A Squash PrimerCelebrate summer with garden-fresh flavors of summer squash – crookneck, pattypan and zucchini. These prolific, seasonal favorites are a snap to grow from seed sown directly into garden soil. Winter squash grow alongside their summer cousins, earning their name from their ability to store through winter.

A nutritional powerhouse, squash fills the dinner table with disease-fighting goodness, thanks to Vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants and beta-carotene. Winter squash especially overflows with building blocks for good health.

Warmth Is Key

Success with squash hinges on warm soil. Seeds need 70º F soil to germinate. Consider covering soil with black plastic in early spring to warm it, but don’t plant squash until all chance of frost has passed. Squash is sensitive to frost at both ends of the growth cycle – seedlings easily succumb to cold snaps, and ripening squash can be damaged by fall frost.

In the South, remove black plastic soil covers before planting to avoid overheating soil.

Planting & Fertilizer

Direct seed squash into warm soil. Sow three seeds per hill, spacing hills 18 inches apart. Or sow seeds 6 inches apart in a row. When seedlings are 2 to 3 inches high, thin seedlings to 12 (summer squash) to 18 (winter squash) inches apart.

Winter squash grow vigorously, and vines easily overtake anything in their path. If possible, plant winter squash near the garden’s edge and direct vines away from the center of the garden. Vines that wander into the lawn will eventually shade turf completely, causing it to yellow before the growing season ends.

Work compost into soil prior to planting. Squash vines generally don’t need additional fertilizer during the growing season. Too much nitrogen limits yields. If leaves appear pale, consider spraying them with seaweed or fish emulsion.

Harvest

With summer squash, pick small and pick often. Cut fruits using a sharp knife, leaving some stem attached. With winter squash, leave at least 1 inch of stem on fruits. Follow these guidelines for harvesting squash:

Yellow summer squash. Pick straightneck types 4 to 5 inches long, when skin is thin enough to eat. Crookneck varieties grow thicker skin. Harvest these at the 3- to 4-inch mark.

Zucchini. Check vines daily when fruiting starts. Pick fruits small, 4 to 5 inches long. Fruit quality and quantity tends to diminish after 4 to 6 weeks. Make succession plantings one month apart to extend the harvest.

Scalloped or pattypan. Pick fruits small, 2 to 3 inches across. Vines yield all summer.

Winter squash. The harvest mantra for winter squash is wait, wait, wait. Don’t pick winter squash until stems begin to shrivel and dry or the skin is hard so you can’t pierce it with your fingernail (pumpkins are an exception; they have soft skin). Harvest all fruit before the first frost. Fruit that gets frosted has a shorter storage life.

Cure winter squash in the sun 10 days. If frost is forecast, cover squash at night or move them to a protected area. Curing hardens the skin, which is necessary for winter storage. Stems are also vital for successful storage. Never carry squash by stems. Consume squash with broken stems first.

Winter squash varieties include acorn, buttercup, butternut, hubbard, turban, banana, delicate and pumpkin. Butternut and buttercup squash flavor improves after a few weeks of storage; eat the other types first.