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 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.
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
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.
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.
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?
What causes a healthy-looking plant to fail to produce squash or to produce small squash that quickly rot?
How can blossom drop be prevented in squash?
When should zucchini be harvested?
When should yellow squash be harvested?
How much of the stem should I cut when picking squash?