Maybe I am still a child at heart but I find winter squash the most exciting of all vegetables, to grow and harvest. Squash can be a bit confusing but summer squash and winter squash are treated the same way but summer squash are eaten in summer, when the fruits are immature and winter squash are allowed to remain on the plants till autumn so they mature and and can be stored for winter use. The best known of the winter squash are butternut squash which are readily available these days and possibly not worth growing, but there are numerous other kinds including pumpkins.
All are fairly easy to grow and the plants, which are often trailing, effectively suppress weeds so they are good if you have lots of space. This is also a problem because some do take up a lot of space! But there are compact kinds that can be grown in raised beds.
Need to know
All like warmth, sunshine and water. Wherever you plant them, make sure you can easily water them in dry weather. It is worth improving the soil with any organic matter you can find. The mantra that manure should always be well rotted is not important here – you can mulch around them with fresh manure and they will thank you for it.
Courgettes (summer squash) can be grown into containers as long as you water and feed well but because squash plants are so leafy and water-dependent it is best not to try others in pots.
Squash produce flowers that are either male or female, both on the same plant. Bees have to take pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers to fertilise the flowers and produce a fruit. To ensure a good set it is sometimes handy to remove the male flowers, pull off the petals and push the centre into the female flowers. You can spot the females because they have a miniature fruit behind the bloom.
Courgette plants frequently produce only male flowers when they first bloom and if they are drought-stressed. If you only grow one or two plants you may not get male and female flowers open on the same day so you have to wait longer for a crop. Look for parthenocarpic varieties that set fruits without pollination such as ‘Cavili’ and ‘Partenon’.
Seeds vary in size from huge in pumpkins to much smaller in acorn squash. All can be sown now. Sow them in individual small pots. Sow them on their sides so they are about 1cm below the soil surface and keep them watered and at about 20c and they will germinate in about a week.
Give them good light and when they produce their first true leaf, from between the two seed leaves, they will be ready to plant out. The site should be well dug, with lots of organic matter. If they are a little straggly then plant at the same depth and support the neck with a little cone of multipurpose compost. The seedlings are brittle and are prone to be snapped off in wind. Seedlings are also greedily devoured by slugs and snails so protect them. If the weather is cold it is worth popping a cut fizzy drink bottle over them for a couple of days till they get established.
Keep them watered to promote fast growth. For general purposes there is no need to pinch the out or train the plants but, if you want big pumpkins you should restrict the number of fruits to just one or two per plant. You will find that the first fruits to set will grow well and any that set later will not mature properly.
Courgettes are amazingly productive, but only if you pick the fruits when they are small. If you allow any to start to get big the plants stop producing more. Well-picked, a plant will produce 20 or more courgettes. Most winter squash will produce three to five fruit. Small, ‘Sweet Dumpling’ and acorn squash will produce 5-10 fruits. Butternut squash will produce about 5-7 fruits.
Jobs for the week
Prune spring-flowering shrubs as soon as the flowers fade. This includes forsythia, ribes and white spiraeas.
Sow hardy annuals in the garden
Plant tomatoes in the greenhouse
Plant up hanging baskets if you can protect them from possible late frosts
Sow salad leaves in pots of multipurpose compost or veg drugs