How To Grow Squash
Squash falls into two categories: summer squash and winter squash.
Summer squash includes all the varietals of squash that will grow best in hot weather and mature during the mid to late summer. Summer squash typically should be harvested when its skin is still relatively thin, which means you can harvest summer squash before it is fully mature. However it also means that summer squash will not keep as long in your pantry as winter varietals will.
Winter squash includes all the varietals will grow best in cooler winter during the late summer and fall. Winter squash will have the best flavor and texture if it is harvested when its skin is thickest. This allows for you to keep winter squash longer in your pantry, but it also means it should have to stay on the vine longer than summer squash.
In this guide about how to grow squash, I will begin by explaining some of the characteristics that are common to all cultivars of squash. Then I will move on to discussing some of the more popular varieties of squash. Some will be summer squash varietals, and some will be winter squash varietals. I will talk about the different attributes of each and whether they are typically grown for decoration or for use in the kitchen.
Once we have familiarized ourselves with what squash is, I will move on to discussing the things that are important to consider if you want to understand how to grow squash successfully in your garden. I will start by explaining what you need for the best area for how to grow squash. Squash is a plant that grows on a vine, and so it can meander through the garden in some cases, and may need a lot of space. In this section I will also talk about alternatives that can show you how to grow squash in gardens with limited space.
Next, I will explain the differences between planting your squash directly in the soil or by starting it early indoors and transplanting seedlings. You can also simply choose to buy seedlings that are already established at your local garden center and plant these directly in your prepared beds. I will explain how to choose seedlings that are healthy and will have the best possible chance of success in your garden. In this section, I will also explain how to grow squash properly by planting it with enough space between seedlings.
Once you have learned how to establish healthy squash seedlings, I will move on to explain how to take care of your plants with proper watering and weeding. In this section I will also discuss how to prevent invasions of your squash by pests in general, as well as talk about two pests of particular concern – the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I will explain how to protect your squash from these two pests with preventative measures. I will show you how to recognize these insects as well as how to look for evidence that they are in your garden and attacking your plants. Finally, I will explain how to deal with squash bugs and squash vine borers if they do happen to attack your plants.
I hope you find my guide on how to grow squash educational and fun to read. I regularly plant both winter and summer squash in my garden every year, and I have found them both to be a worthwhile and fun plant to grow. Let’s get started!
1. Characteristics and Varieties of Squash
When you are first beginning to learn how to grow squash, it can be really important to learn the characteristics that all squash have in common as well as what differentiates summer squash from winter squash. Summer squash varietals are almost always grown on large, bushy plants. Winter squash varietals are almost always grown on large plants that produce long, trailing vines (although some determinate varietals of winter squash do grow on what are called semi-bush varieties; more on this later). Because of this, summer squash varietals will not need quite as much room as winter squash, and can sometimes even be grown in containers. On the other hand, summer squash varietals cannot be trained onto vertical trellises, unlike winter squash. I will discuss this further in the next section, where I talk about how to grow squash in a manner that is best suited to the space you have available in your garden.
The fruit of summer squash varietals has its best flavor and texture if it is harvested before it is completely mature, while the skin is still thin and soft. Because of this, summer squash will only keep for about two weeks after it has been harvested. The fruit of winter squash varietals has the best flavor and texture if it is harvested when it is completely mature, when its rind is thick and hard. Because of this, winter squash can be kept for anywhere from one month up to six months or longer.
These factors become important to consider when you are determining how to grow squash for your needs as well as how to grow squash that will fit with your kitchen. If you are only cooking squash for yourself or a few people, you may wish to focus on growing winter squash that will keep for a long time. If, however, you are planning on sharing your squash with friends, family, and neighbors, or if you want to know how to grow squash that you can process all at once, you can consider growing summer squash. A lot of the time, if I find that I have too much produce from my garden, and can’t use it all at once or give it all away, I will prepare and freeze it for later use. Summer squash can be prepared into breads (like zucchini bread) or soups, which can then be frozen. You can also slice summer squash and blanch it (drop it into boiling water for a few minutes, and then flash cool it in ice water). Blanched summer squash can be frozen for use in recipes later on.
In the remainder of this section, I am going to discuss the characteristics of some of the more popular varietals of summer and winter squash. Understanding what makes each varietal unique is very important to knowing how to grow squash that is best suited to your garden as well as your kitchen.
1a. Summer Squash Varietals
Zucchini squash is one of the best known summer squash varietals. It can sometimes be yellow, but is more commonly seen with dark green skin. Zucchini grows on a large bush that can be up to five feet in diameter and three or four feet tall. Although the fruit can grow to be very large – up to eighteen inches long – it has the best flavor if it is harvested when it is about twelve inches long. Zucchini matures in about sixty days. In addition to the fruit, the flowers of the zucchini squash are also edible, and can be really tasty if battered and lightly fried. Zucchini is a very prolific plant, and if kept free of pests, also a hearty producer. This, along with the fact that it is relatively easy to cultivate, makes it a great plant for someone who has just begun to learn how to grow squash.
Crookneck squash is one of the varietals that is most commonly associated with the summer squash family. Crookneck squash has a long, curved neck growing out of a bulbous or oblong base, and it often has a bumpy skin. Crookneck squash grows on a bush that can grow to be between three and five feet in diameter. Crookneck squash is commonly yellow, although some varieties tend to be closer to orange. It is ready for harvest about fifty days after planting. The fruit can be used in similar recipes as zucchini.
Straight neck squash is closely related to crookneck squash. As the name suggests, it has a straight neck that tapers toward the end, and that is thinned than the blossom end of the fruit, which can be quite bulbous. Straight neck squash is typically cream colored or yellow, and grows on a bush that can be up to five feet in diameter. Different varietals of straight neck squash mature at variable times, with the earliest cultivars reaching maturity in as little as forty eight days. It should be used similarly to crookneck squash.
Scallop squash or patty pan squash is a less commonly known varietal of summer squash. They are sometimes also referred to as button squash or scaloppini. These squashes can range in color from light or medium green, to pale yellow and golden yellow. The fruit is usually saucer-shaped, squatter than zucchini or straight neck squashes. The bush can grow to be three to five feet in diameter and about three feet tall. The fruit of scallop squash is typically one of the sweetest of the summer squash varietals.
1b. Winter Squash
Acorn squash is one of the best known winter squashes. It grows along a vine, and produces medium sized dark green fruits. Acorn squash takes about one hundred days to mature, so it is typically harvested in mid to late fall. Acorn squash is relatively low maintenance, which makes it a great candidate for gardeners who are just learning how to grow squash.
Butternut squash is another widely known winter squash. It also grows on a meandering vine, and produces light to medium tan fruits that can be anywhere from twelve inches to two feet long. The base of the butternut squash, farthest from the vine, is somewhat bulbous, while the neck is slightly more slender. Butternut squash matures in ninety to one hundred days.
Banana squash, as the name suggests, resembles a banana in its shape and color. It is usually medium to deep yellow, and can have thin white or light yellow stripes running down the length of it. It can grow to be six to eight inches in diameter and up to two feet long. Its fruit is bright orange, has a fine texture, and is typically one of the sweeter winter squashes. Banana squash matures in about 110 days.
Carnival squash has a vibrant mixture of colors that are arrayed around a ribbed middle. It can be striped or spotted, and is quite beautiful. Carnival squash has one of the hardest and thickest skins of the winter squash. It is sometimes considered a varietal of acorn squash. The fruit of the carnival squash is a deep yellow, and has a flavor that is similar to sweet potatoes. Carnival squash matures in about 85 days.
Spaghetti squash has a hard, ivory colored or golden yellow skin. It is shaped like a small watermelon, and can grow to be between two and five pounds. The more yellow the skin of the squash is, the riper the fruit is and the better it will be to eat. Larger fruits will have more flavor than smaller ones. It gets its name because some of the fruit separates into spaghetti like strands when it is cooked; these have to be removed before it is eaten. It has a mildly nutty aroma. Spaghetti squash matures in about eighty to one hundred days after planting.
Of course, there are many other varieties of squash than the ones I have listed here. But these are examples of some of the most common summer and winter squash, and because of that they are excellent to use for starting to understand how to grow squash. These varieties are not very difficult to cultivate, and there are many recipes already available for each one. Now that you have an understanding of the different kinds of squash you can grow, let’s consider how to grow squash in a manner that best uses the space available to you in your garden.
2. Optimizing Space for Squash
When you are learning how to grow squash, it is very important to take into consideration the amount of space the plants will need. Different varietals of squash will require different amounts of space, but in general regardless of which varietal you choose you will need to give it ample room to spread out. This can be done by using one of a few methods, depending on the varietal you are planning to grow, how much space you have available in your garden to work with, and the amount of time and effort you are willing and able to put into implementing the best plan for how to grow squash. There are three methods for how to grow squash that I will discuss in this section. The first method is by planting your squash in large raised beds that can help increase the area available. The second method is by planting your squash in containers, which can allow you to utilize areas of your garden that would normally be unavailable. The third method is by constructing vertical structures that you can use to train your squash on, which allows you to move the vines up off the ground.
2a. How to Grow Squash in Raised Beds
A raised bed is a great solution to the problem of how to grow squash (especially how to grow winter squash) in an area with limited space that still has some room. A raised bed is constructed simply by raking or mounding soil up over itself to form a long, narrow hillock. Raised beds can be augmented by building sides on them. These can be built out of concrete or cinder blocks, or by stacking bricks or rocks, or with railroad ties, wood slats, or even aluminum siding. If you are planting your squash in an area where you either do not know the nutrient content and potential for toxins and heavy metals in the ground soil or do know that there are toxins present in the soil, you should consider how to grow squash in a raised bed that has sides to support the bed. Squash does not have roots that will grow very deep into the soil, but even still, it will be important to build a bed that is on top of the existing top soil. You may even wish to line the raised bed with plastic so as to prevent any of the toxins or heavy metals in the soil from leaching into the bed.
If you know that the soil in your garden is healthy and free of toxins, then you do not have to construct a raised bed that is completely separate from the ground soil. Instead, you can build up a raised bed just by raking and piling the soil in the garden bed onto itself. Do this until you have a gently sloping ridge about three to five feet wide running down the center of the bed. This kind of raised bed does not require you to construct sides around them, although a border made out of any of the materials I have mentioned above can be useful. The border helps define the edges of the raised bed, which will keep other people from walking on it and compacting the soil. A border can also help to keep grass and other weeds that spread rhizomatically from invading your garden bed. Once you have constructed the raised bed, it can be a very good practice to mulch around it with hay, wood chips, or other organic materials. This also helps to define the borders of the bed and keep weeds down.
The major advantages of how to plant squash in a raised bed are the increased area available to the plants and the increased drainage and air circulation in the soil of the bed. By shaping the soil into a gently sloping half circle, the area of the top soil in the garden bed can be increased by at least half as much and up to almost twice as much, depending on how high you make the bed. A raised bed will have looser soil than other garden beds, and this looseness will contribute to increased air circulation and better water drainage in the bed. These are both important considerations to how to grow squash that is healthy and disease resistant. The looser soil will promote healthier root growth, and the improved water drainage will make sure the squash is not waterlogged or forced to sit in pooling water.
If you have the space available, growing squash on raised beds is one of the best methods I can recommend.
2b. How to Grow Squash in Containers
Certain summer squash varieties, and especially dwarf or container cultivars of zucchini and scallop squash, can be successfully grown in containers. The most important thing to consider if you are planning to learn how to grow squash varietals in containers is the container size. Because even the smaller varietals of summer squash will still produce medium sized bushes – at around two to three feet in diameter – and will also grow relatively robust root systems – at up to eighteen inches deep – I do not recommend growing squash in containers that are any smaller than eighteen gallons. That is a pretty large container, of course, but the squash plants need it. Squash grown in smaller containers will become pot bound very quickly and will not be able to produce healthy foliage or good sized fruit.
However if you make sure to use a container that is large enough for your squash plants, you will find that this can be a very useful means of how to grow squash in a garden that does not have a lot of space. Containers allow the gardener to increase the overall planting area of the garden to include areas that are unsuitable for garden beds. This means you can grow squash in containers on walkways, or concrete driveways, or patios. You can even find ways of how to grow squash on apartment balconies if you use containers!
Water is also a very important consideration of how to grow squash successfully in containers. Containers lose water much faster than garden beds, so if you do choose to grow squash in them, make sure you are watering them more often than you would water the rest of your garden. Do not water containers so much that they become sodden or water logged, but make sure that you do not let the soil in the containers dry out, either. Try to keep the soil in your containers evenly moist throughout the growing season.
2c. How to Grow Squash on a Vertical Trellis
If you want to learn how to grow squash from one of the winter varietals, which grow along meandering vines, but you do not have a lot of space in your garden, a great solution is to train them on vertical trellises. Vertical trellises have other advantages as well. Because vertical trellises keep the fruit of the squash plant off the ground, they decrease the likelihood that the squash will fall victim to mold, blight, or fungal diseases caused by sitting in damp conditions. They also make it easier for the gardener to find and harvest squash when they are ripe, which lessens the possibility of missing fruit and allowing them to become overripe or even rotten on the vine. Pests are easier to monitor on vertical trellises as well, because the gardener has access to and can see the whole plant at once.
Squash should be grown on square or tepee shaped trellises constructed of stout wood beams. The plant can become quite heavy as it matures, so it will need a fairly substantial trellis to support its growth. It is best to construct a trellis that provides a kind of ladder for the squash to grow on as it moves up the trellis. The squash will not naturally be inclined to grow upwards, so the gardener may have to train it, especially during the first stages of growth.
Several winter squash plants can be grown in a space that would typically be able to support only one by using a trellis. Some varietals that produce heavy fruits – such as butternut squash – can benefit from the added step of placing slings along the trellis where they are growing. A simple burlap or cloth sling can be attached to the trellis, and the squash fruit is placed in it while it is still small and not too heavy. As the fruit continues to grow, the sling will make sure that it does not fall off of the vine under its own weight.
3. Planting Squash
In a previous guide, I explained how to grow pumpkins. Planting squash is much the same as planting pumpkins. You can opt to plant your squash seeds directly in the soil, or you can plant seedlings later in the planting season. Seedlings can be started from seed indoors, and grown for the first few weeks under grow lamps in your house, or you can purchase seedlings at garden centers.
One major planting consideration that is unique to how to grow squash is the fact that there are summer squash and winter squash varietals. Pumpkins are more like winter squash varietals, which have a longer growing season and therefore can benefit from being started indoors and planted as seedlings. Whether or not you choose to do this depends on a number of factors, the most important of which is the length of your growing season. If you have a short growing season, and you are planning to grow winter squash, it can be very advantageous to start these cultivars indoors first, or else buy seedlings at a local nursery.
Because summer squash has a short growing season and is harvested before it is fully mature, the gardener has more flexibility as far as how to grow squash within his seasonal constraints. You can choose to plant seeds directly in the soil after the last frost date has passed, and still expect to raise successful plants that will produce well before the season turns. Or you can opt to start seeds indoors, especially if you want to try to grow a bumper crop – that is, if you want to try to grow two crops of squash in one growing season. Finally, you can also choose to buy seedlings and plant them after the last frost date has passed.
If you do choose to buy seedlings, it is important that you understand how to pick out seedlings that will do well. At the simplest level, look for healthy seedlings. Most gardeners can spot the tell tale signs of an unhealthy plant, because plants do not tend to hide that. Yellowed or spotty leaves, wilted leaves, or a plant that is overly leggy (has a long stalk but few leaves) are all signs that a seedling is unhealthy. It could either have been cared for poorly, or be stressed by transplanting and shipment, or even be hosting a disease. Pick a plant that has a few healthy green leaves and is not growing too tall for its leaf size. Make sure to pick a plant that is not overly pot bound, too, as this can have poor effects to transplanting it.
When you do transplant squash seedlings, it is important to harden them off first. This means that you should leave them outside during the day and take them in at night for a few days, and then leave them outside overnight. Be sure to leave them in a shady area so they are not overly stressed by the sun. After they have been hardened off, it is time to transplant them. Make sure that you transplant the seedlings on a cooler, overcast day. The very act of transplanting seedlings is stressful to them, so it is important to avoid additional stressors like high heat index and bright sunlight.
Space the individual seedlings about three feet apart, in rows that are about five feet apart. In a raised bed that is five feet or more wide, you should be able to plant two rows of seedlings. On a trellis that has a base that is five feet wide, you should be able to plant two seedlings per side. An eighteen gallon container can hold one bush, or summer, squash. Water your seedlings thoroughly, and be sure to soak the soil when you plant them. While they are still seedlings, be sure to check on them regularly for any signs of stress until they are well established plants.
4. Care and Maintenance of Your Squash
Squash have relatively deep roots, and so you should be sure that you are watering deeply. This means you should water the soil until water begins to pool and the surface, and then stop. You want to avoid allowing too much standing water at the surface, as this can cause damp conditions that are favorable to disease.
A solution to this problem is to dig a hole about twelve inches deep next to your plants and sink PVC tubing or a two liter water or soda pop bottle into the ground. This is an easy way to make a reservoir that you can fill with water. The water will leach into the soil from below, which allows you to water deeply and make sure the water is getting to the plant’s roots. The reservoir should be established at an angle, with the surface of the hole about eight to ten inches from the base of the plant. You should also establish the reservoir while the plant is still a seedling.
Secondly, squash should be watered infrequently in garden beds, and more frequently if it is grown in containers. Squash that is grown in a garden bed needs a good soaking about twice a week if there is no rain. Squash that is grown in containers needs at least one and a half times that amount, but it will be up to you to monitor the moisture content of the soil in your containers. An easy way to do this is to first feel the top soil for dampness, and then to push a metal or steel rod into the soil. If it is very difficult to push the rod further than twelve inches down, the soil is dry and needs to be watered. As your plants grow and begin to produce fruit, they will require more watering, so it is important to keep an eye on the moisture levels in the soil.
Weeds are relatively easy to control when you are growing squash once it has been established, because the broad, prolific leaves of squash act as a natural shade that mulches the soil and keeps weeds at bay. Until the plants are large enough to do this, however, it is important to weed the bed regularly. Pull any weeds that you see, as soon as you see them. I also recommend putting down a healthy layer of mulch around your seedlings. This will not only help keep weeds at bay but also help retain moisture in the soil.
There are two pests that are a major concern for anyone who wants to understand how to grow squash in their garden. They are the squash bug and the squash vine borer. If either is allowed to attack the plants unchecked, they can destroy an entire crop. Prevention is the best cure for either pest, but there are some steps you can take if you discover them in your garden.
4d. Squash Vine Borer
The squash vine borer is a kind of caterpillar. It is a pest of winter squash varietals, which is due to the fact that these plants grow on vines, which the vine borer will eat its way through voraciously. Butternut squash is somewhat resistant to the squash vine borer Unfortunately, gardeners usually are not aware of the presence of the squash vine borer until it is too late to prevent it from attacking. Healthy doses of diatomaceous earth in an area of up to two feet around the base of your seedlings can help to deter the squash vine borer, but it has been known to be ineffective a well.
Keep a keen eye on the leaf stalks and vines of your plants for small brown eggs. When they hatch, they will burrow directly into the plant. Should you discover any eggs, remove them immediately with soap and water and destroy them. Then, examine the rest of the plant for any other evidence of squash vine borers.
Small mounds of what appears to be sawdust near the base of the squash plant is the best indicator of squash vine borer activity. If you do find that there is evidence of vine borers in your squash plant, and you want to save the plant, you have to find the borers. This means slitting the vine lengthwise near where the evidence of the borers has been found and physically removing and killing the bugs. The length of the vine that has been slit open must be then buried several inches underground to prevent others from attacking it.
4e. Squash Bugs
Squash bugs are the other major enemy of squash gardeners. They damage the plants by sucking sap out of the vines and stems, which causes the leaves to wilt. If you are watering your plants regularly, and yet they still are wilting, check them for squash bugs. Young plants and leaves that are infested with this pest have to be removed and destroyed. Do not put infested plant material in compost piles, as they can overwinter there and attack again the following year.
The eggs of the squash bug can be recognized as clusters of dark brown on the plant. The bugs themselves are light gray in color with six black legs. Young squash bugs feed in groups and can be found on the base and stem of the squash plant, or on the underside of leaves.
Parasitic wasps and tachnid flies can be effective predators for controlling squash bugs. Lady bugs – particularly the pink spotted lady beetle – also prey on squash bug eggs. It may be useful to consider introducing these beneficial insects to your squash garden bed.
5. Final Word
Now you have all the information you need in order to understand how to grow squash in your garden. In this guide I covered the differences between summer and winter squash and discussed several varieties of each. Then, I discussed the importance of space considerations for how to grow squash, including using raised beds, containers, and vertical trellises. Next I covered how to grow squash from seedlings or plant it directly as seeds. Finally, I talked about watering and weeding your squash, and how to deal with two of the most common squash pests. All that is left now is to harvest your crop! Once you’ve mastered how to grow squash, you can harvest squash by simply sawing off the vine where the fruit is attached, or by twisting the fruit until the stem breaks.