By Grant McCarty
Local Foods and Small Farms Educator, University of Illinois Extension
Along with the solanaceous family of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, the cucurbitaceous family holds many of the quintessential summer vegetables. Cucurbits, as they are known, include yellow squash, zucchini, winter squash, watermelon, and cucumber. This family also includes the fall crops of pumpkins and gourds.
All of these having vining characteristics meaning that if I am going to plant them I need to be mindful of the spacing requirements. For instance, pumpkin and watermelon may need 8-to-10 feet between plants. Some growers design trellis systems for their cucurbits to climb up on. This allows for a better insect pest control, gets the fruit off the ground, and allows you the ability to reduce the footprint of these vining crops. A plastic netting spread between two wooden stakes can give support to the plant. You’ll need to continually train the vine to wrap into the netting.
Cucurbits do well as direct seeded although some growers will start the seeds indoors a couple weeks then transplant into the garden. Starting them earlier allows for extra growth than waiting on the seed to germinate into potentially colder soil. Summer squash and zucchini have either large orange and yellow blossoms that are edible. These can be fried, stuffed, or eaten raw.
If you decide you want to pick them from your plants, you want to remove the male flowers. To know which ones these are, you’ll look behind each flower to see if there is a small fruit developing. If there isn’t a small fruit, then this is a male flower and can be removed. If you remove the female flower then you won’t have a squash or zucchini from that flower.
Like all other vegetables, cucurbits are susceptible to diseases and insect pests. Downy and powdery mildew both can cause considerable leaf tissue damage on the plants although some plants such as cucumber may be more susceptible than others. With insects, striped and spotted cucumber beetles and squash bugs are the main insect pests we deal with in cucurbits. Even with these insects and disease, cucurbits grow very well in our region and depending on the season, can be prolific in yields. Next week, I’ll talk more about cucurbits’ diseases and insect pests.