The Cucurbit: All About Cucumbers, Squash, Zucchini, Melons and Pumpkins
They’re colorful, come in all shapes and sizes, and are easy to grow. Many are edible, some folks even delight in devouring their flowers, and plant breeders have been so tangled in the tendrils of genetic variability that they’ve created viny versions with wart-covered fruit and others with super-sweet flesh. Known collectively as cucurbits, members of the squash family continue to fascinate gardeners the world over. If a lack of space has kept you from growing pumpkins, cucumbers or gourds, now is the time to try with space-saving cucurbit bush varieties. If space isn’t an issue, why not plant that old-fashioned ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon. Trying to attract Purple Martins to your place? Grow a crop of birdhouse gourds and build the birds a high-rise condo that’s hard to resist.
Members of the family Cucurbitaceae are native in most countries, but the earliest records of people dining on these vegetables comes from Mexico where caches of squash seeds more than 9,000 years old have been found. Egyptian tombs suggest pharaohs served melons at their meals, and today African food markets display many forms of cucurbits. Of course, squash and pumpkins have long been grown in this country by Native Americans, who passed them on to the Pilgrims. Cucurbits generally include squash, pumpkins, gourds, melons and cucumbers. The plants are typically annuals with vines, five-lobed leaves, spring-like tendrils, male and female flowers on a single plant, large and fleshy fruits with a hard skin, and many large, flat seeds.
Squash and pumpkins
Most garden squashes belong to four species: Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, C. moschata and C. mixta. These nutritious vegetables are high in fiber, and deeper orange flesh color usually indicates larger amounts of beta carotene, providing more vitamin A.
For nearly 40 years, my husband and I have squeezed as many squash as we can into our gardens. Almost tropical with their umbrella-like leaves and colorful fruit, the vines scramble across the soil and reach onto the lawn. The two categories of squash – summer and winter – are equally delicious. We grow both varieties, and every year new and interesting types are available to try.
Most summer squash are bush types and members of Cucurbita pepo, while the majority of winter squash belong to either C. moschata or C. maxima and have a rambling habit. Summer squashes mature quickly – as little as 50 days from seed. They come in a kaleidoscope of colors and a multitude of shapes and sizes. One of my favorites is ‘Sunburst,’ a golden pattypan with crisp flesh and mild flavor.
Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, likes ‘White,’ ‘Yellow’ and ‘Bennings Green Tint’ scallops.
“They’re early, make a nice bush type and are very buttery and sweet,” he says. Another perennial favorite of his customers is ‘Zucchino Rampicante,’ an Italian heirloom that grows to 15 inches with a flat bulb at the bottom. The fruits are mild, tender and sweet-tasting as summer squash, yet they are rich and flavorful if allowed to mature as winter squash.
Josh Kirschenbaum, product development director at Territorial Seeds in Cottage Grove, Oregon, recommends ‘Cavili,’ an early maturing bush summer squash that doesn’t require bees for pollination. And he loves ‘Tromboncino,’ a vining summer squash with exceptional flavor.
Winter squashes take longer to mature than their summer cousins, and we wait to harvest ours until the skins are too tough for my thumbnail to penetrate easily. Gettle’s catalog offers a large collection of winter squashes from the petite French ‘Pomme d’Or,’ the size and color of an orange and perfect for one person, to ‘Galeux d’Eysines,’ a flattened, round fruit with salmon-colored skin covered with large warts. Last year, one of Gettle’s customers grew a 54-pound ‘Long of Naples,’ a butternut type that starts out green and turns tan in storage.
Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Select Seeds recommends ‘Honey Bear’ acorn squash, a 2009 All-America Selections (AAS) winner.
“The plant takes up no more room than a zucchini,” Johnston says, “and the taste is outstanding.”
Kirschenbaum and I both favor ‘Gold Rush’ winter squash, a 1966 AAS winner. The open-pollinated plants produce peach-colored fruits with very hard shells. “It’s not one of the most compact bush squashes out there,” Kirschenbaum says, “but it has the largest amount of fruit of any squash I’ve seen.”
Duluth, Minnesota, Master Gardener Irma Robison grows several pumpkins including ‘Connecticut Field’ for carving and pie making, ‘Cinderella’ for baking and cooking, ‘Small Sugar,’ which grows on a trellis, and ‘Baby Boo’ and ‘Jack Be Little’ as ornamentals. Jessica Babcock of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, recommends ‘Cheyenne Bush’ pumpkin, an early bush type that also can be grown in large containers.
Kirschenbaum believes melons require more heat than squash. One AAS winner is ‘Amy,’ a canary melon with the crunchy texture of a watermelon and the flavor of a cantaloupe. For short-season gardeners, he recommends ‘Early Gala,’ a honeydew. Robison grows two space-saving melons, ‘Sugar Baby’ and ‘Bush Sugar Baby,’ that produce even in Duluth’s Zone 3 climate. She also likes ‘Minnesota Midget,’ a tasty and prolific 60-day cantaloupe. “I could hardly believe it,” she says, “melons on 3-foot vines.”
Gettle’s Baker Creek catalog offers a number of interesting melons including the unique African ‘Jelly’ melon.
“It’s very easy to grow and makes a fruit that’s bright orange and spiny looking,” Gettle says. “It’s also good for juice and has a tropical banana-lime taste when it’s ripe.”
Gettle suggests adventuresome gardeners try the bitter melon family. “They’re a little longer than a cucumber and have beautiful leaves and flowers as well as gorgeous orange fruit with bright red seeds inside when they burst open.”
Babcock’s favorite watermelon is ‘Blacktail Mountain,’ an excellent variety for northern gardeners requiring only 70 to 75 days to mature.
Some gourds are in the Cucurbita genus, and some are in the Langenaria genus. Kirschenbaum treats gourds like winter squash, but he says the vines can be a little more voracious, and he advises gardeners to wait until the shells are hard before harvesting them.
Cucumbers are the easiest cucurbits to grow because they need such a short season. For pickling, Kirschenbaum favors ‘Rocky,’ a flavorful and productive, smooth-skinned cucumber with no spines, and ‘Agnes,’ a crisp gherkin type that produces a huge crop in a short time. He also likes ‘Marketmore 97,’ a disease-resistant slicer that remains crunchy and tasty even at 12 to 14 inches.
Babcock recommends ‘Poona Kheera,’ an unusual cucumber from India that matures into what looks like a large russet potato. “Tender, crisp and delicious, smooth-skinned fruits turn from white to golden yellow to russet brown and may be eaten at any stage, skin and all,” she says.
Gettle’s customers seem to prefer ‘Lemon,’ ‘Crystal Apple’ and ‘Richland Green Apple’ cukes. “All three have very tender skin when you pick them small,” he says, “and they’re great to eat like an apple.” ‘Japanese Long’ is popular with his market growers because it produces lots of dark green, sweet, burpless fruit. According to Gettle, Asian cucumbers are less bitter and better than European and American types for fresh, burpless eating.
To get a jump on the season, I start my squash and pumpkins indoors in peat pots two weeks before setting them out. Kirschenbaum advises using a 4-inch pot and removing the bottoms of the pots when moving them outdoors. “Cucurbits don’t like their taproots disturbed,” he says, “so if you can put them out before the roots start wrapping around, it will minimize the amount of transplant shock.” And Johnston cautions gardeners to be gentle with the transplants. “You can’t just slam ’em in the ground like you do tomatoes.”
When direct-sowing seed, Johnston takes careful note of the soil temperature. “Where we live in Maine, we have only 7 to 10 days when we can direct-seed winter squash outdoors,” he says. “Before that, the soil is just too cold, and after that, it’s too late in the season.” Some gardeners transplant squash when roses are in bud and lilacs are in bloom, and some go by soil temperature of at least 60 degrees.
“Any of the cucurbits can rot easily,” Kirschenbaum says. “They don’t have a very hard seed coat. Some of the other vegetables need regular watering to germinate, but these seeds don’t. I water them in really well, and then only if it gets bone dry do I rewater if they haven’t germinated.”
Sunshine, heat, moisture and well-drained fertile soil are essential ingredients for successful cucurbit culture. We lay down black plastic or landscape fabric to warm the soil before we set our cucurbits out. We dig a hole the size of a bushel basket for each plant, fill it with well-rotted manure or compost, add a handful of bone meal as a slow-release fertilizer and top it with a mound of soil. Kirschenbaum throws a handful or two of worm compost, chicken manure and fish fertilizer into each hole when he sets out his transplants. Robison and I protect our transplants from cold winds and low temperatures with cloches of plastic milk jugs with the bottom cut out. Some gardeners use floating row covers that have the added advantage of excluding insect pests. Just be sure to remove the covers as flowers appear to allow pollination.
Squash and other cucurbits need a steady supply of water, but to avoid mildew, it’s best given early in the morning and by drip irrigation or bottom-watering. Well-drained soil, adequate moisture and good air circulation help ensure healthy plants. Choosing disease- and insect-resistant varieties also makes sense. Johnston says Butternut Squash seems more resistant to powdery mildew, and he especially recommends ‘Metro.’ He also says ‘Honey Bear’ Acorn Squash is resistant to powdery mildew as is a new Jack-o-lantern Pumpkin, ‘Racer Plus.’ Because of their hard stems, butternut squashes (C. moschata spp.) tend to resist squash vine borers. Rotating crops and applying row covers early in the season thwarts pests, too. To prevent disease, Robison avoids working among the plants when the foliage is damp.
To save space, we trellis cucumbers, gourds, ornamental pumpkins and some smaller winter squash. We also select compact bush types whenever we can.
Toward the end of summer, we remove all flowers and prune off the fuzzy growing tips to focus all the squash, melon or pumpkin plants’ energy into developing fruit. In harvesting, we cut the fruits off the vines leaving two or three inches of stem. After curing them in our greenhouse for a couple of weeks, we move them indoors to a cool, well-ventilated room where the temperature remains below 50 degrees all winter.
Johnston harvests squash when it’s mature, 50 days or so after pollination. “Squash harvested too young won’t taste good,” he says, “and squash harvested too late can suffer sun bleaching or frost, both of which reduce storage ability.” He handles the fruit carefully, “like eggs.” Gettle advises people not to pile squash in a box but rather spread them out in a single layer so one won’t rot on the others.
As I inspect our assortment of squashes lined up on a shelf, I’m already dreaming of next season’s garden. Surely I can seed ‘Cheyenne Bush’ pumpkin in a barrel on the deck, steer ‘Jelly’ melon onto the lawn, settle ‘Long of Naples’ on the compost heap and train ‘Poona Khera’ cucumbers up a trellis.
Margaret Haapoja spends wintertime dreaming of new additions to her spring squash garden at her home in Bovey, Minnesota.
Cucurbit Seed Sources
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Ave.
Winslow, ME 04901-2601
Seed Savers Exchange
3094 North Wind Road
Decorah, IA 52101
Territorial Seed Co.
PO Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424-0061
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