Gardening Tips: Squash, Anyone?

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 20 May 2020, and it’s interesting that Michelle was talking about frost because apparently we’re in for some tonight!


What to do this week

This week is the perfect time to plant squash seeds, and hopefully you will consider starting them in soil blocks. I like using soil blocks for almost everything anyway, but for squash plants it is particularly important because they really, really don’t like their roots being disturbed. No plant likes it much, but squash plants get set back quite a bit. (You can review my instructions on how to make soil blocks in this column.)

Now is the time to start squash because you want them to put on a little bit of growth before you put them out the first week of July. The first of July is well past our last frost date, but the nights in June can still be rather cool. In addition to not liking their roots being disturbed, squash also really hate getting cold. They don’t respond well to anything below 10 degrees. That is why I start them now, but indoors. In Cape Breton we don’t start getting really good weather on a consistent and dependable basis until July. Starting them now will give them a whole extra month or more of being cozy and warm before you put them out.

Zucchini. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

Zucchini. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

When I say squash, that includes cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupe, butternut squash, buttercup squash, zucchini, cousa, etc. These are all in the squash family.

When you are thinking about how many squash plants you should start, remember that most of them, even the bush varieties, take up a lot of space in the garden. Don’t get carried away. Leave room for them. But it is better if you have at least two plants, as squash needs to have the female flower fertilized from the male flower, and is happier still if there is a little cross pollination between at least two, or even a few plants. That makes for healthier and bigger fruit.

If you are trying to maximize your backyard garden space, you may be able to plant some really fast-growing greens, harvest them, lay down compost and plant the squash in July. Just remember to leave enough room. Some squash need 10 square feet for one plant. Even a bush zucchini needs five or six square feet, and not all zucchini are bush variety. Remember to check the packet for that information.

Squash are also very heavy feeders. You could plant them in pure compost (well aged) and they would be happy.

I don’t recommend squash seed saving for urban gardeners. You need to have at least eight plants to maintain strong genetic variation, and the average city garden just doesn’t have room for that. (Also, that is an awful lot of zucchini!) It wouldn’t be too many winter squash, but the space needed for eight plants would be a consideration. Squashes are obligate outcrossers, which means they have to be cross pollinated. If you have too few plants you will get what is called inbreeding depression, sort of the Royal Family syndrome, if we are allowed to make Royal Family jokes these days [Allowed and in fact encouraged — Ed.]. So that is why I don’t recommend seed saving squash on a home garden level. I would say that you would have to be pretty seriously into gardening before you’d start saving squash seeds.

That doesn’t mean you can’t just toast the seeds and enjoy them, but it is a lot of work. Some varieties, called “naked seeded pumpkins,” have seeds like the green ones you buy at the grocery store. They would be worth saving. They don’t have that indigestible hull over the seed. I haven’t had much luck growing them as they require a longer, warmer summer than we tend to get here, but if you would like to try your hand at it look for Lady Godiva, or any squash that is listed as naked seeded.

Squash is one of the three sisters that Six Nations gardeners grew long before Europeans arrived. If you want to follow that tradition, you should plant your corn first, and you could almost plant that now, or soon, then the beans when the corn is 15cm (6 inches) high, and finally the squash. Some people like to plant this way to honor the tradition, or simply to maximize space and resources. The beans, if you select vining varieties, will grow up the corn stocks with no need for poles, and the large squash leaves will help keep the moisture in the soil. If you try this, remember to plant your corn in a block, not in a row. It is wind pollinated and produces better in a block. If you want to be really traditional, according to Six Nations methods, the corn and beans would be planted in little hills about 1 meter (3 feet) apart, three seeds of each in each hill – corn first, then semi-vining beans when the corn reaches that 15cm height. Then you can plant the squash in the spaces in between! Think about it, but get your squash started while you do.





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.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.