The Squash Family – How to Grow Curcubits

Zucchini, squash, marrows, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and gourds are all members of the Curcubitaceae, Squash or Gourd family. These fruits and vegetables are also known as ‘Curcubits’.

The Squash Family - How to Grow Curcubits

They are delicious tummy fillers and worth finding a space for in your garden.

When to Plant the Squash Family

All curcubits are sun worshippers and suit warm climate conditions. Unless you have a very cold climate, you should be able to grow some varieties of these fruits and vegetables. In cool climates sow in spring, summer and autumn.

If you’re in the subtropics, this family grows with the least problems in spring to early summer and autumn through winter. In tropical climates, they grow most of the year but thrive during the dry rather than wet season, when they are hardest hit by fungal problems.

Where to Plant Curcubits

Cucurbits are best suited to a full sun position with soil high in organic matter and good drainage. Most varieties of these vegetables require ample space in a garden bed, although a few suit large, deep containers.

Ideally, choose a protected location away from strong (especially hot) winds which dry the large leaves out, causing moisture stress. Shade covers may also help.

How Much Space Do you Need?

Pumpkins, squash, melons, zucchini and cucumbers tend to take up a lot of personal space. As they grow, they spread out their vines and stems horizontally or vertically. Make sure you allocate adequate space for the mature plant in your garden bed, or you may find them taking over and squashing other plants.

Cucumbers at different stages of maturity require strong vertical support

Cucumbers at different stages of maturity require strong vertical support

Use trellises and vertical structures to maximise room by growing UP. Even if you have limited space, this is one strategy you may be able to utilise. Train cucumbers, rockmelons, chokos, luffa, gourds and small pumpkins or squash up a wall, fence or arbor. Growing these plants vertically also encourages good air circulation which helps minimise disease problems.

Zucchini are not climbers but spread horizontally instead.

As a general guide to spacing, sow cucumbers 20-30cm (8-12in) apart; zucchini 1m (39in); pumpkins and melons 2m (78in) apart. Generally in a small garden, you’ll only need one choko, luffa or gourd plant.

Preparing and Caring for Curcubits

These vegetables are all thirsty little suckers because they have big fruit to fill out and long vines and stems to grow! They are also heavy feeders. Just like teenagers standing at the fridge or pantry always hungry! So prepare your soil or container garden well before planting.

Sow seeds directly in your garden to save money or start with seedlings to save time. Ideally, choose organic, heirloom and non-GMO open-pollinated seeds.

Zucchini, pumpkins, squash, melons, gourds and marrows vary in their length of time before harvest. For optimum health and a great harvest, you will need to keep up the moisture and nutrition during the entire growing season. Add extra compost or slow release plant food and liquid seaweed or worm ‘juice’ for trace elements every 3-4 weeks. Keep well mulched.

Water the soil NOT the leaves, vines or fruit. This helps minimise humidity and fungal diseases.

Squash Family Plant Selection

Personally, I’m a fan of heirloom and organic vegetable varieties. I love experimenting with sowing seeds of different cultivars to find flavours and varieties that grow well in my climate. Whilst those self-sown pumpkins that spring up out of the compost taste fabulous, be adventurous! Try yellow squash or zucchini for more colour and a diverse variety of phytonutrients in your diet.

Zucchini harvest with different varieties and phytonutrients

Zucchini harvest with different varieties and phytonutrients

There are compact bush and dwarf varieties for all members of the Squash family. Look for disease-resistant and early maturing varieties. With careful selection, you can still grow these vegetables in small spaces if you choose the right cultivar.

For example, Cucamelons or Mouse Melons (Melothria scabra) are a miniature cucumber that don’t require as much water as large cucumbers and are ready for harvest much faster. I’ve found they have a long harvest period and despite their tiny size, are heavy croppers with less pest and disease issues.

Harvest of cucamelons from my garden - delicious crisp crunchy baby melons

Harvest of cucamelons from my garden – delicious crisp crunchy baby melons


Pint Size Pumpkins

Some compact pumpkin varieties mature more quickly than larger heavier cultivars. So, if you’re impatient for food on the table or have limited space, then choose your variety carefully.

Butternut (1-1.5kg) or Buttercup (2-3kg) Kabocha type pumpkins may be a more sustainable option. While you may have to compromise on the size and weight, you can enjoy faster harvests! Consider the water saved instead of growing long vines with large pumpkins.

Cute little Golden Nugget pumpkins weigh in at just 600g. As they grow on a compact bush, they are perfect for the container gardener.

Flowers, Seeds and Fruit

Squash family vegetables typically have bright yellow male and female flowers. The male flowers form first on a long thin stem and produce pollen. Then the female flowers follow and produce the fruit. You can recognize the female blooms as they have a swollen stem. Flowers only open for one day.

Pumpkin flowers with honeybee and tiny fruit set on vine

Honeybee pollinating pumpkins

 

Planting flowers in your garden will encourage pollinators to help fertilise your Squash family crops so you enjoy a bigger harvest. Learn how to create a bee friendly garden. Flowers also attract beneficial insects like fungus eating ladybirds who can help manage fungal disease problems for you.


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Squash Family Seeds: Did you know?

Curcubit vegetables all have seeds that form INSIDE the flesh of the fruit.

An interesting fact about pumpkins, cucumbers and marrows is that their SEEDS have greater nutritional value than the vegetable flesh! No wonder rodents burrow their way into these vegetables to eat the protein rich seeds.

Pumpkin seeds nutrients in a quarter cup

Pumpkin seeds pack in a lot of healthy nutrients in a quarter cup!

You can roast watermelon seeds and eat them just like you do with pumpkin (pepita) seeds!

We eat many varieties of cucumber including the seeds. However, zucchini, marrow and squash are eaten before the seeds ripen and mature. You only harvest their seeds when they are over ripe and past good eating.

When you remove pumpkin seeds before cooking, don’t waste them! Instead of throwing your pumpkin seeds into the compost, lay them out on an oven tray. Gently bake in the oven on low heat about 75°C (60-170°F) for 15-20 minutes or until crisp. Food researchers found that baking at a lower temperature and for no longer than 20 minutes, prevents unfavourable changes in the fat structure of pumpkin seeds.

They make a delicious protein-rich snack. Try seasoning with salt, spices, cinnamon, chilli, herbs or any other flavouring you enjoy. Sprinkle over salads or fruit.

Why Don’t Your Pumpkins, Zucchini or Cucumbers Set Fruit?

Squash family vegetables need pollinators to set fruit. So the most common cause is a lack of fertilisation or pollination. The main problem may be that bees aren’t visiting your garden. This could be due to chemical use; a windy exposed microclimate; constant rain; lack of flowers or overhead sprinkler system.

If this is the case, you may have to hand pollinate.

Baby zucchini have set fruit on plant with yellow female flowers attached

Baby zucchini have set fruit on plant with yellow female flowers attached

There are other reasons your pumpkins, squash, melons, zucchini and cucumbers may not be setting fruit. These include:

  • Too much nitrogen-rich fertiliser – may cause leaf growth rather than flowers.
  • High temperatures may also cause this problem. Hot days with low humidity promote more male flowers to develop rather than female.
  • Dry windy conditions can cause pollen to die quickly.
  • Male and female flowers are not open at the same time.
  • Insufficient moisture – can cause fruit to abort.
  • Nutrient deficiencies (calcium and boron) – can cause baby fruits to turn yellow and fall off.
  • Plants spaced too closely or insufficient sunlight.
  • Fruit fly can sting the fruit and cause it to drop.

What to Watch Out For

The Squash family unfortunately suffers from a variety of diseases. These include downy and powdery mildew, mosaic viruses, bacterial spot, wilt, and damping off.

Pest insects include pumpkin beetle, 28 spotted ladybird (leaf eaters), aphids, spider mites, caterpillars and thrips. Don’t despair! You just have to put a little more effort into these vegetables to reap rich rewards.

Be observant and promptly manage any pests or diseases, so you minimise damage to your crops.

Curcubit Harvesting Tips

  • Select fruit that are firm and big enough for eating.
  • Use sharp secateurs to cut the curcubit stem from the vine or plant.
  • Always leave some stem attached to the fruit. This helps prevent pathogens from entering via the stem, that may cause rotting.
  • Clean and dry fruit after harvesting. Store zucchini, squash, marrows, cucumber and whole ripe melons in the fridge. They should last at least a week.
  • Allow pumpkins to ‘cure’ so the skin hardens. You can then store for many months to extend the harvest in a cool, dry spot.
  • Pick zucchini and squash when young and tender before they lose flavour.
  • Harvest gourds and luffa (loofah) when fully ripe and dry before using.

With careful planning and variety selection, you can enjoy the many delicious and useful members of the squash family.


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The Squash Family – How to Grow Curcubits
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2 Comments

  1. Sherry Capman November 26, 2018 at 2:39 am - Reply

    Thank you for this information about squash and cucumbers, etc. I have tried to grow these fruits almost every year that I have had a garden. My biggest problem is “Squash Bugs.”
    This past year I was very diligent, so I thought, and felt I had them beat, but was mistaken. I did get a few squash and cucumbers, but it did not last very long.

    Do you have any suggestions on how to get rid of these baleful critters? They get just about everything, and especially the yellow and zucchini varieties.
    Thanks so much for sharing your newsletter, and for all your helpful hints.

    Thank you,
    Sherry

    • Anne Gibson November 28, 2018 at 7:13 pm - Reply

      Hi Sherry
      Thanks for your feedback.

      STRATEGIES TO MANAGE SQUASH BUGS ON CURCUBIT OR SQUASH FAMILY PLANTS

      Squash Bugs (Anasa tristis) are sap sucking insects that spread disease-causing bacteria while they are feeding to other plants in the Curcubit or squash family.

      These insects are difficult to manage but a few options are:

      Maintain your garden and remove habitat – get rid of any debris or dead plants where they can shelter in the dark. You could however, attract squash bugs that ARE in your garden to a piece of timber near your plants and lift it up and remove them on a regular basis.

      Exclusion – keep them out with row covers or fine netting. You just need to get your timing right for pollination when flowers are open. These would need to be removed so pollinators can gain access or hand pollinate.

      Crop rotate – this can help reduce the numbers in your garden. Try to plant as far away as possible from the previous year’s crop.

      Choose your squash family plants carefully – According to research, “Squash bugs are able to survive much better on some cucurbit varieties (e.g., pumpkin, crookneck squash, and watermelon) than others (e.g., cucumber) (Bonjour and Fargo, 1989; Bonjour et al., 1990, 1993).” So, try to avoid the most susceptible varieties to help reduce squash bug problems. The following varieties are ranked least to most damage: Butternut, Royal Acorn, Sweet Cheese, Green Striped Cushaw, Pink Banana, and Black Zucchini.

      Trap crops – Yellow summer squash, buttercup squash and large pumpkins are some of the most attractive to squash bugs. Try growing a small number of early yellow squash as a sacrificial crop. When the squash bugs arrive on the trap crop plant, cover with a net or bag. Then remove that plant, so the bugs move to the next sacrificial plant. This way you contain them as you remove them.

      Raise seeds and transplant instead of direct sowing – Seedlings and young plants are most vulnerable to squash bug feeding damage. By raising your seeds until seedling stage and then transplanting when more mature, you reduce the potential exposure during their most susceptible growth phase. The least amount of time the plants are in your garden, the less time for squash bug populations to build up.

      Build healthy soil to grow pest-resistant plants – minerally or nutrient deficient plants are more likely to fall prey to pests in general. They’re Nature’s Clean Up Crew! If you create a healthy soil pantry of nutrients with plenty of compost and mulch, you may find your curcubits grow quickly into robust mature plants that can resist the damage and still produce a crop.

      Time your planting with the moon cycles as this gives your plants an excellent head start in the new moon phase.

      Grow insectary plants like mustards and flowering herbs amongst your Squash crops. These provide a source of pollen and nectar to attract beneficial insects including predators. Ground beetles are another predator insect that can help maintain squash bug populations.

      Organic approved neem sprays – these natural insecticides may be an option to keep them under control.

      Diatomaceous earth is a natural fine powder with razor sharp edges that works quickly on contact. Apply directly onto adults and larvae. It desiccates their bodies, but be careful not to harm other beneficial insects nearby. Use very judiciously!

      Hand pick – If you only have small numbers, and stay on top of them, this may be an option. Drop into a bucket of hot soapy water.

      Encourage natural enemies – For example, the female tachinid fly (Trichopoda pennipes) lays eggs in adult and nymph squash bugs. It’s pretty gruesome (but awesome at the same time!) but they parasitize them. The larvae hatch and live inside the nymph or adult squash bug until they pupate. Eventually, they kill the squash bug but there’s a time lag, so it can continue to feed and potentially spread disease until it dies. Also, this strategy tends to only be effective towards the end of the season.

      Hope this gives you a few strategies to try.
      Cheers Anne

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