Category Archives: Garden Advice

Winter Squash as Summer Squash

Your winter squash plants may be ready to provide you with a second vegetable you didn’t expect – summer squash.  Last year we cut up, stir-fried and ate a young, tender fruit from our friends’ seed crop of Seminole winter squash.  It was delicious, with an agreeable texture, and a rich, buttery taste.  Then we harvested several young squash from our winter squash variety trials, and they all tasted similarly great!  In fact, they tasted better than most summer squash do!  It can be a challenge to find the young squash under the large green leaves and sprawling vines; however, if you plan ahead, small-fruited varieties of squash can be trellised, making it easier to find the young fruits.

Young Seminole winter squash cooked as a summer squash

Growing regular summer squash can be easy, but in many parts of the Southeast, the plants are susceptible to squash vine borers, which can kill a previously healthy plant in a day.  Thus many gardeners and organic farmers get abundant harvests for a period of time, and then little or even nothing.  Luckily there are several ways of dealing with this problem.  However, at this point in the year, if you’ve neither planted successions, nor meticulously pulled vine borer larvae out with tweezers, you might or might not have a lot of summer squash plants left.

Four types of squash in the moschata species, harvested young and ready to be cooked as summer squash

Squash varieties fall into four main species – pepo, maxima, moschata, and argyosperma. Moschatas and argyospermas are resistant to squash vine borers. Pepos and maximas are susceptible.  Most summer squash are pepos, but many winter squash are moschatas.  One traditional summer squash, Tromboncino, is a moschata.  We list the species of each of our squash varieties just after the variety name.  You can also use edible gourds as a summer squash substitute.

The ways you can use a squash are endless, whether it’s mature or immature – and whether it’s a pepo or a moschata or another species.  You can stir-fry them with other vegetables, or by themselves.  You can deep-fry them or bake them.  You can turn them into soup.  You can stuff them.  You can grate them into a salad.  You can lacto-ferment them.  You can use them in sweet recipes  – use any of the immature ones like zucchini in zucchini bread, and use any of the mature ones like pumpkins in pumpkin pie.  You can cook the tender shoot tips as well as the fruits (though I found the long tendrils to be rather bitter and I would remove those next time).

Freshly harvested squash shoots
Squash shoots cooking with eggs

Perhaps around the time of frost you’ll find yourself harvesting a squash that’s too old to use quite like summer squash, and yet too young to cure and store like winter squash.  You can eat those too.  You’ll probably want to peel them first, and scoop out the seeds – the skin and seeds both generally get tough by intermediate stages of maturity.  Then, you can use them either in a winter squash recipe or in a summer squash recipe.

10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons

By Ira Wallace   Photos by Irena Hollowell

Arkansas Little Leaf cucumber
Benning's Green Tint summer squash

Abundant harvests of cucumbers, squash, melons and all their cucurbit relatives like gourds depend on having many active pollinators. Each squash or cucumber blossom requires multiple visits to make a perfectly formed fruit. Much of the heavy work of pollinating vegetable crops is done by honey bees but there are also many other types of bees, wasps, beetles, and moths working our vegetable gardens.  Carolina Farm Stewardship Association shares some useful info about native squash bees.

Here in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial gardens we work hard to keep the welcome mat out for all these insect allies and you can too! Here are our 10 tips for attracting bees and other pollinators:

Bumblebee on Spanish Brocade marigold
Wasp on mint blossom
Wasps on fennel inflorescence
Buckwheat, Cleome and Purple Hyacinth Beans
Baby Thai squash
Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon
Eden Gem muskmelon
  1. Do not use any toxic sprays or synthetic chemical on your  organic garden or farmland.
  2. Plant an abundant variety of flowers and herbs to provide nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
  3. Pollinators come in many sizes and shapes so plant flowers of different heights, shape and size to welcome a range of different insects from slow bumble bees to tiny wasps and beautiful showy moths. Some pollinator friendly plants  to consider for your garden.
  4. Plant flowers in clump or swathes so they are easier for the pollinators to find and create areas for resting and nesting.
  5. Plant pollinator-friendly trees such as dogwood, cherry, willow and popular to provide both pollen and nectar early in the season when food is hard to come by. Leave some over wintered arugula and  mustard plants in your garden  to flower early in the season.
  6. Start fall seedlings of hardy annuals like sweet peas, feverfew, cilantro, bachelor buttons and Johnny Jump Ups to overwinter well mulched or under row cover. They are additional sources of early season beauty for your garden and food for pollinators.
  7. Another thing to do in the Fall is to leave some areas undisturbed and “natural” as overwintering habitat for beneficial insects.
  8. Make second plantings of quick flowering annuals like cosmos, calendulas, sunflowers and daisies to make a bright late season splash in your garden and provide late season pollen and nectar. Also planting a  bee friendly late summer cover crop of buckwheat can provide flowers in as little as 6 weeks.
  9. Live with some damage on Butterfly Weed and other plants that provide habitat for beautiful butterfly and moth larvae.
  10. Plant native or heirloom flowers with “single” type blossoms, not “doubles”.  They are generally preferred by both pollinators and other beneficial insects.

The great thing about creating a welcoming environment for pollinators is that you also encourage other beneficial insects and create a more balanced and diverse ecology in your garden for birds and bats as well as the smaller insect friends.

Getting back to squash, cucumbers and melons, adequate pollination is a sometimes overlooked but important factors in turning all those lovely yellow flowers into crunchy cucumbers, buttery squash and sweet juicy melons. These crops are easy to grow if you give  attention to the basics of soil, pH, water, and selecting pest- and disease-resistant varieties.  All of these cucurbits prefer a loose, sandy loam, pH of 6.5-7 and an even supply of moisture (1″/week) until the fruit is set.  Grow in raised beds or hills with plenty of compost and other organic matter added especially you have heavy clay soil. Get a soil test and follow recommendation to adjust pH. Melons especially will not produce well below 6pH.

Getting great squash, cucumber and melon harvest also means harvesting the fruit in a timely way. Summer squash and cucumbers are most delicious harvested young and tender, before the seeds form. Winter squash is a storage crop and should be allowed to mature on the vine until the rind is hard enough that it cannot be easily dented by a fingernail. When to harvest melons is complicated. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Vegetable Growing Guides can help.

Even with the best of care squash, cucumbers and melons need active pollinators for the best fruit set and highest fruit quality. A 2010 Wisconsin study showed better quality fruit and a 4x increase in production in pickling cucumber with active pollinators. This agrees with our experience of increased productivity and seed yield. We love it when doing the right thing ( doing the right thing in providing pollinator habitat, pollen and nectar ) gives such sweet results! Squash and cucumber are great but I love melons. Stop by our booth at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville September 13 for a taste of some of our best heirloom melon varieties and dozens of heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well.

What is your favorite cucumber, melon or squash?  Let us know and we’ll put your name in a drawing for a copy of my new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.

Planning and Planting for an Abundant Fall and Winter Harvest

article by Ira Wallace, with Lisa Dermer, photo by Irena Hollowell

Who wouldn’t want a fall garden abundantly producing cabbages, broccoli, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, bok choi, Brussels sprouts, a wide variety of greens, and even peas? The trick to growing a cool season garden, and setting up the fall garden to continue through winter, is planning and preparation.

Check your understanding of cool-season. When grown for fall, many “cool-season” plants actually need to be sown and transplanted in high summer heat, and some as early as June.

Make room! We start our winter crops in August and September, and those plantings will need to supply us through February! We need lots of space for these plantings, so planning ahead is critical.

Below are our tips for getting the most out of your fall garden.

Choosing the Best Fall Crops for Your Garden

Look for storage varieties: these varieties have been bred to be grown in the fall and harvested for winter storage, or left in the ground to be harvested during thaws. Storage tomatoes can be harvested green to ripen slowly wrapped in newspaper in cardboard boxes; storage beets and radishes grow very large and keep well in the ground or root cellar.

Of course, be sure to choose the crops that you and your family enjoy and that are well-suited to your climate!

Calculating Time to Plant or Sow

Calculate back from your average first fall frost date to determine when to plant fall crops. Add 14 days to the listed days to maturity for your variety to account for the “fall effect” of shortening days and cooler temperatures. For plants with a long harvest period, like a broccoli that will make side shoots for 3 weeks after the central crown is gone, add that time in as well. (This may be as long as a month or more.) Add an additional 14 to 28 days if you will be starting transplants from seed, to account for transplant shock and setback.

For us, this means sowing most broccoli and cabbage in late June, with a second sowing 2 weeks later and often a third that we plan to keep growing under row cover until Thanksgiving or later if the weather is with us.

Sowing seedlings in pots or flats for transplanting out later lets you start your fall garden before space is available in your outdoor garden. Use benches or tables high enough off the ground (at least 3 feet) to deter flea beetles or use an enclosed shade structure.

We sow our fall crops in outdoor seedling beds well-supplied with compost in a location shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. The north side of a stand of corn, caged tomatoes or pole bean trellis makes an excellent choice. Outdoor seedling beds should be covered with thin spun polyester row cover or the newer Protek net row cover to guard against flea beetles and other insects. Summer broccoli and cabbage seedlings are ready to transplant in 4 weeks during the summer. Lettuce and Oriental greens in 2-3 weeks.

Making Space in your Summer Garden

Come summer, it can be tempting to fill every inch of the garden with summer tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, and more. But even the most densely planted garden will still afford room to plant fall crops. Summer lettuce, green beans, radishes, greens, and root vegetables all yield space by late summer for the fall garden. Beds that were once filled with spring cool-season crops, like peas and fava beans, often rotate best into fall cool-season crops (if they’re not used for late summer successions). Plan for summer cover crops to be ready to turn under in time for fall crops.

When will each spring and early summer crop be finished harvest? You can calculate using the listed days to maturity, but we find that a mid-point check allows us to adjust for weather, later-than-planned planting, early bolting, or unexpectedly extended harvests.

Preparing the Ground for Fall Crops

Caring for the soil is even more important when growing 2 or 3 crops a year in the same area. Generously add compost and any other needed amendments before planting your fall crops. Keep plants growing fast and reduce risk of disease by providing regular and adequate moisture (at least 1 inch each week).

Season Extension

If you’ll be planting in cold frames, under row cover, or in a greenhouse, you can adjust your average last frost date backwards by two weeks or longer when calculating when to plant fall crops.