Gardening Tips: Zuke, Alors!

What to do this week

The weather is still far from warm and settled and like the rest of Nova Scotia I am waiting on the apple blossoms to start planting my warm weather crops like beans, potatoes and tomatoes. Ideally, the blossoms will give us our marching orders when the nights are more consistently 10C or above. One crop that should be held back even longer is the squash family or cucurbits. In Cape Breton I don’t plant these out until the beginning of July. I may get away without them getting frosted before then, but these heat-loving plants will just sit and pout, suffering from a host of cold-stress related diseases, if the weather is too cool. They are also more susceptible, in their weakened state, to predation by cucumber beetles. But to wait so long to plant them risks our short season nailing them at the other end. What to do?

Butternut squash Photo: nociveglia CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

My solution is to start them right about now in big 3” soil blocks. I’ve written about soil blocks before in this column, but for cucurbits especially, this strategy shines. For one thing, these plants really dislike having their roots disturbed. No plant likes it, but squashes and cucumbers will often droop precipitously and never fully recover from the shock. A soil block is easily placed with minimal harm to the roots. Some people use peat pots, which can work if soil moisture is consistently wet, but if the top of the pot protrudes or dries out, they will actually strangle the plant’s roots as they contract. Squashes are heavy feeders so make the block mixture heavier on the compost. Starting in blocks now will give you a whole month head start on the season.

Another way that delaying starts will put you ahead is avoiding the first generation of cucumber beetles. With climate change we are starting to see more incursions of this pest in Nova Scotia. They tend to emerge around the beginning to the middle of June so if you delay planting your cucumbers, melons and squashes, you can often avoid them altogether. They also prefer the newly emerged seedlings so the odds are that the sturdy transplants from the greenhouse can handle a few nibbles here and there. If you have experienced more serious outbreaks in the past, you can try trapping the beetles in mid to late June by placing yellow plastic rectangles covered in Tangletrap around your garden. To the squash beetles, these look like the biggest, tastiest leaves to munch on. Be sure to remove them by the second week in July so that you don’t inadvertently trap the pollinators you need to produce the cucumbers.

The squash family produces male and female flowers separately on its plants. You can tell the female flowers because they have a little embryonic squash or cucumber at their base. You need pollinators to move the pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers in order for the plant to set fruit. The plants put a whole bunch of male flowers out first to attract a community of pollinators before they start to put out the more energy-intensive female flowers. This strategy co-evolved with insects, especially squash bees that nest in soil around their base, to maximize their reproductive success. We don’t see squash bees here in Cape Breton, but our other wild pollinators like the bumble and halictine bees appreciate the buffet just the same and will happily stick around to do the job instead. In the middle of a warm day in July, I can hear the happy buzzing in the squash bed from a hundred feet away. Many of these bees nest in burrows in not-quite bare soil or in occasionally mowed areas like road sides or paths so once again I exhort you to refrain from keeping a too-tidy garden and let some areas go slightly scruffy.

Zucchini flower photo by net_efekt CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As I said earlier, the squash family are heavy feeders. If you can, make sure you dig in a bunch of well-finished compost around the plants when you set them out next month. Top dress them with more compost when you think of it during the summer. They are very shallow rooted and this will not only feed them but alleviate moisture stress, to which they are very susceptible. The leaves will sometimes droop in the middle of the day to slow moisture loss and perk up in the evening. I have too large a bed to water seriously, but if you are able and willing to water, make sure you direct the stream towards the roots and avoid dampening the leaves. This will help prevent the problem of fungal diseases squashes are prone to.

Many people already have their standard varieties of cucurbits that they plant each year but I like to encourage trying different things. A Straight Eight or Marketmore cucumber is all very well, but try some of the mid-eastern varieties of cucumbers, like Diva or Super Zagross. Thin-skinned and less bitter than their American sisters, they are eaten when small and are eye-opening delicious. If zucchini strikes you as bland, try the favourite Lebanese Cousa, also called white marrow or Costata Romanesco, which has a dense, nutty flavor. Or try some of the more unusual winter squashes like Japanese Black Futsu or Red Kuri. Of course, if you want to save seeds of a cucurbit, you either have to tape the blossoms and pollinate with a paintbrush, or ensure that each variety of a species is separated by half a mile or one kilometer. Those pollinators fly, you know. But more on that another time!




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.