Cucumbers, squash, melons, gourds and pumpkins are all members of the squash family, and although they are very different vegetables their culture is very similar. The plants are generally grown in mounds and send out vines that run over the ground. Some varieties come in bush or compact strains that don't require much space. If you are very short on space, you can grow vine crops on trellises. Heavy vine crops like pumpkins and melons can be grown on a sturdy trellis, although you may will need to support the heavy fruit with slings fastened to the trellis.
Vine crops resist transplanting, so it's best to sow outdoors when all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Temperatures should not dip below 60 degrees. If you need a head start, try starting seeds in fiber pots that will allow you to transplant without disturbing the seeds, or start early outdoors under hot caps. Remember to check hotcaps every day to be sure they aren't getting too hot. On warm days, remove them for several hours.
Prepare a slightly raised mound of soil 1-2 feet in diameter, leaving 3 feet (more for pumpkins and most winter squash) between mounds for the vines to run. Depending on your soil quality, it may be a good idea to mix a shovel full of well-rotted manure in with the soil a few inches below ground larvae and then build the mound up on top of it. Space the plants evenly around the mound at least 6 inches apart. Thin to one or two plants per mound.
Watering and Weeding
Water deeply once a week if there is no rain. Avoid wetting the leaves since this encourages disease. Cultivate soil lightly to keep weeds down until the plants are big enough to shade them out. A mulch of hay between the mounds helps to retain water, keep down weeds and keep fruit clean and dry.
It's best to buy or build a trellis that you can use year after year. Install your trellis on or before planting day to avoid injuring roots later on. Place it at a slight slant so that winds push your vines onto the trellis, not away from it. The plants will have an easier time climbing a slanted trellis. You will have to guide the plants up the trellis and sometimes tie vines to it. Heavy fruit need additional support. Trellised vines will need more water than those left to run along the ground.
There is always open soil on the back side of the trellis early in the season. This is a good spot for a quick crop of greens or lettuce.
Side-dress when the vines begin to blossom. To side-dress, place about a tablespoon of 5-10-10 fertilizer in a band 3-4 inches from the stems of the plants. Cover the fertilizer with soil so that leaves don't land on it and get burned. As always, try to find a good organic fertilizer.
Pests and Disease
Striped and Spotted Cucumber Beetle
The worst pests of vine crops are the striped and spotted cucumber beetles. They are about 1/4 inch long and can ruin a crop. They will tunnel underground to go after germinating seeds before the sprouts can push through the soil. They can nearly strip grown plants overnight. Besides chewing up your crops, they also spread bacterial wilt and cucumber mosaic virus. Check the underside of leaves for bright yellow beetles with three broad black stripes or greenish-yellow ones with 11 large black spots.
Discourage these destructive pests by interpolating with catnip, tansy, marigolds, radishes and goldenrod. Spray with a mixture of equal parts of wood ashes and dehydrated lime mixed with water. Make sure you get the undersides of the foliage. Juice geranium stalks in the blender for an effective weapon against "Stripes".
Squash Vine Borer
The adult is an elusive red and black moth with clear red wings. It may look like an oversized hornet. Larvae are ugly, wrinkled white, caterpillars with brown heads that grow to about an inch in length. They bore into the stem at the base and feed off the tender insides. The eggs are flat brown circles about 1/10 inch across attached to stems at the base of the host.
The destructive phase of this insect is the larvae, which typically attack in July. You may want to try timing your to miss the July onslaught. Keep old vines cleaned up and scrape off and destroy eggs. Radishes interplanted in hills of the garden targets help repel vine borers, as do wood ashes, camphor and black pepper sprinkled around potential egg laying sites. To remove the larvae from the stem, split the vines with a razor blade at the entrance hole and gorge them out or stab them to death. Heap moist soil over the plant wounds to aid healing and rooting. To exclude the insects, place foil collars around base of the stem or wrap pantyhose around the lower part of the stems.
Butternut squash is the most resistant to this insect.
Mature adults are dark brown, 5/8 inch long, with flat backs and long legs and antennae and piercing mouth parts. Nymphs are pale green with a reddish head and legs. Eggs are shiny gold when laid, changing to red-brown. Look for them around the center leaf vein. They feed by piercing the plant tissue and sucking out the sap, and they look for dark, damp hiding places. Young plants are easily killed by these bugs, while older plants will suffer wilting leaves than eventually blacken and die.
Keep the garden clean and free of dead plants. Try starting your plants indoors so that they are large and healthy when transplanted. Interplant with radishes, tansy, marigolds and nasturtiums to repel the bugs. Trellising gets the foliage off the ground, reducing the number of dark, damp hiding places. Catch and kill as many as you can by dropping them in a can of liquid parafin. Leave a board near the plants for the bugs to hide under, them stomp on the hiding bugs regularly.
Resistant varieties include Table Queen, Royal Acorn, Early Golden Bush Scallop, Early Summer Crookneck, Early Prolific Straightneck and Improved Green Hubbard squash.
A good way to prevent disease, besides stopping the cucumber beetle, is to select disease-resistant varieties. Normal gardening cleanup practices are a must. If you notice a diseased plant, pull it to keep the disease from spreading to healthy plants. Diseases move quickly among vine crops, especially cucumbers, and speed up in wet weather.
Want to try Vine Crops in Containers?
Bush varieties typically require less space. Bush zucchini is an excellent choice.
Is It Ripe Yet?
It's sometimes hard to tell if your melons are ripe, but here are a few guidelines:
- The part of the melon that touches the ground will turn light straw or yellow in color.
- The surface of the melon begins to feel rough.
- The little piece of stem that attaches to the vine turns brown and dries up. In some varieties this change occurs about a week before the melon is ripe.
- According to Mark Twain, a green melon says pink when thumped, while a ripe one says punk.