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Summer Squash

There are many varieties of squash that we can grow in our gardens, everything from acorn squash to pumpkins, but crookneck, or summer squash has to be one of my favorites.

I love the cheery yellow flowers that brighten up my vegetable garden and how they eventually turn into the delicious vegetable that makes a great addition to my summertime meals.

Summer squash thrives in warm temperatures and should be sowed about 4 weeks after the last frost date in your area. The large seeds will sprout quickly, so you can plant them directly in the garden. For successful germination the soil temperature should be about 62 degrees F. People who live where summer temperatures often extend into fall can sow a second crop in mid-July or early August.

You can get a jump-start by planting seedlings, but be aware that squash resents being transplanted, so be gentle with the roots and retain as much of the root ball as possible. If you start your own seeds indoors use a peat or newspaper container. These containers will break down in the soil over time so the entire thing can be planted without disturbing the roots. If you are using peat containers, soak them in water and remove the bottoms before planting them in the garden. It is also important to know that squash roots grow fast and furious. Be sure to get your seedlings transplanted soon after the second set of leaves appears so that the roots don't become crowded.

Unless you have a lot of mouths to feed, you don't need to grow many plants to produce enough squash for your family. I have made the mistake of planting too much and ended the season with more than I could give away. One or two plants are plenty for a 4 person family.

Summer squash prefers nutrient rich, well-drained soil. Prepare your beds before planting with a generous amount of compost or well-rotted manure and an application of an all-purpose fertilizer such as 13-13-13.

Summer squash grows on a bush type plant rather than a vine as with pumpkins or winter squash, which means it takes up less room in the garden. Seeds should be sown about 24 inches apart and 1 inch deep in mounds of soil that are spaced about 2 to 4 feet apart. You can sow 3 or 4 seeds per mound, but once the plants start to take off (2 to 3 inches high) thin to 1 or 2 plants.

For a good yield it is important to give squash consistent moisture at all stages of growth.

Squash have 2 kinds of flowers, one that produces pollen (male) and one that produces fruit (female). It is necessary for the male flower to pollinate the female for squash to develop. Male flowers usually appear first, with the female following, so don't panic if, initially, the flowers don't set fruit.

You can distinguish the female from the male in that the female flowers have a stocky center and an immature squash at the base.

If you are using floating row covers to protect your plants from insects, remove them at the first sign of a female flower so that bees and other beneficial insects can help in the pollination.

The rule of thumb is that once planted, squash requires about 50 to 65 days to produce edible fruit. And summer squash ripens very fast; about 5 to 7 days are all it takes for a flower to transform into a fruit ready for harvest. Gather squash when they are young and tender. Old, large fruits with tough skins should be removed from the vine and thrown away. This will encourage more flowers and fruit.

For the best flavor eat your summer squash within a few days after harvesting. It will keep in a plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator for about 1 week.