Plants in the Cucurbit family are some of our absolute favourite to grow! These are the Squash, Melons, Zucchini, Pumpkins, Gourds & Cucumbers. Their fruits are all so uniquely beautiful & versatile. Melons & Cucumbers are sweet & refreshing. Zucchinis & Summer Squash just keep growing & growing. Gourds provide all sorts of creative inspiration. Pumpkins & Winter Squash are the nutrient dense powerhouses that feed you all Winter long.
To boot, these plants are all so incredibly generous! Anyone who's ever grown a zucchini or cucumber plant knows that, once Summer gets rolling, you've got to get creative with recipes, lest you become buried in them!
We know that some folks shy away from growing these wonderful crops. While it's true that these are "heavy feeders" & "need a lot of water", they are actually pretty easy to grow & are some of the highest reward crops you can plant. With this article we want to help you get the most from your pumpkin / cucumber patches & fall for the Cucurbit family just like we have. 💚
WHAT ARE CUCURBITS ANYWAY?
These are all the plants in the Gourd Family. These are plants like:
As you can see, this plant family is beautifully diverse, BUT what it takes to grow them well is more or less the same across the board. So, let's dive in!
How & When to Plant Cucurbits
These are all frost sensitive plants & cannot handle any cold temperatures. Because of this many people start them indoors, about 4 weeks before the last expected frost. This however is not actually necessary unless you have an extremely short season (thinking of NFLD & mountain towns). In most of the country, you can direct sow these seeds as soon as all risk of frost has passed & the soil has warmed. Because BOTH methods are equally common & successful, we'll touch on them both.
Starting Seeds Indoors For Transplants
- Use a triple-mix potting soil & hydrate it before planting
- You can use traditional trays/pots OR repurpose food packaging (Milk cartons, frozen fruit bags, clam shell salad packaging. Just poke holes for excess water to flow out.)
- Plant 1 seed per small container or 1 seed per 4 inches in larger containers
- Keep well watered in a sunny spot
- Bottom heat & grow lights can speed up germination
- Don't let plant babies get root bound! If they are out-growing their pot & it's still too cold outside, repot them in more soil, in a larger vessel.
- If they start to form flowers while still inside, pinch off buds to encourage green growth.
- Harden off & plant out after all risk of frost has passed.
- Transplant out into squash mounds or raised beds. (more on this later)
- For best results, space plants at 1 -2 feet.
* For more information on hardening off transplants, check out our article Caring For & Planting Transplants.
Direct Seeding In Late Spring / Early Summer
- Wait for all risk of frost to have passed.
- Wait for soil to dry & warm up after Spring thaw.
- Sow seeds 1/2 - 1 inch deep in squash mounds or raised beds (more on this later)
- For best results, space seeds at 1 - 2 feet.
Soil Prep, Squash Mounds & Trellising
We've said it before & we'll say it again: The best thing you can do to encourage healthy plants & tasty, bountiful crops is to grow them in bio-available, nutrient dense soil. This is especially true for the Cucurbit family. It's true, these prolific plants are heavy feeders & require lots of nutrition to support long vines & in many cases, large meaty fruit!
Beefing up your garden in the Fall is by far the best way to do this, however, we know that Autumn is a busy time for gardeners & that this doesn't always happen... Luckily this can be done in the Spring too!
Before planting in Spring, build up the soil in your gardens with lots of organic matter. Compost, aged manure or pelletized chicken manure, rain-rinsed seaweed, crushed shellfish or alfalfa (meal or pellets) are some of our favourite soil amendments. For best results, use all of the above!
*Note about manure: Fresh manure may be okay to add in the Fall as it will rot over the winter. Adding fresh manure in Spring will burn plants & likely introduce pathogenic microbes that could make you & your family sick. When choosing manure, we recommend chicken, goat, cow & sheep manure. Because horses have less complicated digestive tracts, horse manure often contains viable seeds & can introduce weeds to your garden. Only use well rotted horse manure; aged a number of years!
It is often recommended to grow squash & pumpkins in soil hills or mounds. This originates in the Haudenosaunee tradition of Three Sisters Gardening. The mounded Earth provides soft soil for the roots to grow in, increases surfaces area, thereby maximizing nutrient uptake & when done properly, mounds with a lip around the edge will direct water down towards the roots.
We have seen so many failed attempts at growing squash in mounds & it really comes down to the size of the hill you create. Little 1 foot piles really don't cut it! This just creates a situation where the soil moisture dries up quickly; the exact opposite of what needs to happen!
We recommend making mounds that are 1 ft high & 2 - 3 ft wide, with plants spaced at 1 - 2 feet. This is a great way to grow Pumpkins, Winter Squash & Melons. If squash mounds aren't your thing, the same can be achieved in raised beds.
* A note about spacing: If you plant your seeds or transplants too close together, each plant will be competing with its neighbour for water & nutrients. Providing optimal spacing for each plant will result in bigger, tastier & more plentiful crops. It will also enable plants to grow strong & resilient in the face of pests & disease!
Some crops, like Cucumbers, Cantaloupes & Gourds do really well when trained to grow on a trellis. This not essential, but can make harvesting easier & conserve space in smaller gardens. There is also something so satisfying about tending to vining plants every few days & encouraging them to take on one direction or another.
There are many designs for trellises out there. The important thing to remember is that it needs to be strong enough to support both the vines & the fruit as it grows.
YOU'VE PLANTED YOUR SEEDS OR TRANSPLANTS. WHAT NOW?
At a glance, weeding can seem daunting, but if you get a handle on things in the beginning, weeding can end up being pretty manageable for the rest of the season, especially with Cucurbits.
Do a good, thorough weed in the beginning of the season. Pair this with plenty of water & good soil nutrition & your Squash, Watermelon, Pumpkin plants will out-compete the weeds easily! Healthy root systems & larger shadowy leaves will keep most weeds under control.
In the early days after planting you'll mainly have slugs & cutworm to contend with. More on that in our article Caring For & Planting Transplants. (This matters for direct seeded cucurbits too!)
Later in the season, the two main critters you'll have to watch out for are Squash Bugs & Cucumber Beetle.
For us, Squash Bugs tend to arrive around mid-late June, but this could differ from region to region.
- Squash bugs live around the base of Cucurbit plants & lay their eggs on the underside of leaves.
- They thrive by sucking the juices out of the stems. This can really hinder growth!
- You can prevent Squash Bug infestations by covering plants with row cover before they show up.
- If you already have Squash Bugs, the best course of action is to remove the bugs & squish all the eggs before they can hatch!
Cucumber Beetles can be devastating for backyard gardeners & homesteaders!
- Cucumber Beetles themselves eat holes in leaves & stems, while their larvae attack the roots of the plant. This severely weakens plants AND to top it all off, Cucumber Beetles spread pathogenic bacteria that often finish the plants off. Yuck!
- Cucumber beetles over Winter in soil, so crop rotation can help to prevent infestations.
- Row cover can help hide plants from Cucumber Beetles.
- If you already have Cucumber Beetles, the best course of action is to meticulously pick them off before they do too much damage & reproduce. Many gardeners take great joy in vacuuming them up!
Maintaining Moisture & Soil Nutrition
This really is the underlying key to success with Cucurbits. When they have adequate nutrients & water, they will out compete the weeds, thrive in the face of pests & disease & produce masses of fruit!
In addition to prepping your garden soil before transplanting (as talked about above), side-dressing with powdered kelp, alfalfa meal & pelletized chicken manure a couple of times over the Summer to keep your beds going strong. Deep, even watering, will give your garden the moisture it needs to thrive. This is best done in the evening to avoid sunburnt leaves.
The ideal time for harvesting differs for each of these crops. Here is a quick breakdown:
Cucumber: Mid-Summer onward. Harvest cukes when they are firm, bright in colour & a good size. As cucumbers get bigger, their skin becomes thick & the seeds start to get bigger than you'd want for snacking. Also, harvest first thing in the morning to minimize any bitterness.
Zucchini: Mid-Summer & onward. Smooth-skinned zucchini varieties are at their best around 6-8 inches, while ribbed varieties are still delicious at around 10-12 inches. Like cucumber, the bigger they get, the thicker their skin becomes. Zucchinis are so productive that finding some overgrown monsters is inevitable. You can use these for main course stuffed zucchini dishes or they work shredded in zucchini loaf & cake.
Summer Squash: Mid-Summer & onward. These are similar to zucchinis.
Winter Squash: Mid-Late Fall. These take a long time to ripen, but it is well worth the wait. Nothing feels better than heading into Winter with a pantry FULL of beautiful Squash & Pumpkins. As far as when they should be picked, their colour will let you know. Around ripeness, the leaves will begin to yellow & droop. The big thing with harvesting squash for Winter storage is to not let them get frosted, as this will shorten their shelf life.
Pumpkin: Mid-Late Fall. Same as Winter Squash.
Melons: Late-Summer / Early Fall. Fully ripe, fresh off the vine melons are AMAZING! For watermelons, they should sound hollow when you knock on them. For cantaloupes, the flower-end should be slightly soft, right on the button. Like cumbers, harvest first thing in the morning to maximize sweetness!
Gourds: Mid-Late Fall. For decorative Autumn gourds, pick them when you're ready to decorate. For luffas, let the shells get brown & harvest when the gourds become nice & light. The same goes for birdhouse gourd; just make sure the shell is nice & hard.
Well... There you have it! If you have any questions, we always love hearing from you. And We also love seeing pictures of your gardens! Happy planting! xox