We are at the point in the year where activity in the vegetable garden has reached a fever pitch. It is likely to remain busy for some time through the summer. We are actually at a point where we are managing things that are starting to reach maturity while looking forward to the fall.
There’s no better example of this than the squash family — while you may have summer squash and zucchini preparing to mature, it is time to cast an eye toward fall and plant pumpkins.
First is a look forward to fall: Even though we haven’t even officially kicked off summer (by the calendar, the temperatures say otherwise), now is the time to think about planting pumpkins and other winter squashes.
While we don’t typically even think about this vined fruit until the weather cools and October knocks on the door (or when “pumpkin spice” everything shows up at the store and the coffee shop), it takes a good few months to grow a pumpkin from seed. Now is the time to get those pumpkin seeds in the ground for an on-time autumn arrival.
There are a few simple things to remember with pumpkins. First is deciding what to do with them.
If you want them for eating (pies, roasting, soups), plant pie pumpkins. These are smaller pumpkins with more intense flavor and sweetness. Jack-o’-lantern varieties are good for carving or even just setting around for fall decorations, but they lack the flavor of pie pumpkins.
Second, know that they take up a lot of space. And I mean a lot. A regular size pumpkin vine can stretch up to 5 feet in multiple directions. It takes a good size space to grow them.
Smaller and mini pumpkins don’t take up quite as much room. You also get a relatively small number of pumpkins per vine, sometimes only two or three — so choose wisely.
Other than checking for pests and treating them (downy mildew, insects), pumpkins are pretty low-maintenance. They are almost like a “set it and forget it” kind of crop, as if they were developed by Ron Popeil, king of kitchen gadgets himself. It is one of the things we tell teachers to plant in their school gardens at the end of school to “over-summer” the beds. Pumpkins will be setting in the garden when the kids come back.
Squelching squash villains
Turning our attention back to summer squashes such as zucchini, yellow squash and delicata, now is the time to be on the lookout for serious enemies to your squash vines — squash vine borer and cucumber beetles.
These pests can make it all but impossible to grow squashes in the summer. The squash vine borer is a moth that looks like a wasp. The female lays its eggs at the base of a squash plant, where they bore into the vine after they hatch. The borer causes so much internal damage that the plant finally succumbs to the injury and dies. The female is generally laying her eggs starting in mid-June and for about six weeks afterward.
The cucumber beetle is another story altogether. This pest feeds on the leaf of the plant, but that doesn’t cause most of the damage. The beetle can be a carrier for a bacterium that makes plants wilt and die almost overnight.
Once infected, there isn’t anything to do for the plant that will save it or even extend its life. The only thing to do is quickly remove it and destroy it to keep more disease from spreading. This beetle also affects, as you can probably guess, cucumbers.
These pests can be hard to manage because you have to prevent them and not treat them (even one bite from a cucumber beetle can be deadly). So in this case, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Both insects usually become active in early to mid-June and will remain active for at least six weeks. This gives us a few options for control.
While most people plant squash early, you can also plant it late. If you have had issues with either of these pests in the past, you can wait until late in July or even early August to plant your squash (or cucumbers). Just look at the days to maturity and make sure you have enough time to get squash before frost.
If you do have squash planted early in the season, keeping a floating row cover over them can limit pest access to the plant. You’ll need to remove the row cover when the squash starts blooming so bees can pollinate them. Even if the plants are affected at this point (at least by the borer), you can get a pretty good harvest before the plants expire.
You can also do preventative pesticide sprays while the pests are active to deter them from the plants. For the borers, an application of insecticide on the base of the stem is usually sufficient. For cucumber beetles, you’ll need to do a full foliar spray. You can use any insecticide approved for use in the vegetable garden (read the label) for general insect control or for these specific pests.
For those wanting an organic option, the organic pyrethrum or spinosad may offer control for either pest. Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) preparations may help with the borer. Some sources state that wrapping the vine at the base of squash plants may prevent the female from laying the borer eggs on the squash vine.
If you are too late to stop the borer from entering your plant, some sources say that you can perform minor surgery on your plant to try and save it. Cut a slit above the borer site and extract the borer manually. Just be prepared — it definitely has a face only a mother borer could love.