Why Is That Squash Called Cyril?: A Rough Guide to Squash Growing

 photo WP_20160720_002_e_zpsverppy4q.jpgThe first of this year’s Winter Squash.

 photo WP_20160719_002_e_zpsv58awpzc.jpgRound courgettes, which are Summer squash.

I was considering writing a guide about squash growing, but I’d have liked it to be comprehensive, and it wouldn’t. I’d have desired it to be clear and concise, but you know me. I want to win the lottery and buy the field behind us, but again probably not likely. So instead you’re getting this post. Typed with a cut finger because I’m a clumsy idiot when I’m hungry and squash apparently demand a baptism of blood before cooking. I’ll eschew filling this with too many photos as you’ve seen them all already. I’ll just re-use a few when pertinent and I’ll mostly just try to keep this in some semblance of chronological order. I swear my arm was just getting back to normal as the tattoo has flaked and I don’t have to baby it as much and now I’ve cut my middle finger on my left arm. Which is my typing hand. I’m actually right handed, but this is how I type: At great speed, without looking and with my non-dominant hand. Hence the flood of typos you’ll generally find in these posts. Take this a a brief chat with Jack about the thing that he loves, you, dear reader, okay not you, but squash. You do come close, really.

 photo 2016-04-16 16.17.54_e_zpsvfijuqg4.jpgAll things take time. From a minute seed to a huge plant, the space in between is love, labour and patience.

This is going to be rough and ready and I’m going to assume that you’ve already done the requisite research, by which I mean you know what squashes are, what they need, light and feed requirements etc, basically you could do this yourself and could use this as a supplementary guide to enhance what you already know. If not, well, then you’re killing me, unprepared reader. If you’ve never eaten squash then pop to the shop, grab one and check my Guide to carving and choosing squash. Well, read that first before choosing. But let’s assume you have a rough idea about this. Let me tell you what I wasn’t told: Growing squash is labour intensive and difficult. There are pests, diseases, weather troubles, all manner of caveats. But say you’re like Jack, an idiot, or daring, whichever. Then we move onto the next step.

 photo 2015-07-08 12.09.04_e_zpsfvawbihp.jpgLast year’s set up. It’s so rarely a case of just putting a pot down and leaving it at that.

 photo WP_20160705_023_e_zpsexsmojwx.jpgYour creativity will be tested and will your patience.

Which squash and where. Squashes come in all shapes and sizes, what you can grow depends on your space. A pumpkin in a pot is not a happy plant as the roots of squash are huge and the vines are invasive. I’ll just tell you what I grow and you can make your decisions from there, rather than me trying to vaguely break down all squash sizes and locations. I grow harlequin squash, what we call an acorn squash and a Winter squash. Sigh, a Winter squash is a long growing, storable squash, A Summer is a quick growing squash that is harvested when immature. Again, I’ll assume you know eggs is eggs. I grow these one and a half pound squash, about four a bush, bush type means no vines, they’re more compact better for pots or small spaces, in 36 litre pots, yeah, they’re big pots. You need that space, I’ve seen the roots of these plants at the very bottom of the pot all bound up. Grow them in small pots and it’ll affect the fruit. If you grow them in the ground you will be able to grow larger squash, but you’ll still have to be mindful of the space if it’s a vine type. Not to say bush types won’t lose their minds and start putting out vines, my Golden Nugget Squash, a smaller more plentiful squash, has a huge four foot, and growing, vie trailing along the ground. Some vines can reach six feet and there can be more than four a plant. I’ve had great luck with the pots, weed control is easier, feeding is better too.

 photo 2015-07-29 13.21.15_e_zpsywsr2qmo.jpgStunted growth means the fruit is all but useless. This was a squash that wasn’t hardened off properly, but still set fruit.

 photo 2015-05-08-15h08m19_e_zpslca8yygi.jpgIt looks big, but you’ll need it, trust me.

So you’ve got your squash and your spot. Let’s get planting, right? Nah. You now need to get some slow release fertilizer in there. Again I’m going by pots, but same for anything. I used miracle grow, but I hope to use my own compost next year. What I’ve found is that as long as they’re putting out leaves the slow release stuff will suffice. They’re big feeders. Again your fruit will be affected, yes, it’s a berry, I know, if the plant is struggling.You can see how large the plants will get, they need this feed early on to establish themselves. More leaves mean more sunlight and better protection. I also add bonemeal for calcium which helps with cell-wall stability in the fruit. You might have to top that up as it only lasts a few months, it also helps with plant growth. A simple rule is at this stage, nitrogen, which is responsible for leafy growth, is what you want. Any slow release will probably do, it’s when the fruiting starts that you change. All you’re doing here is giving the ground or soil all the plant will need to get to a point where it’s large and healthy and ready to flower. Worth pointing out that this is mostly my own experience, yours will differ, but I might be of some use to you. I’ve had success two years running, I understand it better this year and I’ve had the blessing of better weather, but even in all rainy months I still grew squash to maturity. So I know a bit.

 photo WP_20160620_031_e_zpslnskgice.jpgLush and green is what you want. Yellow leaves mean a  deficiency, and good luck finding out in what.

So, we’ve got the pots down, filled with compost and all the goodness being slowly released. I did warn this would be rough, but ask if anything isn’t clear. The next stage is starting the seeds. I’ve found what you need is damp soil and really warm weather. Soaking was ineffective in my experience. I’d advise you to use at least a half litre pot when starting the seeds. The roots will be three times as large as the seedling. I’ll assume you know how to start seeds and how to harden them off if not, then Google, this is muddled enough as is. Point the tapered end downwards as the plant will emerge from the rounded top. You want the seedlings to have four true leaves, to be small and in no way pot-bound. If you let the squash grow too large, especially to the extent that the leaves are full sized, then I’ll punch you in the mouth. I’m very passionate about squash. That and I have plants that were pot-bound struggling to grow as fast as the others that weren’t. Basically mind them as you would any other large seedling. You can direct sow, but I like transplants, some people don’t, but I grew squash from a seedling that was transplanted four times. So, your mileage may vary. Do be weary of slugs, they’ll kill a squash seedling so fast. But if you lose a few leaves don’t panic it may still survive. Not a given, so always plant more seeds than you’ll need. That’s true for all vegetables really.

 photo 2015-04-09-11h14m48_e_zpsufc7mcct.jpgMultiple transplants did affect the squash, but it was also too large for the pot it was in so that might have been the bigger problem.

So you’re ready to transplant. What I do is dig a hole, hold the plant gently in my hand, it’s a big hand, or you know, do it whatever way suits, some suggest holding just the stem, then pop it in the hole. Then what you do is mound the dirt around the plant stem. Really pack it around. You don’t want it getting wobbly. That little stem will be the centre of your plant. If it ever does wobble, usually when larger, don’t panic, don’t touch it, just let the plant sort it. You might notice it turning yellow and getting mushy, that might mean the plant is lacking in something, though if it’s the exception rather than the rule, it might just be a bad plant. Hence the need for spares. I only needed to replace one plant, and had none fail last year.  I advise you to use a little sugar dissolved in a lot of water, with a dash of plant feed poured beside the stem when your seedling has been transplanted. This will help with root-shock. I’ve never had a droopy seedling that didn’t bounce back and grow wonderfully with this method. Just remember to wash down the mixture with water or it’ll cause a white mould to grow on the surface of the soil. I learned that trick the hard way. Remember to assume they’ll be large, the leaves can be a foot long and the stems can be nearly two foot, that’s on a small plant. You can see how big they get in the photos, which I’ll add after typing this out and hope I’m right. I advise using slug pellets or something to keep pests away or you’ll lose the plants. Basically you watch them, water them, especially in high heat, even twice a day if needed. Forget that old wife’s tale about sun scorch, get them wet. Stick your finger in there and feel how far the dampness goes. Then stick it in your mouth and curse Jack for messing with you.The roots can appear on the surface, I cover them if this happens.

 photo WP_20160602_014_e_zps5qymgl1x.jpgThose leaves just keep coming and keep getting bigger.

 photo 2016-06-11 16.36.31_e_zpsmadj3m3z.jpgIf the plants stay healthy you’ll rarely lose many leaves. The bottoms ones usually die off as the newer ones grow.

So the plants are down, now we wait. This part depends on the weather. You might be lucky like I am this year and get really great sunny weather. The plants will flourish. One thing to mention; Don’t cut any leaves off, no! You need as many as you can get and if they do break just leave them, the plant will seal itself and you’ll avoid a bacterial infection. Or rather the plant will. Awkward phrasing. This stage is really hands off, but exciting. You’ll be watching the new leaves come out, the old ones growing. Don’t panic if some of them turn brown and die. That happens. Then you’ll see the little buds where flowers will emerge and that’s a wonderful feeling. This is all off the top of my head so I hope it’s all been pretty clear and easy to understand so far. Now we’re at the halfway mark. If you’ve made it this far then good job. The real hell starts now. Oh, you thought this was fun? Hah! If this doesn’t break you, then you might be better than I. This is where things can go horribly wrong. I mentioned the bad weather, my first year and I almost lost everything. I’ll get to that in time.

 photo WP_20160608_005_e_zpscldcbrte.jpgYou’ll see dozens of these blossoms before you’re done.

 photo WP_20160723_003_e_zps0nd1yoei.jpgA baby butternut.

So, the blossoms have started to appear. There are males and females, the females have a miniature, immature squash at the base. I again assume you know the basics of pollination. Rain is your enemy here, as are birds. I erected a makeshift canopy to stop the birds but allow the bees. I also worried about hailstones, I kid you not my first year my poor plants were trashed by a freak few days of hailstones. I haven’t done any hand pollination, so you’re on your own there. I find that the bees do the work for me. Try to get a few flowers growing to attract bees, lavender is perennial and easy to grow. Anything will do really and as a bonus they’ll look lovely and add splash of colour to your garden. Now, the blossoms will last one day. Then fall off. The pollen is viable from when the blossom first opens, then it degrades gradually. I’ve heard it aid by about four in the evening it’s useless. Again: Bees. They’ve done me well two years running. Though rain will wash out pollen so don’t expect pollination in bad weather. I had one brief day where the sun shone last year in amidst an endless cycle of rain, that got me squash. There is one problem I’ll mention here: Powdery Mildew. Basically it’s a nightmare. It’s a white fungus that spreads over the leaves. It thrives in wet weather, last year I spent a whole three or four month dealing with it daily. You don’t stop it, you just keep it in check. How? A mixture of 70% water and 30% Milk, sprayed on the leaves on a hot day. As it dries  it leaves behind a residue that’s detrimental to powdery mildew. There are other solutions, but with his there’s no risk of contaminating your growing squash. The only other advice I can offer at this stage is to buy or build a bug house. It’s just bamboo in a frame that’s supposed to entice beneficial bugs and bees, called solitary bees, to take up residence in your garden. Whether it works or not I can’t say, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Once pollinated the squash will start to swell. If not the immature fruit will rot and drop off. You’re going to see a lot of dead, aborted squashes. In my first year I was freaked out, in my second I was tossing them, by the handful, into the compost bins. It’s an odd experience to say the least.

 photo WP_20160620_007_e_zpswfuvc0ri.jpgOnce fruit has been set they swell fast. But they still need looking after. Blossom end rot can destroy your crop.

 photo WP_20160609_011_e_zpsntza2rid.jpgFrom a bud to a flower to a dead squash, all in such a short time.

I sincerely hope I’m not getting confusing or missing anything important, this is all off the top of my head. I don’t do well with planning and re-writes so I’m afraid this is the best I can do for you. So, let’s say you have fruit set, that’s why we call it when the fruit has been successfully pollinated. What now? Remember how I said that high nitrogen food was beneficial for leafy growth? Yeah, it’s detrimental to growing fruit, it’ll take away from the developing fruit. So, instead I use tomato feed for feeding the bushes. I feed mine once a week with a strong dose, consult the back of the pack to see what’s needed for fruiting plants. Ignore feeding at this stage at your peril. You’ve gone this far, why not go all out? I find aside from birds that squash don’t get too badly affected by slugs at this stage, they have spines running up their stems that hurt, trust me on that, so you may no longer need the slug pellets, Keep an eye on the leaves for bites. Again, this is bush types, vine types will be similar but might need a different take. The squash will swell quickly in the first week, here’s a handy tip to stop them getting wet on the soil, which causes rot, place a plastic coffee cup lid under the growing squash. The hole will let water out and the dent will let the squash rest inside it.  Don’t let them get too wet when watering. If you let the pots dry too much the fruit can split like a tomato, I’ve never had that trouble. One wet year and preparedness this year have saved me so far. Again this is a waiting game. The plants start green and shiny, gradually lose the sheen and develop a pattern and eventually they attain their final colour. If you can press a thumb gently into it and it leaves a dent then the squash is still too immature. What you want is a hollow sound when rapped with a knuckle. But most telling is that the stem will be dry and very hard. Take your time here, there’s no benefit from a rushed harvest. Unless the plant is dying, you can take your time.

 photo WP_20160705_013_e_zps3q6mapkx.jpgThe eponymous squash. Dubbed Cyril.

 photo WP_20160705_016_e_zpshk8oziz7.jpgSome start green, others yellow.

So, onto the harvest. If you’ve done everything right and luck, so important, has been on your side then you have squash to harvest. Nothing much to say here, just leave a few inches of stem. Don’t grab it by the stem, if it breaks off use the squash immediately. Don’t drop them, bruising can make the squash spoil faster, again use it up.I store mine in a cool, dry shed in a cardboard box for  few days until the stems cut part dries out. They’re now ready for storage.  Stores times vary, I use mine immediately and as fresh as possible. I mean you grew them, why not have them fresh? Do watch out for dampness if you are storing them long-term. They can rot within a few days if not properly stored. So that’s it. Not much, but I’ve shared what little I know. If you’ve read through it then thank you, perhaps you’ve learned something, perhaps you have something to share? If so please do. I’m always eager to learn. As I said before this isn’t a comprehensive guide, it’s just me, often-times Jack, telling you a little anecdote about his garden. Maybe you’re a bit better informed. Maybe you’ll look into growing squash for yourself. I tell you there is a real joy in growing and eating your own produce.  I don’t see myself quitting any time soon. I hope in the coming years I can offer even more advice to aspiring squash-growers, as it stands right now I’m just a happy idiot growing squash and using it in every conceivable way possible. So, that’s it from me. I’ll have to proof-read this and attach a few photos. If nothing else it’s been fun. I’m sure you might be wondering what this is doing on a recipe blog. Me too, but I find it’s better to just go with the flow. Now if you’ll excuse me I have squash to mind and miles to go before I harvest.

 photo WP_20160723_002_e_zpsw7snswei.jpgAn Ode To Harlequin Squash.

Just one more thing, patient readers, I want to speak of something very dear to my stomach. The harlequin squash. Why this above all others. Because of it’s texture, this is the only vegetable, I’m at the cooking stage so now fruit becomes a vegetable, do keep up, that mirrors the humble, deadly to yours truly, potato. I’ve found no squash that compares to it. This years crop, at least the first harvested, had a creamy, flaky texture. When steamed it turns into a mash that so closely resembling potatoes it actually made me ill the first time I tried it, potatoes an I have a harsh history. I overcame that fear and now I have the perfect substitute. Only for a short time, you can’t pop to the shop for a harlequin, at-least I can’t. This year I plan to make even better use of the harvest. I’ve made a cottage pie with one part and the second was sautéed. How did it taste? Heavenly. Crispy on the exterior and fluffy inside. With just enough sweetness. This isn’t your watery courgette, no, this is a balm for nightshade intolerance sufferers everywhere. I had it with my own grown broccoli and even with the garlic I myself grew. This is why I love this garden. For me even simple pleasures in food are so often denied. Even if this moment will never come again, things can so often become common-place if repeated, I’ll still treasure my harvest. As clichéd as it is: There’s nothing sweet than that which you obtain by the labour of your own hands. So, I now leave you in peace. I have plans to make and plants to tend to. Take care.

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