If you have ever bitten into the soft, sweet goodness of zucchini bread, or sprinkled Parmesan cheese and spices over zucchini and yellow squash and baked it, you know how delightful summer squash can be.
While technically a pepo (A type of berry with a tough rind), summer squash is also a member of the squash family and a cousin to the more popular winter squashes, like pumpkins and gourds. Like winter squash, summer squash actually consists of a variety of squashes, from zucchini to yellow crookneck squash to the round tatuma squash.
Summer squash, however, also differs from winter squash in some important ways:
- Summer squash has a soft rind
- Summer squash grows as a bush, not on vines
- Summer squash is harvested during the summer, not the fall
- Summer squash has a shorter storage lifespan
If you want to grow summer squash in your garden this year, you will need to focus on a few essential tips that will ensure the health of your plants and a plentiful harvest. What follows is a look at the most important steps to take when you grow summer squash.
Step 1: Choose the variety and number of plants you want to grow
As mentioned above, there are several varieties of summer squash from which you can choose. Each one has its own beautiful color, shape, and flavor to delight your taste buds.
Before you add summer squash to your garden, you will need to select the variety (or varieties) you hope to grow in your garden. Usually, choosing several types of summer squash is the best choice because doing so will allow you to enjoy a range of flavors and beautiful colors in your garden.
Before planting summer squash, you should also be aware that these plants tend to produce prolifically. A single plant can produce enough squash for a family of four for the year.
While you probably will want to add more than one plant to your garden, you may want to avoid too many plants that would overwhelm you with fruit. Instead, choose the number of plants you need wisely, and have an idea for how to use, give away, or freeze the fruits of your labor later in the year.
Finally, when choosing varieties of summer squash to put in your garden, look for those that are mildew resistant. This is the best way to avoid a damaging white powder that can grow on the leaves of your plants.
Step 2: Plant after the danger of frost has passed
Summer squash cannot tolerate frost. You will need to plant your squash when all danger of frost is past and the soil temperature is between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can plant summer squash seeds directly into the soil. However, many gardeners prefer to begin their squash indoors 3-4 weeks before the soil is warm enough to plant them outside. This head start means an earlier harvest for your delectable vegetables (technically, fruits).
If you do choose to transplant seeds you started inside, you do not have to worry about hardening them off: By the time the weather and the soil are warm enough for your squash plants to survive outdoors, there will not be very much difference between your indoor temperatures and your outdoor temperatures.
Step 3: Choose a sunny and nutrient-rich location
Summer squash grow best when they receive full sun for the majority of the day. They also prefer well-drained soil that is rich in nutrients. The ideal pH for your summer squash soil is 6-6.5.
You will need to select a location for your summer squash that fulfills these requirements, or you will need to create a garden bed that delivers on both sun and nutrients.
If you need to enrich your garden soil, the best way to do so is to work in several shovelfuls of compost into the first 12 inches of the soil. Loosening up the soil this deeply and enriching it with the nutrients in the compost makes a perfect growing environment for your summer squash.
Step 4: Give your summer squash enough room to grow
When choosing a location for your squash plants, you will also need to consider how much space they will need in your garden. Most summer squash grow as a bush, which means that your squash plants will need a generous amount of room all the way around them. If your summer squash grows as a bush, plant seeds 2-3 apart from each other and other plants in your garden.
Some varieties of summer squash grow on vines. These squash take up less space in the garden, and allow you to direct the vines in one direction so you have more space in your garden for other plants.
If you are planting a vined variety of summer squash, you can safely place your seeds 12 inches apart. Just make sure to plant them along the edge of your garden so you can direct the vines outward and leave the interior space of your garden free for your other vegetables.
Regardless of the type of squash you are planting, put the seeds about 1 inch deep into the soil and water them well. If you are transplanting summer squash plants, place them in the soil and cover up to the top of their roots and then water them.
Step 5: Consider planting your summer squash with companion plants
Companion planting refers to the process of planting vegetable and flower varieties together in order to help them thrive. Some pairings make for especially happy plants. For example, tomatoes are much more prolific when planted alongside marigolds.
Squash does particularly well alongside corn and beans (these three vegetables are often referred to as the “three sisters”). Consider adding these vegetables to your garden and planting them near each other to improve their growth and performance over the course of the growing season.
Step 6: Thin your summer squash seedlings
When you plant summer squash, you should plant at least two seeds in each hole. This process ensures that at least one squash plant grows, and it is an appropriate strategy whether you plant seeds directly in the ground or start them inside early.
However, as the seedlings grow, they will begin to compete for the water and nutrients in the soil. In order to ensure that you enjoy strong, healthy plants, you will need to thin your seedlings. Make sure you end up with no more than one plant every three feet for bush varieties and one plant per foot for vined varieties.
Step 7: Avoid insect damage
Insects tend to enjoy sweet, tender summer squash seedlings. You can use spray to protect your plants. However, for a more organic response to these pests, add row covers to your summer squash patch once you are finished planting.
If you choose to use row covers, you will need to remove them once the plants start to flower. Otherwise, they may not get pollinated, or produce fruit, correctly.
Step 8: Water your summer squash plants at least once a day
Squash is a thirsty plant. In order to keep up with its demands, you will need to water your plants at least once a day, or whenever you notice the leaves starting to droop. You may even need to water them two or three times a day.
In general, you should avoid watering your summer squash plants at night. Night watering can encourage the root rot and the growth of mold. Instead, try to water your garden in the morning and in the afternoon. Ample watering of your summer squash plants is particularly important in the heat of summer.
You should also make sure to water your plants at the base and avoid getting the leaves wet. Wet leaves are more likely to develop problems like fungus growth and mildew.
Step 9: Assist your summer squash with pollination
In order to enjoy prolific plants and a large harvest, you should help your summer squash plants with pollination. These efforts will complement, but not replace, the pollination that bees and other insects will accomplish. There are two primary methods for assisting your summer squash with pollination:
- Plant multiple varieties of squash together. They will help to cross-pollinate each other.
- Use a small brush to move pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers (The flowers with a tiny squash underneath the bud)
Step 10: Fertilize your summer squash when they flower
Summer squash don’t usually need a great deal of fertilizer to thrive. However, applying a liquid fertilizer when they begin to flower can help to encourage steady growth and a bountiful harvest. Choose a fertilizer with a 5-10-10 combination for best results.
Step 11: Look out for problems with your summer squash
Summer squash tends to be relatively easy to grow. However, there are a few problems you need to look out for.
- This white, powdery growth on the leaves of your summer squash is often the result of a lack of air circulation, wet leaves, and too much proximity to the other plants. Choose mildew-resistant varieties to lower your chances of encountering this problem
- If you do find mildew growing on your plants, immediately separate the affected plant from the other plants to prevent the spread of the mildew from one plant to another
Blossom End Rot
- This slimy dark breakdown of the ends of your squash fruit is the result of a lack of calcium in the soil.
- If you find that your summer squash is having this problem, you can remediate the issue by adding lime and 2-3 inches of plant material around your plants
Squash Vine Borers
- These insects, as their name indicates, will dig into the stems of your plants. A sign of their presence are stems and vines that are beginning to turn yellow.
- You can deal with these pests by breaking off the affected stems to prevent the spread of these insects to the rest of the plant
Step 12: Harvest your summer squash before they harden
You can harvest your summer squash at any time. You can even eat the flowers if you are so inclined. For the softest and sweetest fruit, you should harvest your squash before the outer skin begins to harden.
Generally, your summer squash is just right when it is no more than 5 inches long and when the skin darkens when you press on it with your fingernail.
When you harvest your summer squash, you should use a sharp knife and cut the fruit off just a little above the stem.
All fruit should be stored in the refrigerator and washed when you are ready to eat it. Be aware that summer squash only stays good in the fridge for a few days. It does not have the long storage life that winter squash possesses.
Summer squash is a delicious and beautiful addition to your garden. Enjoy this tasty fruit this year with these planting and growing tips and enjoy a bountiful harvest of delicious and brightly colored fruit.