Many of us have already planted our summer and winter squash seeds. The Vegetable Planting Guide for Brazos County (www.brazosmg.com/pdf/vegetable-planting-guide-for-brazos-county.pdf) lists mid-March as the earliest planting date for both summer and winter squash and mid-June as the latest planting date. But we've had a few cold snaps lately, so if your seeds haven't germinated 14 days after planting, consider setting new seed and then thinning if more than three seeds per hill emerge.
We can plant both summer and winter squash at the same time, but summer squash will begin bearing 40-50 days after planting and is best eaten within 10 days of harvest, while winter squash will bear after 80-110 days, and can be stored for a few months in a cool, dry location.
Varieties: If you like squash, try planting both the summer and winter varieties. Some of the most celebrated types of summer squash can be grown in crookneck, scallop, papaya and tube shapes. A yellow straight neck variety, Zephyr (54 days), is an especially beautiful and prolific bush variety with a 2-inch pale green skirt and a pale yellow body, best harvested at 4-6 inches. Sunburst (50-55 days), also a bush variety, has a scallop shape and a deep yellow color; these are best harvested at 3-inches across. Zucchini, a subgroup of summer squash, is usually (but not always) green in color, grows (usually) in a tubular shape, and is also best harvested when young. A small, round zucchini, Eight Ball (55 days) is a vining variety with runners extending 48-60 inches with small, 3-4-inch fruits suited for cutting and sautéing or stuffing and baking.
AAS (All-American Selection) winter squashes include a bush acorn type, Honey Bear (100 days), with fruits sized at one pound. It's won the AAS distinction in part because it has resistance to powdery mildew, a scourge of winter squashes.
The old favorite of the butternut squash lovers, Waltham, has a vining growth habit, tan skin and a deep orange flesh. Its fruits average 9-inches long and weigh 4-5 pounds. The sweet flavor of the flesh improves after two months of storage. A Kabocha winter squash, Sunshine (95 days) also produces vines 6-8 feet long. Sunshine has been judged superior to other varieties of Kabocha for its flavor and heavy bearing.
Planting and growing: Squashes prefer warm soil (70 degrees) amended with compost. Build up hills from the soil about 2 feet in diameter and 6-8 inches high; pat them firmly to avoid erosion and dig a moat around the base of each hill.
Level the top of the hill so it can catch water and rain. Plant 4 or 5 seeds 1-inch deep in the top of each hill. Space the hills 2-feet apart in rows 3-feet apart for compact or bushy plants. If you're planting vining varieties, space the hills 4-feet apart in rows 8-feet apart. Gently water the hills after planting. After the seeds appear, thin them to three per hill and give them a starter solution of fish emulsion and seaweed concentrate. Water at least once a week in the absence of rain. When the first blooms appear, feed again with the fish/seaweed mixture.
Pests: This is where growing squash becomes tricky here in Central Texas. Two pests will come after your squash plants -- the squash vine borer and the squash bug.
The borer first appears as a beautiful gray and burnt orange moth. She flutters around the plant and then lowers herself down to where the stems meet the soil and deposits her eggs. When the larvae hatch, they will burrow into the stem of the plant, leaving behind a yellowish frass that looks like sawdust. They will eat their way through the plant's stems, weakening the plant sometimes to the point of complete collapse.
The gardener must be on the lookout for the moth and for signs of the larvaes' entrance (there may be several inside the plant). If the larvae appear to be tunneling inside the plant's stems, the gardener has two options: perform surgery and/or inject that part of the stem with liquid Bt (bacillus thuringiensis, sometimes sold as "Dipel").
Take a sharp knife and very carefully make a 2-inch or larger slit in the stem where the worm seems to be tunneling. Carefully force open the slit stem to get a view of the larva. If you see it, impale it on the end of the knife. If you don't see it, use a syringe to inject liquid Bt into the slit in hopes that the worm will ingest it. Don't forget to cover the incision with soil after the surgery, ensuring that the new soil makes contact with the ground.
A less violent approach is to mix up a small batch of liquid Bt and spray the plants' stems where they meet the soil once you've seen the moth near the plants. Repeat this every few days and after a rain for two or three weeks. Another option is to wrap all of the stems that touch soil with aluminum foil to create a barrier against the larvae. Yes, these are all major efforts, but then young succulent squash is worth it.
The second formidable enemy of your squash harvest is the squash bug. The adults are flat bodied, large insects 5/8-inch long. You may first encounter them as eggs -- vivid yellowish to bronze elliptical clusters often laid on the underside of the squash plant's leaves where the veins form a V shape. They can also be laid more singly on stems. It's a good idea to turn over and examine a sampling of the undersides of leaves each week. Once hatched, the nymphs are a grayish-blue color.
The adults use their piercing sucking mouthparts to suck the sap out of the leaves, causing yellow spots that eventually turn brown. The good news is that, unlike cucumber beetles, squash bugs don't spread diseases. Control these pests when the squash plants are young and when they are flowering. Identifying and drowning the nymphs is the gardener's best chance, as adult squash bugs are difficult to kill. Scout the plants once a week and squash clusters of eggs found on the leaves or stems. Visit the plants early in the day when the pests are sluggish. Bring a pail of soapy water and knock off the nymphs and adults into the water. Keep plant debris removed from the garden. Insecticides aren't usually required, but if you do spray, be sure to do so early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid killing bees.
When I grew up in Northern California, any old gardener could produce more squash than they could give away. Here, we have to work for our squash, but that makes it all the sweeter.