For the best results when growing squash, plant squash seeds directly into the ground at least a week after your last frost date. You can use a planting calendar to determine the exact planting date for your location. Alternately, you can start the seeds indoors, sowing them two weeks to a month before your last spring frost.
When planting outdoors, whether from seeds or seedlings, choose a spot with full sun and well-draining soil. Depending on where you live, you may need to put gopher wire or baskets under the plants before planting or to create some kind of fencing to protect your crop from rabbits, deer, or other wild critters. If the weather gets nippy, with the temperature dipping close to freezing, you can protect the soil and young plants with a cold frame, a clear glass jar, or half a plastic bottle on top.
Make inch-deep holes and drop two seeds in each hole to maximize the chances of growing plants from those seeds (not all seeds are viable). Then you can pull out the weaker of the two plants if both start growing from the same hole. Make your holes two feet or more apart, as squash can take up a lot of space, and you don’t want them competing for sun and water and other nutrients.
Soil and Nutrients for Growing Squash
Winter squash grow on vines that trail along the ground, rather than having a central root and stems that grow from that root. Plant squash where they can spread in all directions. Some of the best winter squash plants grow right in retired compost piles, where the seeds of last year’s squash volunteer in the rich soil. You can also mimic a compost heap by creating small hills of compost and planting your winter squash seeds in their center.
Speaking of nutrients, squash is what’s known as a heavy feeder. If a plant is to produce fruit, it needs fertile soil. You can improve the nutrient content of your soil by adding plenty of garden compost or well-rotted manure to the soil before planting. Once you plant the seeds, water them thoroughly, and keep the soil well-watered throughout the growing season. If you’re in a dry climate, or the rains just aren’t coming, you can keep the soil moist by adding a layer of mulch or other organic matter on top.
Squash Plant Pests
Like all garden crops, squash have their pests. In many parts of the world, the squash vine borer (Melittia cucurbitae) kills young squash plants before they ever set fruit by injecting their eggs into the base of the vine. This can be very demoralizing because it happens so fast. In the afternoon, you have a healthy row of zucchini or yellow squash, and the next morning, the same bed looks like a wasteland of wilted vines. Ask your gardening neighbors, local farmers, nursery, or agriculture extension agent if squash vine borers are a problem where you live. If so, do some additional research to find strategies to prevent their damage.
Another pest is the squash bug (Anasa tristis), also known as the stink bug. These critters suck the sap out of leaves and can kill young plants. They aren’t typically a problem in the fall, after the plant has matured and set fruit. If you don’t want to use pesticides (a good choice!), you’ll need to be proactive and diligent to remove any squash bugs as soon as they appear on your plants.
How Long Does It Take to Grow Squash?
Most squash varieties average 60 days to maturity and produce fruit as soon as a week after flowering. (Check your seed packet for more exact information on the type of squash you’re growing.)
Winter squash takes almost twice as long as summer squash to harvest, averaging 80-110 days from planting until you get fully ripe fruit. When the rind is hard and deeply colored, that’s generally when you can pick them and start to enjoy their bounty. In much of the northern hemisphere, that’s usually September through October.
Another benefit to growing squash, beyond the food and the beauty of the plants, is the pollinator-attracting power of the squash blossoms. The yellow or orange flowers on a Cucurbita plant are of two types: female and male. The female flowers produce the fruit and the male flowers produce pollen. Many North and Central American species are visited by special squash bee pollinators, but other insects with more general feeding habits, such as honey bees, also visit.
However, if you live in an area that doesn’t have a large bee population, or you’re growing squash indoors, you may need to hand pollinate your squash. To do so, you’ll need to take a male flower and a female flower and brush them together. Male flowers have a straight stem and a stamen sticking up out of the middle, which is full of pollen. Female flowers have what look like small cucumbers growing under the flower with an orange stigma in the middle. This is where you brush the male flower’s anther to pollinate the female flower.
If you still need a visual aid, this video shows you exactly how to pollinate your squash (and save its seeds in the process):
Once pollination occurs, either from bees or other pollinators, or by hand, your plant can now start growing squash.
Tell us in the comments
- Have you ever grown squash?
- What are your favorite kinds of squash?
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