Squash- Gardening Tips from the Culinary View
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Summer officially begins this month and we can expect average high temperatures in the 90’s. Warm season crops are in full stride and one of the most bountiful are the Summer squashes.
The word squash is derived from the native American word askutasquash. Squash is a western hemisphere native originating in South America and evidence of cultivation goes back 10,000 years both as a container (a gourd) and for consumption of flesh and seeds. Most Summer squash are the variety Cucurbita pepo and are part of a large family of plants known as cucurbits which include the squashes, melons, pumpkins, cucumbers, and many gourds. Summer squash varieties come in a number of different shapes including scalloped varieties often called pattypan, constricted neck varieties including crookneck and straight neck types and cylindrical to club shapes which include the zucchini varieties. More recently there have even been some round varieties developed. Squash also come in a lot of colors – white, yellow, light to very dark green as well as striped, speckled, and bicolor varieties.
Summer squash are a warm season annual vegetable. Plantings can be made in the spring after the soil warms up to near 70 and additional plantings can be made through the warm season up to early fall. Summer squash prefers a fertile well drained soil with a pH of 6 to 6.5. Our higher pH soils will benefit from the addition of lots of organic matter. Direct seed squash about 1 inch deep in a group planting (often called “hills”) of 3 to 4 seeds in an 8 to 12 inch circle. Hills should be spaced about 4 feet apart. Once pollinated, a squash will be harvest size in only 4 to 8 days. Harvesting may need to be done daily in the peak . Harvest squash relatively small – larger squash will begin to develop tough skins and seeds plus sap more of the energy from the plant. You do not want a 3 pound zucchini and neither do your neighbors. Squash have a relatively shallow root system and need regular watering – weekly or even more frequently depending on the weather. Squash have male and female flowers on the same plant and are insect pollinated. A lack of pollinators can result in a reduced harvest, but squash can be hand pollinated by swabbing the male pollen on to the female flower.
Summer squash can develop disease and pest problems which need some tending. In our humid environment, squash may need treatment for fungal issues although some hybrid varieties have better resistance . Squash are also very attractive to a lot of our common garden pests with cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers being some of the most troublesome. The cucumber beetle and squash bug can damage squash plants of any age but are most destructive to seedlings and very young plants. The squash vine borer grub actually eats it way into the hollow stem of the squash and once inside is very difficult to control – they can be surgically dispatched if you are into that. We do our best but very often will lose plants to the borer, so I plant squash consecutively through the warm season. Floating row covers are a good way to keep pests off of the plants if they are not already in the soil. The covers will have to be removed eventually to allow either insect or human pollination.
Summer squash are usually consumed shortly after harvest – they are not long keepers like their Winter squash cousins. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week, but quality is best closer to harvest. For longer term storage, squash can be blanched and frozen. Summer squash are not nutrient dense. They do have a modicum of vitamins, and minerals and a fair amount of potassium, folic acid, and fiber. Depending on preparation, squash can be quite filling without a lot of calories.
Summer squash can be eaten raw or pickled similar to cucumbers. They can be cooked in a large variety of ways – fried, stir fried, sautéed, baked, roasted, grilled, and stuffed. They blend well in dishes that contain other warm season vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers, and okra. Classic dishes include ratatouille, squash casserole and caldo de res. I am particularly fond of zucchini stewed with fresh tomatoes and onions. Squash can be sliced into strips and substituted for pasta. Grated squash – even the larger ones – can be baked into muffins and breads. The large and beautiful squash flowers are also edible and can be eaten raw as a colorful addition to a salad or even stuffed and fried.
Despite taking a little more attention in the garden, Summer would not be Summer without Summer squash.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor