By Mac Condill
Cucurbits are a hugely varied plant family. They include the standard pumpkins, squash, and gourds, but do not forget some of the other wonderful cousins such as watermelons, zucchini, and luffas. Let’s have a quick look at several great varieties that are worth growing in your garden and a few tips that will help ensure a good crop this fall.
A superb watermelon variety is the eighty-year-old heirloom variety ‘Moon and Stars.’ It has a dark green rind with unique little yellow dots and the foliage is speckled with yellow dots as well. One yellow dot always seems bigger than the others – that’s where the name comes from. It is a real conversation piece and is one of the sweetest melons around.
The best zucchini, according to many cucurbit experts, is the Italian variety ‘Costata Romanesco.’ It has all the wonderful characteristics of your typical summer squash, and yet has winter squash keeping ability and superb decorative potential. This long, slender zucchini is great fried or baked when immature and is a must for zucchini lovers. It is also a great addition to your fall decorations, as this zucchini has deep ribbing with alternating yellow and green striations, once mature.
Acorns and sweet potato squash are becoming more and more common in supermarkets around the country, and rightly so. However, often times with the breeding of new varieties, they are simply trying to create a more uniform fruit which can be shipped easier and has a longer shelf life. Rarely do taste considerations make it into breeding programs. This is one reason we at The Great Pumpkin Patch promote heirloom varieties. They often possess a superior eating quality over some of their newer counterparts. An excellent example of an heirloom variety is the ‘Fordhook’ acorn. Introduced by A. W. Burpee back in 1890 it is a more oblong, creamy colored acorn than the green one seen on the shelf. It is a great producer, stores well, and has a very smooth taste.
One variety that was selected for its taste, however, is the sweet potato squash ‘Sugar Loaf.’ A relatively new variety, ‘Sugar Loaf’ is smaller than its parent, the ‘Delicata,’ and is very sweet and keeps extremely well. Both varieties would be a great addition to your harvest centerpiece and ultimately your dinner plate.
The above varieties do not require a lot of space and so therefore are very good selections for those with a small backyard garden.
One of our favorites is ‘Tetsukabuto,’ a Japanese winter squash little known in the United States. It has become one of our staples at the farm and makes the best pumpkin chiffon pie of any of the 400 varieties we grow. The vines are extremely robust, it is a good producer, and the fruit stores very well. We like to dice the squash up like hash browns and lightly fry it in olive oil, although I guarantee this Japanese favorite will serve you well in any recipe you try.
How to Grow Cucurbits
When it comes to planting cucurbits (pumpkins, squash, gourds, etc.) there are a few important things to keep in mind. Cucurbits like dry feet, in other words they prefer a well-drained soil as opposed to a soil with high clay content. High organic matter improves soil nutrition and drainage. Remember, the healthier the soil, the healthier the plant. Planting cucurbits in the same spot every year can lead to increased pest, bacterial, and viral problems. A three-year rotation is minimal and closer to a five-year rotation is ideal. I also feel planting cucurbits too early can cause unnecessary stress to the plant. Do not forget that cucurbits thrive in hot, dry conditions so planting in May, when nights can be a little damp and chilly, can really set a plant back. Whereas waiting until mid – June when the heat of the summer sets in, can produce a healthy, fast growing plant. If you feel it necessary to water I recommend you do it below the foliage because watering from above can encourage bacterial and viral problems, which can ultimately kill the plant.
One more important piece to getting your cucurbits to produce is to have enough pollinators. The wild bee population is sometimes scarce and so it is good to look into your cucurbit flowers in the morning to see if there is any bee activity. There should be nearly one in every flower, and if you do not see that kind of population you will want to hand pollinate in order to ensure adequate fruit set. The male flower is the first flower to bloom and several days later the females will start setting on. The male should be picked and petals stripped back and then used to pollinate the female flower, the one with the fruit at the end of the flower. A male flower can be used to pollinate several females. By taking care of the plant’s soil, water (or lack thereof), and pollination, you should be well on your way for a glorious fall harvest come September and October.
Mac Condill is a fifth generation farmer who received his horticultural degree from Illinois State University and has worked in several renowned display gardens around the world. Most recently he was featured in the October issue of Martha Stewart Living and was a guest on her morning show.