GardenSouth

Because all gardening is local

Flower

Archive for the ‘Squash’ Category

Marigold – the miracle plant

I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.

(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)

Bumblebee on marigold

Marigolds are much loved by bumble bees, Melissodes bees, and honey bees, and occasionally visited by other species as well.

DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.

One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.

Root knot nematode symptom on tomato plant

A heavy infestation of root knot nematode on tomato roots will result in many nodes on the roots, and the plant will be severely stunted and unproductive. This pest also affects many other vegetable crops.

 

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

 

Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.

Adult squash bug

Adult squash bug

 

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

 

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves. You can see also a tiny parasitic wasp, which is your friend. It will lay eggs that will hatch and be parasites of the squash bugs.

 

The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.

(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)

DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.

While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.

 

Hints for growing your own

T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.

Saving seeds

To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.

I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.


How I cut my garden weeding to less than 15 minutes per week

Many beginner gardeners start off with a bang and are excited and encouraged when their seeds germinate and their started plants take off and grow. But then the weeds begin to show more vigor than the desired veggies.

Weedy garden

Weeds are about to take this garden.

Even experienced gardeners, who know that you cannot let the weeds even get a couple day’s advantage, sometimes lose the garden to weeds, when there’s several days of rain and it becomes too muddy to get into the garden.

Another weedy garden

You would think a tractor would help - but each pass turns up more weed seeds.

It’s pretty dismaying when you have trouble finding your plants among all the weeds. You can wind up spending many hours of catch-up work, and still find that your plants were severely set back, both by the competition with weeds, and the damage you did to their roots when you pulled up the weeds.

It’s been several years now, since I basically solved the weed problem. Sure, there’s weeds in my garden, but they are few and far between, compared with what they used to be. I find that just a few minutes a week is sufficient to pull up the weeds, and keep my own veggies growing without competition.

There are three basic reasons why the weed problem mostly disappeared:

1. I no longer till my garden. Every time you turn over the earth, you expose new weed seeds to sunlight and air. Weed seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, then suddenly germinate when you’ve given them ideal conditions to grow.

I’ve been able to pretty much eliminate tilling because all my gardening now is in raised beds. I was forced to go to raised beds, because our land is as flat as it can be, and we are subject here in coastal South Carolina to occasional heavy rains. These rains would flood my garden and pretty much spoil it. Few of our garden veggies can stand in water without dying or getting riddled with disease.

The raised beds took a lot of work to set up, but once they are up and running, the work forever afterwards is minimal. I started with a mix of about 40% sandy loam topsoil, 40% well rotted compost, 10% crushed coquina (for lime and minerals), and 10% crushed charcoal (to help prevent leaching when those heavy rains come).

Raised bed garden

Raised beds keep the plants from flooding rains, save my back, and help control weeds. Note how near weed-free the tomatoes in the front are. The middle section has not been planted, while the back is onions from winter.

These raised beds are in production year around. As soon as one crop is finished, I start with another. About the only disturbance to the soil is when I pull a deep rooted plant like tomatoes, or a root veggie like carrots or turnips. With smaller plants like beans or peas, I just snip them at the soil surface and leave the roots in the ground.

Ready to topdress

Asclepias (left) and Borage (right) are ready to topdress with fresh compost. Dwarf French Marigolds are in the cells of the blocks. These flowers among my veggies help to build up pollinator populations as well as other beneficial insects.

Load of compost

Compost is free from the town. It is screened to remove larger chunks that haven't rotted fully, and to separate any trash, which is put into the tin can on the trailer fender.

2. When planting or setting out a new crop, I topdress it with about an inch of fresh compost. This compost has very few weed seeds, as it reaches a high temperature during its formation.

Squash seedlings topdressed

As soon as the seedlings are big enough, I put an inch of compost around them. The compost pile heated up during formation and killed most weed seeds.

My soil remains soft; I can easily plunge my hand up to the wrist into the soil, just by wriggling my fingers and pushing. The soil smells sweet and it’s full of worms and insects, unlike most agricultural soils in the area, which are quite barren of life. I always figure that the worms are tilling the soil for me, as much as it needs and in a very natural way.

Growing squash is nearly weed free.

Growing squash is nearly weed free. The sparse weeds are well behind the squash, because they germinated in the soil and had to break through the compost/mulch.

Topdressed watermelon

Weed suppression is nearly complete around this young watermelon plant. All that's needed is an occasional pulling of a weed or two.

3. I don’t let the weeds go to seed. By having raised beds, I never walk directly on my garden. I have more-or-less permanent walkways between the beds. This means that I can always pull weeds, even if it’s very muddy. The weeds never get a chance to get ahead of me.

I can’t take very much credit for this system of weed supression. Actually it came as a pleasant surprise. And I had to study it a bit to come to an understanding of why there are so few weeds.

Evaluating squash pollination

A critical, but often overlooked or misunderstood part of growing squash is pollination. Some folks have a vague notion that bees are good – that bees have to visit the squash blossoms – and they assume bees will come.

In these days of pollinator decline, this is not a valid assumption. To grow squash sucessfully, one must ensure good pollination. And pollination is not just an on/off switch, where a bee just visits the flower and pollination is accomplished.

Well pollinated squash

A perfect squash resulting from almost every incipient seed fertilized.

Pollination is a progressive thing with any multi-seeded fruit. You can have many stages, from no pollination at all, to full pollination. This is because many grains of pollen must be delivered to the sticky stigma of the female flower – two pollen grains for each incipient seed. And these pollen grains must be evenly spread across the surface of the stigma.

The perfect squash in the photo above results from almost every incipient seed being fertilized. The act of fertilization stimulates the development of the flesh of the fruit.

Female squash blossoms have an ovary – the incipient fruit – at the base of the flower. If no pollen grains are delivered, the ovary will simply shrivel and dry up. If you touch it, it will fall off.

But, if a few grains are delivered, the fruit may actually start to grow. This fools some people into thinking that it’s pollinated.

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

The fruit will stop growing, shrivel up and often rot at the blossom end. This is not blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is a calcium metabolism problem; it shows up in fully-formed fruit; and it is much more common in tomatoes than squash.

There is a fungus involved here, but it is opportunistic; no amount of fungicide will prevent this fruit from aborting.

Poorly pollinated zucchini

Poorly pollinated zucchini: the fruit starts to grow, then shrivels and aborts.

Zucchini (courgette) and other squashes all will exhibit the same kind of response to inadequate pollination.

Let’s suppose a few more incipient seeds are fertilized, but still nowhere near the full quota of seeds. This is what you get:

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

The fruit may actually size up somewhat, but it still will be wrinkled and poor quality. It will also grow much slower than a well pollinated fruit.

Partly and fully pollinated squash

Partly and fully pollinated squash: the upper one did not have enough pollen for fertilization of all the seeds.

The poorly pollinated squash on the top is actually 2 days older than the well pollinated one on the bottom.

When I was in the pollination business, a farmer called me. He was just about in tears. He had planted 75 acres of yellow squash for market. During the winter, he had given me an order for bees to place on the fields, and he gave me the date he expected to need them. But he planted his squash much earlier than planned – taking a risk with frost – but he figured he’d win big if he had the first on the market.

Unfortunately he forgot to call and tell me he needed the bees earlier.  Now his harvest crew was on the first picking, and they were throwing away almost the entire picking. They looked just like the upper squash in the above photo. I went straight to his farm that morning, and bees were notably absent from his fields.

The bees were delivered that night, and the rest of his harvest was very good. The problem: The day of the first picking, there was very little squash on the market – and it was bringing $18 a box. If he’d had a normal picking, it would have brought a small fortune. But the price dropped rapidly, and by the fourth picking only brought him $4 per box. There was no 5th picking, as the market price of $2 a box would not pay the picking cost.

The lesson is clear: we need to pay much more attention to the bees. Pollination is a critical part of growing squash, whether for the garden or the farm. And commercial growers cannot assume wild bees will do the job!

Pollination failure can occasionally happen from a rainy day. In small plantings, you sometimes have crazy plants that have all female and no male flowers. And extreme heat can kill squash pollen. So there are other possible reasons for pollination failure. But persistent pollination problems usually stem from a lack of bees.

In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about the kinds of bees that do squash pollination.

Live and learn department

The squash borers got a couple more squash, including one I had done surgery to, to remove the borer, whom I thought was a loner. But the post mortem revealed that he had four siblings.

Time for emergency surgery!

All of the various squashes are prone to suddenly wilt and die, just when we think we will have a bumper crop. It’s all due to a reddish moth that looks like a wasp to the uninitiated, that has a larva (grub) that eats the inside of the squash stems.

Squash borer adult

Squash borer adult

If you see this mama flitting around your squash, be prepared for trouble!  And you can see that she’s already been there. Note the holes and the damage to the main stem.

Squash borer adult - closeup

Squash borer adult - closeup

She’s not going to hold still very long to get the camera focused, but here you see the coloration that identifies her as an adult squash borer.

Once you see damage on the stems, just above ground level, that plant is not long for the world, unless you intervene. Soon, as it munches away, you will see gelatinous pellets of frass alongside the hole. The larva is growing.

We are going to try to catch this one young. We hope we can save the plant.

Squash borer frass

Squash borer frass

So we will carefully slit the stem, parallel to its length. This won’t hurt the stem, at least not near as much as the borer will!

Careful cut to find squash borer

Careful cut to find squash borer

Found ya! You little parasite!  You are dead meat!

Found squash borer!

Found squash borer!

We’ve saved this plant. Time to cover the wound with some moist soil, so it can heal.

One can try a less intrusive form of surgery by poking a sharp toothpick or a stiff wire straight into the stem every quarter inch or so above the entry hole. But this poses a risk of missing the larva.

Here’s one that was too late to save; the borer has already eaten out all the plant’s plumbing, and has grown to large size.

Squash borer from killed plant

Squash borer from killed plant

The squash borer is a serious pest of all kinds of squashes. Some try to kill it with pesticides, but this is fraught with problems. You must kill the adult in the brief time it comes to lay eggs – or the freshly hatched egg just before it bores into the stem.

Once it is inside the stem, it’s pretty well protected. But using an insecticide on squash that is blooming may contaminate the nectar and pollen that feeds the pollinators. Kill the pollinators – and you bite the hand that feeds you!

So I would personally rule out pesticides for borers. Most years, you can get a harvest before the borers arrive.

Some use aluminum foil around the stem to either confuse or prevent the moth from egg laying. Some wrap the stems in pieces of old pantyhose.

One technique that I have used for vining squash is to cover the stem with dirt every couple feet. The plant will put out new roots at that point. If the main stem is destroyed by a borer, the plant will still live and produce from its alternative roots.

What has worked for you?

You are currently browsing the archives for the Squash category.