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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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