Is Growing Squash Right
For My Edible Landscape?

It sure can be! Growing squash is easy if you know how.

There are two kinds: bush squash and vine squash. If you don't want vines spreading all over your garden, plant a bush variety like zucchini (most families only need one -- they can be very prolific!).

If you prefer vines (for example, you want squash blossoms and leaves to cover a wall or fence) then pick a vining variety like butternut.

Thicker-skinned squash like pumpkin and acorn squash are known as winter squash, since they keep well in storage, while thin-skinned, delicate squash like zucchini and crookneck squash are called summer squash.

Winter squash takes longer to mature, around 80 days as compared to 50 days for summer squash -- the larger the variety, the longer it takes to mature.

Handy facts about growing squash

  • Plant type: Annual (frost-tender)
  • Plant size: 3x3x2 feet/1x1x0.6 meters (bush); vining varieties can go hundreds of feet/meters!
  • Edible parts: Fruit, flowers, seeds (winter squash)
  • Fruit color: Varies from white to orange to deep green to dark blue depending on variety
  • Flower color(s): bright yellow
  • Stem color(s): yellowish green
  • Leaf color(s): Medium green
  • Leaf type: Large, triangular
  • USDA zones: 4-12
  • Likes: Full sun, rich soil
  • Dislikes: soggy soil, drought, poor soil
  • Uses: Low flowering shrub (bush squash), ornamental fruits, trellises, wall/fence cover and arbors (vining squash), container gardening (bush squash)

How to grow squash

For bush squashes, plant three seeds together, then keep the best seedling. The other two should be cut off with a pair of sharp scissors and discarded. For vining squashes, plant five seeds together then keep the best three seedlings. Soaking seeds the night before you plant will help them germinate better.

If your soil doesn't drain well, planting the seeds in a "hill" and giving the plants plenty of room for air circulation helps keep away fungal diseases. If you live in a very dry area, try planting in a hollow so the plant is slightly below ground level, so any rain that you do get can collect there. Mulch is also helpful in very dry areas to keep soil moisture up.

When the growing squash seedlings have their first set of leaves at least one inch above the ground you can start pushing soil up around the stems, always leaving an inch between the ground and that first set of leaves. This will encourage new root growth and a stronger plant.

Growing squash needs full sun, rich garden soil, and lots of fertilizer and water. It's important to water deeply and regularly, as irregular watering can cause unusually small fruit. Mulching will help to keep down weeds (compost can be used as mulch, to feed at the same time). Add more compost as a side dressing about halfway through your squash's growing season.

Train vines while very young to go in the direction you want them to and trim off vines that go in directions you don't want them to. Cut vines will sometimes root when placed in soil and begin growing new plants.

Squash has male and female blossoms on the same plant. Female blossoms have a small green squash right below where the petals join. Male blossoms usually appear on the growing squash plant before female blossoms do. Sometimes a few male blossoms will drop off before female blossoms even form, which is normal.

Male blossoms pollinate female ones with the help of insects such as bees and wasps. If your area is short on these insects (which can happen if your neighbors spray a lot of insecticides), female blossoms and their small fruit will wither and drop off. You can help your plants along by taking a Q-tip and removing some of the male blossom's pollen and putting it in the female blossom.

Male squash blossoms are quite tasty dipped in batter and deep-fried. Female blossoms should be left on the vine to make more squash!

Once the growing squash starts to enlarge, keep it off the ground, either by putting it on something (a brick, tile, or a decorated plank can work) or by using clear netting if you're training the plant up on a fence. This will help keep it away from insects and dampness, which can cause the fruit to rot. Be very careful not to damage the stem when moving the fruit -- if the stem is damaged, the fruit will die.

Growing summer squash

Summer squash can be planted from seed or transplants two to three weeks after the last expected frost for your area in the spring, and again every four weeks for a staggered harvest. Transplants can be started indoors four weeks before your last average frost date.

If you do use transplants, add compost or aged manure in the hole when planting to give your growing squash plant an extra snack.

Summer squash can be very prolific! Once the plant becomes a month old, check the plant every day for new squash, as once summer squash matures it gets tough and doesn't taste very good.

Long types should be harvested at around 5 inches long, round and scallop types when they are about four inches across. They will keep about a week in the refrigerator and should not be washed until ready to use.

Growing winter squash

Winter squash is grown much the same way as summer squash, except that the growing squash is left on the vine until its skin becomes hard, usually at least 80-100 days. Often, the stems and vines will have dried up and turned hard by this time. Test the squash with your thumbnail -- if the rind is hard and not easily dented, the squash is ready to harvest.

Harvest by cutting the vine 2-3 inches above the top of the squash. Sometimes this requires using a lopper, depending on the size of the vine!

Winter squashes require curing before you can store them. Either place them in the sun for a week or put them in a dark, humid place at 80-85F for ten days. After curing, store your winter squash at 50-60F in a dry dark place and it should keep 5-6 months. Any winter squashes with soft skin should be cooked right away as they won't keep.

Don't let squash stay outside in a hard freeze as it will damage the fruit.

Dealing with squash insects and diseases

If you find that your squash seedlings are cut off at ground level, you have a cutworm problem. These can be found just under the soil and look like curled up greenish-gray caterpillars. The way to outsmart them is to make a paper or metal ring about 2-3 inches wide and put it around your seedling, sticking it into the soil. Cutworms can't get to the plant to eat it!

Squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and squash borers love to eat your growing squash plants. Check your squash daily and look for unexplained wilting or visible striped beetles. Hand pick and destroy beetles or squirt them away with the hose.

Sometimes leaves or vines will wilt if not watered enough. If a growing squash vine wilts for no reason, look for a small hole in the stem; squash borers burrow into the vine and eat from the inside. Cut into the stem to remove the borer then bury the vine to encourage roots to grow from there if the vine is salvageable.

One trick to keep pests away from your growing squash plants is to plant as early in the season as you can and use floating row covers over young squash plants until they bloom. By then they're strong enough to withstand the hungriest beetle.

Keep the garden free of debris, keep water off the foliage, and don't handle plants or pick squash when the plant is wet. Also keep the tools you use around the plants or to harvest squash clean. This will prevent the spread of illnesses such as bacterial wilt, powdery mildew, and mosaic virus.

If plants suddenly wilt right as they produce, curl under, turn a mottled yellow, or the leaves turn gray-white, remove the plant and destroy it so it doesn't infect the other plants.

Blossom end rot is a problem where the squash rots from the blossom end. This happens when plants aren't watered regularly. Mulch around plants can help to keep the soil moist so this doesn't happen.

The best way to prevent disease in squash is to never plant squash where you planted squash, melons or cucumbers the year before, to use varieties resistant to disease, and to allow plenty of room for air circulation.

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