Winter Squash Part 2 (growing)
Please pretend that Mr. Earl is licking his lips because he just ate some delicious winter squash; I don’t happen to have any pictures of squash growing techniques.
Technique # 1: Real Estate Rules! Location, location and location are fertile, well drained soil in full sun. “Giant garden” would seem to be equally essential, given the size of most winter squash plants, but that’s not true. The giant area in full sun is pretty much a requirement, but the only part of it that must be gardenly is the spot where the seeds are planted. The rest can be an open field full of weeds if you add a few refinements.
I used to think refinements didn’t matter – until I tried planting squash without them and learned the hard way. The plants will grow if you just open a few little holes and put some seeds in. But they won’t grow strongly enough to make much squash and if by some chance they do set fruit the field mice will take care of that.
So. Refinements. Much easier than the list length suggests. Read it through once and you’ll be good to go without bothering again.
GROWING SQUASH IN AN OPEN FIELD ( for general tips, skip to the bullet points)
Warning: deer may or may not eat the whole damn thing. In the Hudson Valley, I wouldn’t try it. It has worked fine in Maine, where deer are a 3-season scourge and not bothersome in summer.
1. Select an area from which vines can grow in all directions. Mow a circle 30 to 40 feet in diameter, as short as you can get it. Remove the sod from a 7 foot diameter circle in the center.
2. Make a 2 foot barrier/edging around the center hole with dampened newspaper 5 or 6 sheets thick. Tuck the newspaper down against the edges of the hole and leave a flap at the bottom extending into the excavated part. This is to stall weed-encroachment; patch accordingly.
3. Fill the hole with a mixture of soil and composted manure. At least a fifth manure but up to about half is fine. Mound up this lovely material at least 6 inches above the surrounding ground level. More – up to about a foot, total – is better but that’s a lot of soil you’ve got to get from somewhere else. If you buy it, get topsoil, not potting soil.
4. Cover the center of the soil mound with more damp newspaper, 10 sheets thick this time, so you’re left with a ring of open soil about 1 foot wide at the outer edge of the (former) hole. Pile straw or wood chips over the center newspaper; water the whole shebang thoroughly and let it sit for 1 or 2 days.
5. Plant squash seeds – or set plants – in the soil ring at 6 equally-spaced spots around the circumference. If planting seeds, put 2 or 3 near each other at each location and thin to the strongest when they have a couple of leaves.
6. Apply black plastic from ring on out about 6 feet. It helps squelch the weeds while heating the soil. Some growers keep black plastic under the vines from root to tip. I go on the the theory that by the time the vines are 6 feet long the weather is warm; they can fend for themselves; and it’s wise to give them a chance to put down extra roots at outer nodes.
7. From here on it’s just like growing squash in a more civilized environment, except for mowing as necessary to keep a flat perimeter. The vines could climb just about anything by the time they hit the outer reaches ( I once had one go 15 feet into an apple tree) but creating a no-creatures land helps discourage the mice.
Recipe yields at least 12 -14 squash and potentially a great deal more, all depending on variety and size and weather and… You also get the improved area where the squash was. It can be a new planting bed or you can put in a cover crop to alternate with squash. Or you can just let it go; the field will reassert itself with depressing speed.
Squash care that’s done well for us, in the field and in the garden
* A food boost at midseason does seem to increase both quality and yield – squash is famously a “gross feeder.” In Maine, where I run the show, we use a homemade combo of composted manure and seaweed. In New York, where Bill who is old fashioned about these things is in charge, it’s commercial 10-10-10 . He keeps me mollified by also being old fashioned about organic matter: many pickup truckloads of stable dressing go on that garden each year, and if the worms and other macroscopic soil dwellers are any indication, ruin is not being wrought.
* The more leaves there are in proportion to fruit, the better that fruit is likely to be. To a great extent this is genetic, but in theory you can help the ratio by removing all squashes that form too late to ripen before frost. In practice, squash vines are easily damaged and as the season progresses increasingly easy to step on, but removal has made a difference in the more realistic years, the ones when I admitted that any squash formed after the 1st of August was highly unlikely to come to any good even if frost DID hold off until mid October.
* Neem works best against squash bugs if you start spraying while the plants are still small and no bugs are in sight. We did this once. Spraying at the very first bug-sighting works almost as as well and is well worth doing because if they get out of hand it’s rotenone time and that’s some evil stuff, “natural” notwithstanding.
* Burying the old squash plants in the middle of giant heaps of compost has – so far – helped make insect problems a sometime thing in the Hudson Valley garden. Can’t say we never have them but it’s seldom so many they do big damage. In Maine, though I dread to say it out loud, they’ve only shown up once in 30 years.