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Squash and Pumpkin Growing Tips

Make sure squashes are large and strong before the end of June when squash beetles hit the garden. The larger and stronger the plant the better it will resist attack.
Squash problems green squash
Make sure squashes are large and strong before the end of June when squash beetles hit the garden. The larger and stronger the plant the better it will resist attack.

Squash Planting and Growing Facts:

• Squashes and pumpkins are members of the gourd family. Summer squashes and pumpkins originated in Mexico and Central America. Most winter squashes originated in or near the Andes in northern Argentina.

• Summer squashes–zucchini, patty pans and cocozelles (Italian for vegetable marrows)–have whitish or yellow flesh. They are the quickest to harvest–picked in summer while immature and as soon they are big enough to use.

• Winter squashes have orange flesh. They take longer to mature than summer squashes. Harvest winter squashes when their skins are extremely hard and their stems have started to dry out.

• Pumpkins–which are simply very large hard-skinned squashes that are usually orange–are the longest to harvest mostly because they are commonly carved at Halloween and pureed for Thanksgiving pie. Like other winter squashes they are picked when their skins are extremely hard and their stems are dry.

• The technique for planting summer squashes, winter squashes and pumpkins is the same. Grow all squashes on hills spaced 3 to 8 feet apart depending upon the leaf size–the larger the leaf the farther apart. Set seedlings started indoors into the garden as soon as the weather has warmed. Make sure squashes are large and strong before the end of June when squash beetles hit the garden. The larger and stronger the plant the better it will resist attack.

• Plant summer squashes, winter squashes, and pumpkins all at the same time and the harvests will be staggered from midsummer to the first frost–summer squash in about 50 days, winter squash in about 85 to 100 days, and pumpkins after 100 or more days.

Squash and Pumpkin Growing Best Tips:

• Planting. Plant squashes and pumpkins when night temperatures no longer fall below 55°F and the soil is at least 60°F (seeds will not germinate in cold soil–the optimal soil temperature is 70°F). Prepare the planting site by digging a hole 18 inches wide and deep. Place 3 to 4 inches of aged-compost or manure into the bottom of the hole and refill the whole with 3 parts soil and 1 part compost or manure. Create a planting hill about 4 inches high. Space the hills about 3 to 4 feet apart for bush squash and 8 feet or more apart for vining plants. Set 6 to 8 seeds evenly spaced on each mound. They will germinate in 7 to 14 days depending upon the variety. When plants are 3 inches tall thin to the two strongest seedlings (use a scissors to thin rather than pulling plants up by the roots which can upend neighboring plants). Use cloches to protect cold-sensitive seedlings if frost threatens.

• Protection. Floating row covers will protect squashes from dipping temperatures. If night temperatures fall below 65°F put the row covers in place. Row covers will also protect plants from early pests. When plants begin to flower (about three weeks after they have sprouted), remove the row covers to allow for pollination by bees and insects.

• Water. Water seedlings well, and keep soil moist throughout the season; the roots need regular moisture. If plants look wilted before eleven o’clock in the morning, they need water. (Dig down in the soil; if the soil is dry at four inches down–water. If the soil is moist at three inches down, watering is good.) To avoid transmitting diseases, water at the base of each plant and keep the foliage dry. Leaf and fruit diseases are easily transmitted via wet foliage. Avoid handling plants when they are wet. It is not unusual for squash to wilt slightly on hot days.

• Feeding. Squashes are heavy feeders. Add plenty of aged compost or manure to the planting bed in advance of sowing. Before you plant, place aged compost or manure at the bottom of each planting hole and throw in a buffer inch or two of native soil. This will get plants off to a strong start. Apply compost tea or manure tea at transplanting or two weeks after seedlings emerge. Feed again with compost tea in three weeks or when the first flowers appear. When the first fruits set, water each plant with compost tea or side-dress each plant with a shovel full of compost. If leaves are pale, give plants a dose of fish emulsion. But be careful not to give squashes too much nitrogen; nitrogen will increase leafy growth but cut fruit yield.

• Pollination. Squash plants easily cross-pollinate. If you grow more than one type of squash in your garden, hand-pollination may be the best way to prevent cross breeding. You can transfer pollen from the male stamen to the female pistil using a small brush or pick off the male flower and run the stamen against the female flower. Female flowers often blossom before male flowers appear. (Female flowers have a tiny fruit at their base.) If female flowers are not pollinated, they will dry up and fall off. Because squash plants are prolific bloomers, soon male flowers will appear to pollinate later female blossoms. As well, squash plants will sometimes abort small fruits when there is a heavy fruit set. This is self-pruning process.

• Prune. When vines grow to 5 feet, pinch off the growing tips to encourage fruit-bearing side-shoots. By midsummer, pinch off remaining flowers and small fruits on vining and winter squash. This will allow the plant to focus its energy on the ripening crop.

• Mulch. To avoid rot, put 6 inches of straw, hay, or dry leaves under fruit. Mulch when vines begin to lengthen. This will slow weed growth. Weeds compete with crops for water and nutrients. If the mulch gets wet, set a board or shingle under each fruit. Early in the season, black plastic can be used to mulch squashes. Black plastic helps warm the soil earlier and keeps it warm; this, in turn, can speed up the growth of squashes.

Delicata squash
Delicata squash

• Harvest. Harvest squashes when the weather is dry. Use a sharp knife to cut fruit off the vine, leaving 3 to 4 inches of stem on the fruit. Harvest summer squash when the fruit is small to moderate size. Pick each fruit before the blossoms drops off the tip otherwise the plant will quit producing. Pick winter squash and pumpkins when the rind is thick and hard and can not be penetrated by a thumbnail. Pick winter squashes and pumpkins before the first frost. Dry winter squashes (except acorn squash) in the sun until stems shrivel and turn gray; this will take about a week. Store winter squash in a cool, dry place with temperatures of 45° to 50°F and with 65 to 70 percent humidity.

More squash growing tips at How to Grow Squash.

More pumpkin grow tips at How to Grow Pumpkins.

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  1. Are there ways to protect squash against vine borers? I read that wrapping paper around the stocks at ground level helps. Do you have any experience with this technique? What would you recommend?
    Thanks so much.

  2. Squash vine borer is a one-inch-long worm with a white body, brown head and small brown legs. Squash borers tunnel into stems and feed for four or five weeks then crawl out and into the soil to pupate. When squash vines wilt and you find a sawdustlike frass at the base of or along the stems, suspect a borer at work. There are several ways to control squash borers: (1) Wrap strips of nylon stockings (or similar stretchy material) around the stems. The material will exclude borers and give as the plant grows. This will keep the orange-and-black moth from laying eggs on the squash plant. (2) Time your squash planting to avoid the egg-laying period, usually in April and May in warm regions and June and July in cooler regions. Mature plants can resist attack better than younger plants. So either plant early enough that plants are maturing in July, or delay planting until after the egg-laying period. (3) Keep the garden clean of vine debris if a borer attack has happened in the past. Remove and dispose of two inches of soil from the garden where you suspect larvae over-winter. Plant new crop far away from last year’s crop. (4) Release trichogramma wasps into the garden; they will parasitize vine borer adult moths and larva. (5) Pick eggs and insects off plants. (6) Slit affected stems with a sharp knife and kill the worm inside. Cover the damaged portion of the stem with soil to encourage new roots. (7) Dust with an insecticde containing methoxychlor.

  3. I live in North Carolina and have a Hubbard squash plant growing all over the place. There are several squashes started but I’m not sure they will get very big before we have our first frost in December. I’m new at vegetable gardening so if someone could give me some advice I would appreciate it!

  4. Winter squash is ready for harvest when the plants die back–or before the first freeze. Some say the best tasting winter squash is harvested at about 40F; others say winter squash tastes best with touched by a light frost. Winter squashes with hard rinds will store the longest. Check the undersides of your maturing winter squash for any signs of discoloring or rotting; pick fruits immediately if you spot a problem. Generally, winter squashes require about 15 weeks of growing time before the first expected frost. You can count the number of weeks from sowing to your first expected frost to get an idea about when you will be harvesting your crop; you can also check the days to maturity on your seed packet for each variety. When the time for harvest comes, use a pruners or loppers to cut the winter squash off the vine; leave 2 or 3 inches of stem to keep disease from entering squashes placed in storage. Early maturing winter squashes include acorns and butternuts; you can add those to your planting list next year if you think you will run out of growing season.

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