SQUASH, SUMMER

Summer squash lives up to its name. It likes hot weather and can't be planted until the air temperature stays in the 65°-to-75°F range. Summer squash grows fast, though. Almost all cultivars bear fruit in less than two months, and most zucchinis ripen in less than 50 days. I can safely sow squash in May and be eating it by July. From then on, I can pick it day after day until the first frost ends the harvest.

Get your summer squash off to a great start by planting them in hills of rich, well-prepared soil. Put cardboard collars around your seedlings to protect them from cutworms, and mulch them to maintain even soil moisture for best growth. Hotcaps will protect frost-sensitive seedlings until all danger of frost is past.

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Make Your own Squash

You can develop new cultivars, or keep certain characteristics in an existing cultivar, by playing a hand in pollination. If you want to try hand-pollination, experiment on squash or pumpkin. Both have large blossoms, making them easy to work with.

Watch carefully as buds form on your plant. When you feel that blooming is imminent, gently tie the female blossoms closed with soft yarn, rubber bands, or twist ties. The next morning, pick an open male blossom from the

plant you wish to cross with the mother plant,

and remove the petals.

This procedure will expose the male blossom's anthers, where the pollen is located.

Then remove the yarn from the female blossom and gently rub the anthers across the stigma, which is usually located at the center of the blossom. Tie the female blossom closed. Mark the stem of that blossom with a tie or marker. As the fruit develops, the blossoms will slough off.

Wait for the fruit to ripen fully, then remove the seeds. Wash them off and dry them carefully on a screen, then store them in a glass jar in a warm, dark place. Plant the seeds the following year to see what you've created. Who knows? you could be another Luther Burbank!

Make your own squash! Who knows what you'll come up with if you try experimenting with cross.pollination? But whatever you get, it's easy and fun! To make a cross, strip the petals off a male flower on one parent plant. Cut off the flower and rub the pollen-coated anthers against the stigma of the female flower you've chosen as the other parent. (Female squash flowers look like they already have a tiny squash forming at the base.) Once you've pollinated the female flower, tie its petals together with a twist tie to make sure bees don't destroy your experiment! Harvest the mature squash, save the seeds, and plant them out next year to see what you've produced.

with hotcaps. On very chilly nights, you can toss a light mulch of straw over the hills for extra protection. Early-seeded squash grows rather slowly, but it also ripens about two weeks earlier than squash that's direct-seeded in the ground at the regular time.

Sow three or four squash seeds per hill anti space the hills 4 or 5 feet apart. After few weeks, thin each hill to the one or strongest plants, and put a cardboard

around the stem of each young plant to thwart cutworms. Ideally, just one bush squash plant should occupy about a 4 x 4-foot area. Summer squash is a husky grower in good soil, and if the plants get too crowded, they often form tiny fruits that turn brown at the blossom end.

CARE

Summer care is minimal. Just spray the plants once every three weeks with a micronutrient-rich foliar feed like kelp or liquid seaweed, and keep them well mulched and watered.

Watch for the reddish brown egg clusters of the squash bug on the undersides of leaves. Destroy the eggs and handpick any gray nymphs or adult brown bugs that may hatch out. Wood ashes bother the pests; apply them when the leaves are wet.

The squash borer is an inch-long, fleshy white caterpillar that eats inside the stem near the base of the plant, sometimes severing the stem. A weak plant will wilt and die. Prevention is the best way to control these pests. If you've had borer problems in the past, cover your plants with floating row covers before the vines begin to lengthen, or spray the base of the plants with pyrethrins 0r rotenone weekly. If you find a borer hole in your squash stem, slit the stem, extract the borer, then cover the stem with soil.

Proper spacing helps to keep powdery mildew in check. If your plants have leaves coated with white or gray powdery spots, pull out every other plant to provide maximum sunlight and air circulation. Where the problem is common year after year, make sure the leaves of one squash plant don't touch those of another. You can spray the plants with sulfur according to package directions to keep mildew at bay. New research in the field has shown that you can also control

mildew by spraying a solution of baking soda and water (1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1 quart of warm water) on the leaves.

HARVESTING

Harvest summer squash when they are still immature and tender--you should be able to pierce the skin with your thumbnail. The fruit grows quickly, so check the plants daily. Frequent harvesting will also encourage the plants to continue producing. To harvest summer squash, cut the fruit from the vine, leaving about 1 inch of the stem attached.

CROW'S TIPS

I have a special technique that allows me to

concentrate soil fertility where the individual squash plants will be growing. For each hill, I dig a hole about 15 to 18 inches deep and wide, and backfill it with a mixture of//1/3compost 1/3 good garden loam, and 1/3 shredded leaves, sphagnum moss, or similar humus material. To that I add 1/2 cup each of greensand, blood meal, and rock phosphate, and I cup of blended organic fertilizer. In soils with a pH of 6.5 or lower, I add 1/2 cup of dolomitic limestone.

This mix will give the plants enough to go on for most of the season. For an extra boost I feed them every three weeks with a liquid fertilizer like manure tea or fish emulsion.

CROW'S PICKS

The main types of summer squash are yellow, green, and scalloped. But there's one cultivar of yellow squash that really stands out in my garden. It's called 'Custard Marrow'. The fruit resembles 'Pattypan' squash and grows to about the same width--7 or 8 inches--but it's much thicken The young fruits, up to 4 inches in diameter, have very firm yet tender flesh without the undesirable seedi-ness and soft centers of other summer squashes.