Cucurbits, which include squash, cucumbers, gourds, watermelons, and cantaloupes, are some of the most popular vegetables planted in the garden. Plants in the cucurbit family have similar growth habit and requirements for production. Cucurbits are best identified by their prostrate, vining growth; large, lobed leaves; and bright, yellow flowers.
Cucurbits are warm season crops that grow best when day and night temperatures are above 50F. These plants should be planted in full sun and in an area of well-drained soil with a pH around 7.0. It is best to plant cucurbits once the soil temperature has reached 60F, or once the last spring frost has passed. With most cucurbit species, planting seeds in a hill is the best method which allows for better drainage and warmer soil temperatures. To form a hill, mound soil in a low, broad hill about 8 to 10 inches tall. It is recommended to plant 4 to 6 seeds per hill to ensure germination; once the seedlings develop 2-3 leaves, the plants in the hill can be thinned to 2-3 plants. Transplants are also an option for cucurbits, but again, it is important to transplant the plants when the soil temperatures are above 60F. These plants also do not like to have their roots disturbed, so it is best to purchase or start plants in individual containers.
Being deep rooted, cucurbits only require about 1 inch of water a week. Often in the Midwest, plants receive required water through rainfall; however, during dry times, it is best to water in the morning or early afternoon to allow the foliage to dry and to prevent foliar diseases.
As for fertilization, cucurbits require low nitrogen and high phosphorus and potassium for good fruit development. If your soil test suggests a need for phosphorus or potassium, a complete fertilizer such as 6-10-10 or similar analysis can be used at 1 or 2 tablespoons per hill prior to planting. Over fertilization can result in excessive vine growth and limited fruit production. Bush or dwarf varieties require less fertilization.
Traditionally, cucurbits can take up quite a bit of space in the garden due to their vining nature; however, new dwarf or bush types are available for gardeners with limited space. Another option to control the amount of space these plants take up is by trellising the plants.
Most varieties in the cucurbit family produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers emerge prior to female flowers; with the female flowers being identifiable by a small embryonic fruit between the stem and the blossom. Insects; mainly honeybees, are necessary for pollination and fruit set; low insect activity can result in poor fruit set.
There are varying times to harvest different types of cucurbits. It is best to harvest cucumbers before they become too large and mature. For summer squash such as zucchini, fruits 6 inches long are considered the best quality. Winter squash and pumpkins are best harvested when the skin is hardened and cannot be penetrated by a thumbnail. Watermelons can be determined by a yellow color where the fruit rests on the ground, or by thumping the fruit and listening for a dull sound rather than ringing. When cantaloupes are ripe, they will slip easily from the vine. As cantaloupes ripen, they will also change from a grayish green to yellowish.
Now for a cucurbit joke.
Cantaloupe tonight; dad has the car!
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