Thursday, May 26, 2011

Summer squash and zucchini

One of my favorite veggies and one of the easiest to grow in the southern United States is summer squash. When I think of summer squash I think of two varieties yellow straight neck squash and zucchini (or courgettes if you prefer). Both belong to the family cucurbita pepo along with pumpkins,  spaghetti, butternut, and acorn squash.  Yellow straight neck squash are said to taste best when about five to six inches long, it likes hot weather and full sun and needs to to well watered on a schedule. If either type gets un-regular watering it will make the fruit suffer. It is best to water consistently in the early to mid morning or early evening (3:30 ish is when I water mine) if you drown it sometimes and let it dry out others your plant will more than likely not produce or produce poor quality fruit. Zucchini are the same as yellow squash in their water and light requirements but size wise are a bit different they can grow to be a meter in length but are best when they are half that size.  

Both have edible flowers which I have heard taste much like the fruits themselves only more mildly flavored they are most commonly fried in fritters or tempura fried and used as a garnish to a dish containing the fruits of the plant. They are commonly eaten in soups and quesadillas in Mexico.  Zucchini like all summer squash has it's cultivation roots in America but the common variety of zucchini that you see being grown today was breed and cultivated in Italy after its discovery in the new world. Zucchini and squash should be stored no longer than three days in the crisper other wise it will suffer from cold damage losing part of its water content and creating sunken pits in the fruits. Zucchini is Britain's 10th favorite vegetable, in Mexico the flowers are preferred over the fruits, in Italy it is usually breaded and fried and the flowers are fried and called flor de calabaza, in the southern US you will most commonly see it cooked in a iron skillet with a bit of pork (bacon, fat back, ham bits) and a bit of water and sweated onions, it was a stable of our diet growing up. In France it is a key ingredient in ratatoullie. In Turkey they make it into pancakes that are served savory fried in olive oil with yogurt dipping sauce. In Levant it is stuffed with minced meat and rice and herbs and eaten as a main dish. In Egypt they cook it in tomato sauce with garlic and onions. Anyway you slice it Zucchini and squash are delicious.

  It is easy to grow in temperate climates but does suffer from some problems. One is insufficient pollination in places where there is a lot of spraying for mosquitoes or near a lot of farms you may not have enough pollinators to handle all the plants. You can tell if this is an issue if you get fruit coming on and then wilting half way through. You can hand pollinate (an electric toothbrush or other vibrating thing works well) or increase your bee population by getting a small hive from your local bee keeper. Another problem plants in this family have (esp yellow squash and pumpkins) in the squash bug, creative name right? It is a small grey brown bug in the coreidae family. They attach themselves to the undersides of leaves and suck the juices out of the plant. They like to crawl down off the plant in the night and shelter under boards or thick leaves (think magnolia) and this is one way you can trap them place boards under the plants and in the early morning right before dawn turn the boards over and smash the bugs. I have not had any (knock one wood) in my garden yet but I would imagine one of the pepper/garlic sprays I have mentioned before would make the plant taste bad to them and make them move along. You can also use organic, vegetable safe, insecticide purchased from your local big box store. Another big problem you can have with this type of plant is the squash vine borer. I just lost a plant to this stupid little grub. The way to tell f you have one is you will notice your plant wilting in direct sunlight even if it has water, if you look at the base of the plant there will be either a small hole, split, or yellowish orange colored frass (excrement) that can be dry and look like sawdust or can be wet and mucky. If you see these signs you have a problem. There are a couple things you can do if it is in the stem of a leaf (the stems are hallow shine a light on them at night and you can see the bug through the stem as a dark spot) you can cut off the leaf stem with the bug in it and drown it. It is is in the main stem you can make a small slit in the stem and pull out the insect and drown it, rinse the stem after words to remove the frass and pack dirt around the hole and water well, if it is higher up the stem and you can't pack dirt rinse and tie a piece of pantyhose loosely around the hole. You can also try a non-cutting method of burying the stem up past where you think the bug is water well and wait for it to root when it does gently dig it out and cut off the end where the bug is. Some people also take a bit of sharp wire or a toothpick and stab it through the plant and the bug and leave it in there and bury the area over with dirt. In any of these cases make sure to water throughly and fertilize a couple days after to increase the chance of saving the plant.  All of these are a fifty fifty shot. If done gently and well you might save your plant and your harvest. Or you can scrap the whole lot of plants cutting off the buggy bits and composting the rest of the plant and till the whole area and re-plant depending on what time of the season it is you may be to late to harvest you may not, they may still be laying (the moth that makes the grub that is) or their peak season may be over.  Some people use floating row covers until their hollow vine plants flower and they say the moth season is over by then. Some people swear by tin foil placed at the bottom of the plant to confuse the bugs into not laying on that plant. If you decide to use a pesticide organic or not make sure to ONLY spray the bottom of the plant stem or in the case of squash bugs the underside of the leaves. Anything sprayed on the flowers or fruits will either kill or dissuade pollinators from coming to your plants and you won't have any fruit that way either! Good luck with your squash plants. Last night my husband picked all of the vine borers out of our infected plants and rinsed and packed them with dirt I  will update you in a few days about how these plants and this method faired. 

Antique plate of the cucurbita family. 

Squash bugs 

Squash vine borers, note the oddly colored frass in the vine. 

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