Cucurbits are members of the Cucurbitaceae family and are home to some of the most popular garden crops in the world. This article will dive into the three main categories of cucurbit crops: cucumber, melon, and squash. Each one of these categories could become a book unto itself and we only touch on the subcategories of each. For general growing information on cucurbits check out Katie Parker’s article How to Grow Cucurbits that goes into spacing, maintenance, fertility, and harvest.
Does anyone remember when they learned pickles are just preserved cucumbers? I don’t recall my specific moment of cucumber epiphany, but it sure is fun to tell kids their favorite pickled snack is actually the cucumbers many of them turn their nose up to when it is on their plate.
Most gardeners’ exposure to cucumbers begins as growing them to eat raw in salads or sandwiches. Depending on what your culinary destination is, you can select either slicing cucumbers (raw) or pickling cucumber types.
Cucumbers could be considered a subgroup of squash, but because this group is so popular and robust in the gardening world, we separate them in their own category. Cucumbers are warm-season crops and will grow best during the summer months. While cucurbits as a group are often referred to as vining crops, there are cucumber varieties that are bush-type and are suited to smaller garden spaces. However, many delicious cucumbers are vining-types, putting on substantial growth and require some type of trellising system.
Some cucumbers are marketed as ‘burpless’. These tend to have few to no seeds and the skin is typically thinner. Some individuals are thought to react to cucurbitacin, a compound found in the seeds and skin, by producing excess gas and ‘burping’ after eating the fruits.
Recommended cucumber varieties are divided into three groups:
Long Green Slicing
- Burpless (hybrid - 62 days to harvest; the original sweet, long, Chinese-type hybrid; does well on a trellis)
- Marketmore 76 (68 days; very uniform, dark green, straight fruit; multiple disease resistance)
- Straight 8 (58 days; AAS winner; long-time favorite; excellent flavor; evenly dark green fruit)
Long Green Slicing (compact plant)
- Bush Crop (55 days to harvest; delicious; 6-8 inch fruit on dwarf, bushy plants)
- Fanfare (hybrid - 63 days; AAS winner; great taste; high yield; extended harvest; disease resistant)
- Salad Bush (hybrid - 57 days; AAS winner; uniform 8-inch fruit on compact plants; tolerant to a wide variety of diseases
- Bush Pickle (48 days to harvest; compact plant; good for container growing)
- Carolina (Hybrid - 49 days; straight, blocky fruits with white spines; medium-sized plant with good vigor; disease resistant)
When harvesting pickled cucumber-types should be picked every day so they can retain an adequate size for pickling. Slicing cucumbers can be harvested as needed. Often it is recommended to pick slicing cucumbers when they are under eight inches long. Refer to your seed packet for specific variety recommendations. Leaving cucumbers on the plant too long produces tough, bitter fruit. Mature cucumbers turn yellow. Make sure to remove over-ripe fruit as they will halt fruit production on the plant completely.
Many seed companies, growers, and researchers divide melons into two groups –muskmelons (i.e. cantaloupe) and watermelon.
Like so many terms in the dialog war of grocers versus botanists, there is another bout of confusion. Often people will use the term muskmelon and cantaloupe interchangeably. Technically, muskmelon is a generic term that includes the traditional netted cantaloupes, as well as the smooth skin types such as Honeydew, Casaba, and Crenshaw. In other words, all cantaloupes are muskmelons but not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.
Often thought of as an iconic American crop, watermelons are far more popular in other countries around the world. Traditional watermelon varieties are large (25 pound+), oblong-shaped, fruits. These often have black seeds in the pink to red interior flesh. These seeds are what most kids remember about their youth, spitting seeds out in the grass as they chomp down on a sugary watermelon slice as juice runs down their chin. Modern breeding has shifted much of that iconic watermelon image. Most newer varieties are seedless, more rounded than oblong, and smaller. The rinds of watermelon vary from green to yellow to nearly black. Many of these newer watermelon varieties even boast sweeter flavor. However, many consumers still prefer the image of watermelons from their youth.
Melons as a group are warm season, I’d even say hot season, crops. They perform best during the hot days of summer. Adequate moisture is critical. A drip irrigation system set on a recurring timer is ideal to provide enough water to produce these large fruits. However, too much moisture can also become an issue. Excessive moisture can lead to waterlogged fruit that diminishes the sweet flavor and splits the rind.
Knowing when to harvest muskmelons has visual and scent cues. When muskmelons are ripe, the rind changes from a green to tan or yellow between the netting. They should be picked when the stem slips (separates) easily from the vine near the point of attachment ("half-slip" or "full-slip" stages of development). At these stages, there will be a crack near the point of attachment. The muskmelon will also develop a “musky” smell. Hence the name. Do not pick too early because the quality will not be as high as that of vine-ripened melons; sugars continue to be stored in the developing melons up to the moment the stem separates. Once picked, muskmelons soften but do not sweeten further. Mammal pests of the four-legged or two-legged type can be pests of the nearly ripe fruit. Some types of physical exclusion devices may need to be devised to keep unwanted guests from reaping the benefits of your hard work.
Many home gardeners have trouble determining when watermelons are ripe. Thumping a watermelon is not a great method to determine ripeness. The following indicators are useful for knowing when a watermelon is ready to harvest:
- Light green, curly tendrils on the stem near the point of attachment of the melon usually turn brown and dry
- The surface color of the fruit turns dull
- The skin becomes resistant to penetration by the thumbnail and is rough to the touch
- The bottom of the melon (where it lies on the soil) turns from light green to a yellowish color.
Like muskmelons, watermelons only ripen on the vine. Once they are cut, they do not continue to ripen or increase their sugar content. That’s why it is always best to pick watermelon at the height of ripeness.
Recommended watermelon varieties are divided into three groups:
Early (70 to 75 days to harvest)
- Golden Crown (red flesh, green skin; skin turns yellow when ripe)
- Sugar Baby (red flesh, 6 to 10 pounds)
- Yellow Baby (hybrid-yellow flesh, 6 to 10 pounds)
- Yellow Doll (hybrid-yellow flesh, 6 to 10 pounds)
Main Season (80 to 85 days)
- Charleston Gray (red, 20 to 25 pounds)
- Crimson Sweet (red, 20 to 25 pounds)
- Madera (hybrid-red, 14 to 22 pounds)
- Parker (hybrid-red, 22 to 25 pounds)
- Sangria (hybrid-red, 22 to 26 pounds)
- Sunny's Pride (hybrid-red, 20 to 22 pounds)
- Sweet Favorite (hybrid-red, 20 pounds)
Seedless (all are triploid hybrids, 80 to 85 days)
- Cotton Candy (red, 15 to 20 pounds)
- Crimson Trio (red, 14 to 16 pounds)
- Honey Heart (yellow flesh, 8 to 10 pounds)
- Jack of Hearts (red, 14 to 18 pounds)
- Nova (red, 15 to 17 pounds)
- Queen of Hearts (red, 12 to 16 pounds)
- Tiffany (red, 14 to 22 pounds)
If you haven’t noticed a theme, yes the cucurbit group known as squash can be divided into two main groupings and then even more below those. When we look at squash we often distinguish between summer and winter squash types. What is the key difference between the two? Summer squash is often harvested as immature fruit. Think zucchini – the small eight-inch-long fruits have far more flavor than the massive baseball bat-sized mature zucchini. Winter squash are harvested when they are mature. Think Jack-o-lantern pumpkins – You wait for the green skin to turn the traditional orange color and the seeds are fully developed inside the fruit.
Very often summer squash grows with a bush-type habit. The skin should be easily pierced by your fingernail to indicate immature fruit and is desirable to harvest. Because we harvest summer squash fruit while it is immature, care should be taken when handling these so as not to damage the fruit. The blossoms of these plants are considered a delicacy when dipped in batter and fried.
Summer squash types and varieties that are recommended for Illinois:
Zucchini (Open Pollinated)
- Black Zucchini (best-known summer squash; greenish-black skin, white flesh)
- Black Beauty (slender, with slight ridges, dark black-green)
- Cocozelle (dark green overlaid with light green stripes; long, very slender fruit)
- Vegetable Marrow White Bush (creamy greenish color, oblong shape)
- Aristocrat (All America Selection winner; waxy; medium green)
- Chefini (AAS winner; glossy, medium-dark green)
- Classic (medium green; compact, open bush)
- Elite (medium green; lustrous sheen; extra early; open plant)
- Embassy (medium green, few spines, high yield)
- President (dark green, light green flecks; upright plant)
- Spineless Beauty (medium-dark green; spineless petioles)
Golden Zucchini (hybrid)
- Gold Rush (AAS winner, deep gold color, superior fruit quality, a zucchini not a straightneck)
- Early Yellow Summer Crookneck (classic open-pollinated crookneck; curved neck; warted; heavy yields)
- Sundance (hybrid; early; bright yellow, smooth skin)
- Early Prolific Straightneck (standard open-pollinated straightneck, light cream color, attractive straight fruit)
- Goldbar (hybrid; golden yellow; upright, open plant)
- White Bush Scallop (old favorite Patty Pan type, very pale green when immature, very tender)
- Peter Pan (hybrid, AAS winner, light green)
- Scallopini (hybrid, AAS winner)
- Sunburst (hybrid, bright yellow, green spot at the blossom end)
- Butter Blossom (an open-pollinated variety selected for its large, firm male blossoms; fruit may be harvested like summer squash, but remove female blossoms for largest supply of male blossoms)
- Gourmet Globe (hybrid; globe-shaped; dark green, with light stripes; delicious)
- Sun Drops (hybrid, creamy yellow, unique oval shape, may be harvested as baby with blossoms attached).
Don’t let the name fool you. Winter squash is a warm-season crop. Traditionally, the fruit of winter squash has been grown for winter storage. Winter squashes are vining plants that typically require lots of space to grow and area suited to large garden areas.
Winter squash is planted in spring, grown most of the summer and the mature fruit is harvested in early autumn before the first frost. When harvesting for storage, avoid damaging the skin and leave two inches of stem attached to the fruit. Damaged winter squash has a shorter storage life. Some types also have shorter or longer storage life. Research your specific type to learn about recommended storage techniques.
When it comes to the winter squash group known as pumpkins, Illinois Extension has a website dedicated to information on growing this popular Illinois crop. (Illinois is the top pumpkin growing state in the United States) Check out Pumpkins and More for more pumpkin growing information.
Acorn (C. Pepo)—80 to 100 days to harvest
- Cream of the Crop (hybrid - All America Selection winner; uniform white acorn type; creamy smooth, tasty flesh)
- Ebony (early; glossy dark green; flaky flesh texture)
- Swan White (OP-creamy white skin; pale yellow flesh; smooth, delicate, sweet flesh)
- Table Ace (hybrid-semi-bush; uniform, near black fruit; excellent, low-fiber flesh)
- Table Gold (OP-compact bush habit, attractive bright golden yellow, may also be harvested as summer squash when light yellow)
- Table King (OP-compact bush; dark green, color holds well)
- Table Queen (OP-standard dark green acorn type)
- Tay-Belle (OP-semi-bush, dark green)
Delicata (C. Pepo)
- Delicata (also known as sweet potato squash; long cylindrical shape; cream color with dark green stripes)
- Honey Boat (shaped like Delicata, tan background with dark green stripes, very sweet flesh)
- Sugar Loaf (tan background, dark green stripes, elongated oval, very sweet)
- Sweet Dumpling (flattened round, fluted; light cream to white background, with dark green stripes)
Spaghetti (C. Pepo)
- Orangetti (hybrid-semi-bush plant, orange version of spaghetti, high in carotene)
- Pasta (yellowish cream fruit, improved flavor)
- Stripetti (hybrid of Spaghetti and Delicata, great taste, stores better)
- Tivoli (hybrid-bush habit; All America Selection winner; light yellow, uniform fruit, 3 to 4 pounds)
- Vegetable Spaghetti (OP-good keeper; light yellow, oblong fruit)
Butternut (C. Mopschata)
- Butterbush (bush habit; early, 1 to 2-pound fruit)
- Early Butternut (hybrid-All America Selection winner, early, medium size, high yield)
- Ponca (extra early, small seed cavity, stores well)
- Puritan (OP-uniform, blocky, smooth, slightly smaller than Waltham)
- Supreme (hybrid-thick neck; early, uniform, sweet)
- Ultra (largest fruit 6 to 10 pounds; good leaf canopy)
- Waltham (OP-uniform, thick-necked, 10 to 12-inch fruits)
- Zenith (hybrid; smooth, attractive fruit; high yield)
True Winter Squash (C. Maxima)
- All Season (bush; orange skin, flesh; 8 or more small fruit per plant)
- Banana (pink, blue or gray; long, slim, pointed at the ends; 10 to 30 pounds)
- Buttercup (dark green fruit with distinct gray cap at blossom end; the standard for fine-grained, sweet flesh; 3 to 4 pounds)
- Delicious (5 to 12 pounds; large, top-shaped, green or gold fruit, smoother than Hubbard)
- Emerald Bush Buttercup (bush habit)
- Honey Delight (hybrid 3 to 4 pounds; buttonless buttercup type; excellent flesh quality)
- Gold Nuggett (5 inch, flattened round; 1 to 2 pounds; orange skin, flesh; bush habit)
- Baby, Blue, Chicago, Golden, Green and Warted Hubbard (large teardrop shape, pointed at ends; warted skin; 8 to 25 pounds)
- Mooregold (bright orange skin, flesh; excellent keeper with tough rind; buttercup type; 2 to 3 pounds)
- Sweet Mama (hybrid-All America Selection winner; semi-vining, buttercup type; uniform; tasty; 2 to 3 pounds)
- Sweet Meat (OP-old time favorite; flattened; slate gray skin; 10 to 15 pounds)
- Red Kuri (OP-bright red-orange; teardrop-shaped; smooth-textured flesh; 3 to 5 pounds)
The primary source for this article is University of Illinois Extension’s website Watch Your Garden Grow. You can look up specific crop growing needs and recommendations, including recipes and storage.
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