Summer Squash Growing, Harvesting, and Storing Tips
Summer squash is characterized by its growing on bushes and being harvested before the fruit of the plant matures or the rind hardens. They can be very prolific when taken care of in the right way. Fall and winter squash, on the other hand, are able to be stored much longer as a result of being harvested in the more mature stage of growth, which allows for the rind to be toughened and the skin to be harder than summer squash.
The four major types of summer squash are zucchini, yellow straightneck, yellow crookneck, and scallop. There are a number of other types of summer squash, but these are by far the most well known and popular among those growing them. The varieties within these four summer squash groups are increasing as new disease-resistant types and hybrids are introduced into the market. Demand for different looks for culinary purposes has also resulted in new colors and designs of the summer squash.
How Much Squash Should You Grow?
Before we begin our look at how to successfully grow summer squash, it needs to be understood by those who haven't grown much squash, if any, that you only need a few plants of each variety to ensure a steady stream of squash to last through the summer months.
If you grow more than a few, you won't be able to eat all that you grow and much will go to waste if you don't have an outlet to share with others.
So if it's only for the family, four plants at most will do—unless you have a larger family or grow them to give some to family and friends.
When to Plant Summer Squash
Summer squash can be planted any time after there is no longer any danger of a frost. They can be sown until the middle of the summer in most zones.
Don't get confused about growing for a fall harvest. Remember, summer squash is defined by harvesting before the plant matures and rind hardens, not in the sense that they're only to be grown in the summer months. They do fine in fall as well, for those who want squash as long as they can get it.
You don't have to do as much stagger planting with summer squash, because they produce fruit for quite a while. Two plantings should be enough to get you all the squash you want without interruption; one in the spring and one in the middle of summer.
Since summer squash doesn't store as well or as long, it's best to include some winter squash as part of your strategy if you want squash during the colder season.
How to Plant Summer Squash
Plant your summer squash seed about an inch deep, placing up to five seeds per hill with about 4 feet between them. If you want to to sow for an individual plant, placing up to three seeds in a hill will do. Just thin out the weaker plants and let the stronger one remain.
Growing at least two plants would be best, as you can lose squash plants occasionally, and you always want a backup to ensure a supply.
When thinning your squash plants, wait until they are about 3" tall before doing it, so you can identify the most healthy one.
For those hills with up to five plants emerging, thin to at most three. Two will do fine as well. Having two sets of two would probably be the best practice, just in case one of the groups doesn't do very well. You wouldn't need more than four squash plants of any variety unless you want to sell the extra.
Where to Plant Squash
Summer squash will do well in most soils as long as it drains well. Mulching can generate a better crop because of the shallow roots of the plant in the earlier part of growth. You can usually get a better and earlier yield when mulching.
Summer Squash Care
If you plant your squash in a location that drains well, you've done the most important job to ensure a good harvest. The squash are so prolific that even if you just let them sit there and do nothing to help them, they'll still probably give you all the squash you'll want, or are able, to eat.
That's not to say you shouldn't do some shallow cultivation around the plants, especially earlier in the year, as it helps the plant produce more. It also looks better.
How to Handle Insect Problems
Where you will experience potential problems with squash is in relationship to pest damage. The two major insects that attack squash are the squash bug and cucumber beetle.
Whatever your insecticide of choice is, it's best to catch these little critters in the early stages before they become a hoard. So keeping an eye out for them and applying an insecticide on a weekly basis should be enough to manage the problem.
How to Harvest Summer Squash
Maybe the most misunderstood part of producing and enjoying great summer squash is in the harvesting process. It is here where most gardeners make a mistake, as they will allow them to grow too long and large, apparently believing the larger size will be just as tasty while enjoying more of it. That's wrong.
The absolute best time to pick summer squash for the best taste is not long after they begin to mature. A smaller squash is a more tender squash. It's no more complicated than that.
What you have to watch for is when they start to develop, as squash do this very quickly and can easily grow beyond the best tenderness stage in a short time. For the longer growing types, don't allow them to surpass about 8" in length or 2" in diameter for the tastiest experience. But that's the outer parameters. It's better to harvest them before they reach that length and diameter. For the scallop or patty pan varieties, pick them before they grow beyond 4" in diameter. Again, smaller, about 3" in diameter, is even better.
How to Handle Squash
Because summer squash by definition is a squash picked before it matures, that means it's more susceptible to damage if it isn't handled carefully, as the skin is thin. If you do damage a squash, eat it as quickly as possible, because it won't store long.
When harvesting, be sure to have either a very sharp knife or pruning shears, or else you could do some major damage to the plant by the extra effort it will take for a dull implement to cut the vine. A cut which includes about an inch of stem on the squash is best. The best time to harvest your squash is in the middle of the day when the blossom petals are completely opened.
Harvesting Larger Summer Squash
Now don't despair if some of your summer squash exceed best practices, as there are things you can do with them when they are larger, which can make up for a taste that isn't quite as good than the smaller squash.
The two major uses of squash in this case are for either stuffing or making bread. For stuffing, you just dig out the fruit and stuff in it whatever you desire. For breads, you grate up the squash and bake it with the mix.
As for those giant squash you don't see—the ones that have become large, thick, and hard, along with seeds that are already developed—they're pretty much useless and should be thrown away.
Another reason for picking the larger squash as soon as you can is they take away from production from the younger fruits. It's best not to wait for more than two days to check your squash plants. Even a daily look isn't out of the question because of how quickly they can reach their optimum point. Once they flower, it's a matter of about a week or less when they're ready to pick.
Harvesting Squash Flowers
Many people don't know this, but you can also harvest the flower of a squash and use it for stuffed flowers in a meal.
In my greenhouse and farming business, a gourmet chef used to order the flowers of zucchini for that very purpose. So that's also a possibility if you ever want to try something a little bolder.
If you're not ambitious enough to stuff the squash flowers, you could instead pick the squash when tiny and with a flower and dip them in a batter and fry them. Better yet, forget the little squash and just dip the flower in a batter and fry for an amazing taste experience.
Harvesting Male Blossoms
If you're harvesting squash flowers, it's best to primarily harvest the male blossoms unless your goal is to cut back on production from your plant.
You can identify the male squash blossoms from the female blossoms from the size of the stems. A female stem is much thicker than a male stem, which is much thinner. The female blossom will also have a slight bulge at the base of the flower, which is the squash starting to develop.
Harvesting Squash Seed
If you're thinking of harvesting seed from your squash, you would have to decide to grow only one variety, as the majority of squash cross-pollinate. This not only happens with summer squash, but also with acorn squash and even some pumpkins.
You won't see evidence of this in the current crop, so that's not a problem. But for harvesting seeds, you won't know what you'll get when you plant the seed the following year. If you want to do it for the fun of seeing what comes out, that's one thing. If you're looking for something you can count on, forget it, as there's no way of knowing what you'll get.
Cucumbers and melons aren't a problem, because they don't cross-pollinate with squash.
How to Store Squash
Summer squash doesn't store very long, so steps need to be taken to extend its storage life. There are two basic ways to store squash you're going to eat fairly quickly.
One is you can rinse the squash and place it in ice water in the refrigerator. Keep it there until you're going to use it.
The second method is to not wash the squash at all and place it in a plastic bag in your crisper in the refrigerator. When storing in this fashion, you don't want any moisture, because it'll promote decay in the squash.
For long-term storage, squash can be frozen or canned.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Barnacle Bill