Jane McLeod: Summer squash full of rewards
April 17, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Growing summer squash is effortless and rewarding — sometimes too much so, as the biggest task can be keeping the crop picked.
There are two basic types of squash: winter and summer. The determining factor is the stage at which the fruits are harvested.
Summer squash includes green zucchini, yellow crooknecks and straightnecks, and scallop, also known as patty pan. These are planted for warm-weather harvesting, in 50 to 65 days, and are eaten — seeds, skin and all — when the immature fruits are small and tender.
Winter squash, such as acorn and butternut, are bigger and take twice as long to mature. The skins of these fruits are hard and inedible. Winter squash usually is eaten by scooping out the seeds and pulp, then baking.
The length of growing season is different for each variety of squash, but given our local growing season, it's summer squash only in my vegetable patch.
If you've never grown summer squash before, you'll learn that you only need a few plants: maybe one green, one yellow and one scallop, for example. Squash are very prolific. With lots of plants, you'll find yourself in a frenzy of slicing, dicing, grating and freezing — making everything from squash soup to ice cream — and even standing with armloads of it at your neighbor's unanswered door, even though you're positive you saw faces at the window when you came up the drive.
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Pick a sunny location with rich, well-drained soil and pay attention to the space required. Squash plants are bushy, so when you plunk one tiny seed into the soil and the package says to allow 10 to 16 square feet per plant, believe it.
All squash like fertile soil with plenty of organic matter to retain moisture. They are heavy feeders and drinkers because they produce big stems, big leaves — like elephant ears — and a lot of fruit. Squash also have far-ranging root systems.
Rotate their location from year to year and plant where they have not grown recently. I plant seeds straight into the garden, but you also can start them inside and plant when the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed.
The young seedlings are tender, but the mature plant can survive a very light frost. Although some of the leaves will blacken, new leaves will appear and the plant will keep producing.
The first thing to appear, prior to an actual squash, will be lovely yellow blossoms — males. The female flowers follow a week or so later and are recognizable by a small bump — a squash-to-be — on the stalk. Both are edible and can be spared, especially the males, as the plant will just keep producing more.
Squash plants depend on bees to pollinate the flowers, but with only a few plants, you can aid the process by growing them side-by-side, versus at opposite ends of the garden.
Once the plant is at peak output, peer under those big leaves every day, as summer squash develop very rapidly.
Little squash are more delectable, plus, making big squash saps the plant's strength and causes it to slow down productivity. It's a little like hunting for eggs. Inevitably, you'll miss one that grows into a monster, which for some reason makes me think it should be carved rather than cooked.
The best ending for the large, overly mature ones is the compost pile.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 for more information.