Squeeze in some squash

With the Bank Holiday with us, could it be that the weather is on the up? It looks as though today will be fine but tomorrow will be wet – wet what else would we expect! In the past week some cold nights may have caught you out if you planted too early. We always have to garden according to the weather rather than the calendar but we must hope that by the middle of the month frosts will be a thing of the past for most of us.

I have been dreaming of warmer weather for months and perhaps we are going to have a warmer week. High pressure looks to visit us for a while. That means drier days but nights can be cold, so watch the weather forecast and have some fleece to hand to cover plants when it is cold.

When it comes to growing your own vegetables, I always recommend trying some squash. There are hundreds of different kinds and they always seem confusing once you dismiss the obvious kinds like courgettes, marrows and pumpkins. But they can be quickly divided into summer squash, that are eaten when young, in summer, and winter squash, which are left to mature, in autumn, and are eaten when ripe through winter.

What is wonderful about them is that the plants grow fast, the ‘fruit’ are easy to use and very adaptable, and they are so vigorous that they will keep down weeds. The winter squash are extremely nutritious and useful in the kitchen and can be stored for many months.

I do need to say, before I go into detail, that they need sun and rich soil and, in many cases, the plants are BIG. The winter squash especially, ramble for many metres so they are not ideal for a small raised veg bed. But they are perfect on the allotment where you have space and there is no reason why you can’t grow one or two on the patio in pots. But they need lots of watering and feeding.

Each winter squash plant, like a ‘butternut’ will produce four or five fruits. A Giant Pumpkin plant will only produce one or two pumpkins while smaller kinds like acorn squash should produce six to ten.

Butternut squash are a good crop for a sunny spot

Now is a good time to sow seeds. The plants grow fast and you will have healthy seedlings to plant out in late May and they will romp away. It is always worth growing F1 hybrid kinds if you can find them. These are bred to produce a good crop in less than ideal conditions. It is tempting to save seeds from a butternut you have bought but it is not a good idea. If these were F1 hybrids they will not breed true to type and they are probably grown in South Africa or Mexico and will not be varieties that are suitable for our cool climate.

Sow one seed per pot. She the seed about 1cm deep, on its side, in a small pot of good quality multipurpose compost. Water and keep at about 20c to germinate. The seedling should start to push through the compost in less than 10 days. The seedlings are big and fleshy and once they have two true leaves they are ready to plant out.

Prepare the soil well. All squashes, including courgettes, prefer a rich, moist soil. Dig in compost or well rotted manure. Protect your plants from snails after planting and water them liberally. If the weather is a bit windy or cold pop a cut lemonade bottle over them for a week or two to provide protection.

All these plants are perfect for children to grow because they are fast-growing and have large leaves and blooms and fun fruits. The plants will produce separate male and female flowers and you will see a small fruit behind the female flowers. Bees usually visit the blooms and will pollinate them, otherwise you can help by picking off the male flower and rubbing it in the centre of the female flower (above).

Summer squash, like courgettes, should be picked small and regularly. We do not want any of the fruit to get large.

The winter squash, including butternuts, pumpkins and many more, are left on the plants to mature and ripen their skins so they can be stored. They are usually not cut off the plants till October, when the plants are starting to deteriorate. Once one to two fruits have ‘set’ on a pumpkin or winter squash plant it is best to pick off later fruits that ‘set’ months later. This will ensure the first fruits grow to full size and the later-setting fruits are often very small. This is essential if you want to grow giant pumpkin.

If growing in pots, use a pot 45cm wide and deep for a winter squash and be prepared to water and feed a lot! A smaller pot will be OK for courgettes but they also need lots of watering and feeding.

Weekly reminders

Plant up hanging baskets but keep them in the greenhouse and do not place them outside in case it is too cold and windy

Check lilies for lily beetle and remove them by hand or spray with insecticide

Earth up potatoes as the shoots appear through the soil to increase crops and protect the growth from late frosts

Sow salad crops in the soil, pots or growing bags

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