The summer squashes, which include patty pan and winter squash, which include pumpkins, are easy and rewarding crops to grow.
Squashes are members of the gourd family and include pumpkins, courgettes and marrows. Courgettes can be described as summer squashes but here we will concentrate on summer squashes other than courgettes and also look at winter squashes that include the pumpkins.
Summer squashes tend to be softer-skinned and therefore do not store well. They mature during the summer and early autumn and are best picked and eaten straight away. The winter squashes mature mid to late autumn and need a long season to ripen the fruit and harden the skin. These will keep for many months.
Squashes are tender vegetables and require quite a long growing season so are usually sown in containers and kept in warm conditions until planting out at the end of May, beginning of June. Ideally sow one seed, in a small 9cm (31?2in) pot or use cell trays with one seed per cell. A multi-purpose compost is fine or a John Innes seed or no 1 compost. Place the pots on a warm windowsill or in a propagator.
Check them daily as they are very quick to germinate and if too warm the stems stretch very quickly making them top heavy. Once they have germinated move to cooler conditions such as the greenhouse bench or a cold frame to grow on. Keep a watch out for slugs as these will quickly devour young squashes.
When all danger of frost has passed, by about the end of May, beginning of June, the squashes can be planted outside. Space the trailing varieties at least 1.2m (48in) apart and bush varieties about 60cm (24in) apart.
Growing on and harvesting
Squashes need a good fertile soil. They can be grown on an old muck heap as long as it is mature! New manure heaps will be too ‘hot‘ in terms of temperature and richness so the leaves may scorch. Alternatively, dig a 30cm (1ft) deep hole with a similar diameter and back fill with some garden compost or well-rotted manure. Then heap a half mix of soil and compost into the hole and form a mound on top. The plant can then be planted into a hole made in the top of the heap. Make sure you plant deep enough to support the stem. Sometimes it helps to use a short stake at this stage to tie the stem to. One problem after planting is wind battering the young plants shredding the leaves and snapping the stems.
Summer squashes are best harvested when small, the round ones when only tennis ball size or longer ones when about 10-13cm (4-5in) long. If you have several plants you will find you can be picking fruits every day – they grow that fast. If the fruits are left to become very large the plants tend to stop flowering as much and you get a reduced crop.
Winter squashes such as pumpkins are sometimes a bit shy to flower at first until they get going. Leave the stems to trail naturally for a 3-4.5m (10-15ft) then you could nip the end out. This will encourage sideshoots to form along the stem. These will produce a lot more flowers, usually male flowers at first but then female blooms. Once this happens you should start to see one or two fruits setting. If you are aiming for a really large pumpkin then remove the growing tip about two or three leaves beyond the fruit. Remove the growing tips of other sideshoots too to encourage all the plant‘s energy into the one or two fruits you have picked out.
Feed occasionally with a general purpose feed to encourage good leaf colour but also fruit growth. Winter squashes may not be ready until October and often the plant may die back before you feel they are ready to harvest. This is fine, leave the fruits where they are until they have coloured up more and been touched by the autumn sun.
Growing without a veg plot
You can grow squashes in a large pot. Ideally a large bucket or even better 60cm (2ft) diameter container. Fill the pot with a mix of multipurpose compost and some garden compost if you have it. Plant one squash plant per pot and place in a warm sunny spot. Keep the plant well watered especially once the fruits begin to form. The trailing squashes will need to be allowed room on the ground or alternatively tie the stems to a wigwam of canes or up a trellis on a wall. It is important that the stems be checked every day or so because they grow incredibly fast and need to be tied in regularly to keep them in order. If growing very large-fruited squashes such as pumpkins it is better to allow them to trail due to the weight of the fruit.
Fortunately squashes are rarely troubled by pests although in the early stages aphids may cause newly emerging leaves to pucker. One of the main gripes about squashes is their reluctance at first to produce female flowers. This is quite common early on in their development and it can be frustrating for gardeners to see lots of flowers that then come to nothing. The trick is to be patient. Once the plant matures female flowers will
start to form and so will the fruit. Another problem is rotting fruit especially young ones. This is normal too, some fruit will not grow, turn yellow and drop off. There will be others to follow that won‘t abort. Larger fruits can be prevented from rotting where they rest on the soil by propping the fruit on a tile or piece of permeable membrane.
- Patty pan ‘Scallop Mixed‘: Unusual flat yellow or white fruits with a scalloped edge. Pick small fruits which can be eaten raw or cooked as you would courgettes.
- Pumpkin ‘Dill‘s Atlantic Giant‘: The one to grow if you want a record-breaking monster.
- Pumpkin ‘Mars F1‘: Produces good 2.7kg (6lb) fruits ideal for carving for Halloween or using in the kitchen.
- ‘Crown Prince‘: A large steelgrey fruit that has deep orange flesh and is one of the best tasting. Long storage potential.
- Vegetable spaghetti ‘Hasta La Pasta F1‘: A great winter squash that produces oval orange fruits and inside a spaghetti like flesh which makes a refreshing healthy alternative to spaghetti.
- Butternut ‘Avalon‘: A wonderful flavoured butternut with a trailing habit and good long term storage.