer, but when stored properly, keep well into the colder months.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Squash has male and female flowers. Female flowers become fruit when pollinated by bees with pollen from male flowers.

This female flower bud (the one to the left) shows a tiny squash between the flower and the stem. Only females set fruit, but not without help from pollen spread by bees and other insects from male flowers (like the one on the right).

Squash need plenty of sun and good drainage, and they love wrapping their roots around bits of decomposing leaves or other compost. Prepare the ground for squash by mixing in a 3-inch layer of compost along with a timed-release or organic fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label. Squash are usually big plants, so space plants at least 3 to 6 feet apart (follow directions on the stick tag). A light mulch is sufficient because squash leaves are so broad and dense that mature plants minimize weeds and provide cooling shade. When setting out squash seedlings in sunny weather, you may cover them with an upside-down flowerpot or other shade cover for a couple of days after transplanting to help prevent wilting.

Squash bears both male and female flowers. The female flowers are easy to identify by looking for a tiny squash below the blossoms. Male flowers, which often begin to show up a week or two before the female flowers, sit directly on the stem. To help female flowers develop into squash, bees and other small insects pay numerous visits, leaving behind trails of pollen brought from male blossoms. Male flowers often drop to the ground at the end of their life; don’t be alarmed, as this is normal.

Troubleshooting

Squash vine borers dig into your squash stems and leave a trail behind that looks like sawdust.

Squash vine borers can be a real problem for gardeners in the eastern U.S. and especially the Southeast. A sawdust-like residue on the plant stem is a sure sign that a borer is inside.

Squash bugs, squash vine borers, and cucumber beetles often injure squash, with damage most severe late in the season, when plants are failing anyway. In areas where pest pressure starts early in the season, grow plants beneath floating row covers, or use covers made of net placed over hoops. Remove the covers to admit pollinating insects when the plants start to bloom.

Harvest and Storage

Zucchini fruit should be shiny when you harvest it for best taste and texture.

Harvest zucchini while the skins are still glossy.

If you’ve heard that squash blossoms are edible (they are!) and you want to try them, go ahead and pick the first blossoms that appear. Remove the inner parts, and use the petals to add color to appetizers and salads. Harvesting the first flowers won’t hurt the plants’ production, because the early flowers are males, which bear pollen but not fruit.

You may harvest yellow squash, zucchini, and other types of summer squash as baby squash, or you can cut them larger, up to 6 to 8 inches long. Use a sharp knife to gather your bounty at least every other day while the plants are producing. Should you miss a picking or two, remove the overripe squash as soon as possible to reduce demands on the plants for moisture and nutrients. If you find yourself with a bumper crop, squash pickles are easy to make, or you can grill marinated slices before storing them in your freezer. Summer squash also work well when dried.

You can store butternut squash fruits for the winter.

As butternut plants turn yellow in the fall, gather the fruits and wipe them clean to reduce spoilage. Move indoors for storage before freezing weather.

When the rinds of winter squash are tough enough to resist being punctured with a fingernail, cut them with a short stub of vine attached. Be patient, because only fully ripened squash will keep for months in storage. Wipe fruits clean with a damp cloth, and store them in a basement or other cool place. Until you are ready to cook pretty acorns or butternuts, it’s fine to include them in fall table decorations. Consult our article on how to store winter squash for more in-depth info on curing and storing these fall-harvest varieties.

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FAQs

It looks like there are two squash plants in each compartment of my plant pack. Can I separate them or should I plant them together?

Plant them together.

What causes a healthy-looking plant to fail to produce squash or to produce small squash that quickly rot?

This could be a pollination problem. The female flower must be properly pollinated for healthy fruit to form, so be sure that you haven’t done any spraying to harm bees. Are your plants under row covers where bees can’t reach them? Also, be aware that under moist conditions sometimes the little fruit coming along behind the flower rots along with the flower. If this is the case, you can clean old blooms off developing fruit as you are out harvesting, or wait for the weather to dry out a bit.

How can blossom drop be prevented in squash?

The blossom drop that you see is probably the male flower, which is intended to dry up and fall off. Only the female bloom produces fruit. You can tell the difference in the flowers by their stems. The male stem is thin, while the female stem is swollen; that is where the fruit will grow. All squash plants have both male and female flowers.

When should zucchini be harvested?

Harvest when fruit is young and measures no more than 8 inches in length. Check plants every other day at the peak of production and never leave any on the vine, even if they are too big and tough to eat. This saps energy and will signal the plant to stop producing.

When should yellow squash be harvested?

Yellow squash (crookneck and straightneck) can grow up to 10 inches long, but don’t let them. They taste best when harvested young. Pick squash between 4 to 6 inches in length to ensure tenderness.

How much of the stem should I cut when picking squash?

With winter squashes (acorn, butternut, hubbard) it’s important to cut so that the fruit has an inch or two of stem to prevent rot in weeks of storage. With summer squash (yellow squash and zucchini), it doesn’t matter because you will use the squash soon. However, it is important not to yank or rip the fruit from the plant. Cut it from the vine with a knife or shears so that the plant is not injured. These plants will continue producing for a while if healthy.