Courgettes and squashes are really good fun to grow if you have more than a shoebox of space. Apart from anything else, I love getting so much PLANT from one seed! They are generally easy – even my horticulturally challenged little sister Caroline had roaring success with butternut squash last year! And just a couple of courgette plants will provide enough sweet small courgettes for most families, I reckon. Let’s get started……..
1.Types to Grow
There are dozens of varieties of both courgettes and squashes available. ‘Defender F1’* is a very well-known and reliable variety of courgette – it has AGM after its name given by the Royal Horticultural Society which stands for Award of Garden Merit, and that always means that a plant is a good ‘un. If you’re pushed for space, or intending to grow courgettes in a large container of some kind, ‘Supremo’ and ‘Midnight F1’ are good choices because they are more compact. Or how about courgettes with stripes – ‘Zebra Cross F1’, or bright yellow ones – ‘Parador’, for instance?
There are some really extraordinary and decorative squashes to grow – ‘Turk’s Turban’, ‘Honeybear F1’, ‘Sunburst F1’, ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Hercules F1’………. If you want to grow butternut squashes, but don’t have loads of room, go for ‘Butternut F1’, and for an earlier crop than most try ‘Walnut F1’.
* A little explanation about the term ‘F1’. My other sister Laura (science nerd) will tell you it means when two genetically different parent plants produce a hybrid seed, and as a result, that seed has ‘hybrid vigour’. To most of us it just means there are fewer seeds in the packet and they will be more expensive, but they will be very good at germinating and growing!
2. Seed Sowing
You can sow courgette and squash seeds either outside in late May-early June, where they are to grow, or March-April indoors to be planted out later once the danger of frost is past. Most gardeners grow them in the ground or raised beds but if you are going to grow one in a container (which might allow you to manage its protection a little better if you live in a coldish spot), it needs to be big – 18″ across at the top, at the VERY least, and preferably more – some of these plants can very easily cover a square metre! Having a bit of trellis or a fence and wires for the stems to scramble up might be a space-solution for the bigger squash varieties.
If you are going for the later outside-seed-sowing option, sow the big seeds very sparsely, 1″ deep in good fertilised soil. This is one crop that really appreciates rotted manure, compost, and fertiliser so add plenty of this if you can. It would be worth covering your seeds with upturned jars, or plastic bottles with the bottom cut off to protect them and keep them a bit warmer until they’ve germinated. Once they have sprouted, pull out some to leave the remaining plants about 1m apart.
My preference is always to sow these seeds indoors and not too early, because otherwise they get enormous before the weather is okay for you to plant them outside!
Sow the easy-to-handle big seeds, one each to a small pot, 1/2 inch deep into moist compost. It is a good idea to place the seeds on edge which is one way of preventing them rotting before they’ve germinated. Put the pots on a warm windowsill to germinate. Keep the soil damp but not wet.
3. Growing On and Hardening Off
Once they’ve germinated, courgettes and squashes grow quickly and will need to be put into a larger pot after three weeks or so. A good tip here is to put some compost in a larger pot, use the smaller one that the seedling is still growing in to press down into the compost of the larger one, making a pocket for it. Then carefully tip out the seedling without disturbing its roots and pop it into its new home – lovely! Top up with a bit more compost and off you go again…….
IMPORTANT! Do not put plants that you have grown on indoors on a warm windowsill or greenhouse, straight into the garden when you think the date is about right. The shock of temperature-change will almost certainly kill them. And courgettes and squashes don’t like it cold and wet, at the best of times (I’m with them there. How Caroline copes in Scotland, I’ll never know!)
So during May, put them outside in good weather for longer and longer periods during the day, but bring them in at night. Do this for at least 10 days before you plant them out at least a metre apart in your veg bed or big container or Growbag. Sprinkle some seaweed- or poultry-pellets over the whole area if you can – these are pretty hungry plants.
4. Caring for the Plants
Not only are courgettes and squashes hungry plants, they are also thirsty and need plenty of watering, trying not get the leaves wet. Sinking an empty plastic pot or upturned plastic water bottle with the top cut off, into the ground near to the plants, gives you something to fill each morning or evening, knowing that the water will go straight to the roots.
Watch out for slugs and snails who love to shelter in the dark under the big leaves. They are the reason that our brother likes to grow his courgette plants in big pots, in fact, keeping them a bit safer from these pesky blighters.
As I said earlier, these plants don’t like the cold, and chilly weather may mean that their fruiting gets off to a slow start. You may find the leaves develop white blotches or the first few courgettes that come are a bit mouldy at the tips – I don’t THINK it’s just me! In my experience, neither of these things seem to make much difference to them later on. Take off any mouldy fruits or leaves you see, so that it doesn’t spread, and keep watering the roots!
A high-potash liquid feed such as tomato fertiliser would be deeply appreciated, especially by squash plants.
As they start to develop, it’s a great idea to try and support the courgette or squash fruits off the soil using a layer of straw, if you can, or perhaps a tile. It just makes them less liable to rot and damage.
Once courgettes start to come later in the summer, they come quickly! Do harvest them when they’re are small – 4-6″ (12-15 cm) at most, I would say – and that will keep them producing more. Off three plants last year, we ended up picking them about three times a week! If you leave fruits on to develop into the marrows, the plants will soon think their work is done, and stop producing any fruit at all. Cut the fruits off with a sharp knife rather than pulling them.
Squashes divide into two groups, Summer and Winter, and generally a Summer squash like ‘Sunburst F1’ is harvested when the fruits are quite small, whereas butternut varieties, for instance, which are Winter squashes, are left to develop longer on the plant and picked in autumn, for decoration or storing. With most, it doesn’t make a lot of difference when you pick them, I don’t think – just make sure you do it before the first frost hits!
It’s definitely worth having a go with these big boys of the veg world – you get so much bang for your buck!
If you missed the first seven posts in our Beginners Veg series, you can read them here:
3. Broad beans
7. Salad crops
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