How to grow squash
by Tom Moggach
credit: Tom Moggach
Few fruit and vegetables are as fun to grow as the diverse squash family, with its kaleidoscopic range of shapes and colours.
For me, they are a must on your plot – whatever the size. And now is the time to select the perfect varieties for the season ahead.
It’s true that larger squashes demand plenty of space, but it’s perfectly possible to grow them on smaller urban plots too.
Balconies and patios are both ideal spots, providing you choose the right plants and growing techniques.
But first, it’s important to make the distinction between summer and winter squashes. The first type, which includes courgettes, has a thin skin and matures much faster than the thicker-skinned winter squashes.
They are best eaten within a week or two, while winter squashes can happily be stored right through the colder months.
Below, you’ll find all the advice you need on growing the plants, along with cooking ideas for your harvest. But first a note on getting your plot ready.
Choose a spot
You’ll need a space on your plot that’s large enough for at least two squash plants – this is to ensure successful pollination.
Bees and other insects travel between squashes’ male and female flowers so maximising the number of blooms open at any one time will significantly increase the pollination success rate.
Allow about a square metre for each plant. In small spaces such as balconies, assess if you’ll be able to grow the plants vertically, training them upwards – this is the most efficient use of space.
I’ve grown squashes up and around windows, over arches or along balcony railings. This technique suits varieties such as ‘Rolet’, ‘Munchkin’ and ‘Tromboncino’ (see below).
If vertical growing is not practical in your small space, choose compact varieties of summer squash such as courgettes or patty pans.
In back gardens, patios and other larger plots, decide if you’re going to allow the plants to sprawl. Left unchecked, they can scramble across several metres but you can restrict this by trailing the vines in a spiral.
Alternatively, use wigwams, netting or trellis to direct the plants upwards.
Squashes are large, hungry plants, so the easiest way to grow them is in the ground, in fertile soil enriched with plenty of organic matter.
If growing in containers use the largest possible: pots should be at least 30cm deep and 70cm in diameter. Grow bags will also work for courgettes and the small squash varieties.
For an early start indoors, sow two seeds per small pot in late April and leave to germinate in a warm spot (around 20°C). Remove the weakest plant at seedling stage.
Move to a bigger pot when necessary before hardening off and planting out in early summer. Alternatively, sow direct outdoors from late May.
Preparing the soil or compost
Squashes are hungry plants. Add plenty of well-rotted manure, garden compost or other organic matter and create a low mound in which to plant the seedling. With containers, also use a liquid feed once the plants are established.
- ‘Tromboncino’. An Italian variety, with long, curved fruit. A good choice for vertical growing.
- Patty Pan. An unusual-shaped fruit akin to a scallop shell. Available in both yellow and white.
- Among courgette types, ‘Romanesco’ is a traditional, ridged fruit with a fine flavour. ‘Tondo di Nizza’ is a round courgette, best harvested at the size of a tennis ball.
- ‘Rolet’. A tasty small variety – ideal for vertical growing.
- ‘Munchkin’. A small squash that’s well-suited to compact spaces. Each fruit is just the right size for a single serving.
- ‘Sweet Dumpling’. A little larger, bearing striped fruit with excellent flavour.
- ‘Hokkaido’. A large squash, popular inJapan, with excellent flavour and storage potential.
- ‘Crown Prince.’ A pale blue squash with delicious sweet flesh.
- Summer squashes are excellent eaten raw when they’re young and crunchy. Try shaving into ribbons with a grater or mandolin, then dressing with a lemony vinaigrette. Or slice into thin discs and serve with a grind of black pepper, crumbled goats’ cheese, and a sprinkle of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
- Stuff the flowers with mozzarella and anchovies or with ricotta cheese, lemon zest and mint, before frying until crisp.
- Don’t waste the seeds of larger squashes: rinse them, then spread them on an oiled baking tray and roast on a low heat for ten minutes or until dry. Then dry roast them in a frying pan, with no oil, until they start to colour. Add a splash of water, salt and any spices you fancy.
- Chop into crescents then rub the flesh with oil and spices such as chilli flakes, cardamom or cinnamon before roasting in a medium hot oven until soft and caramelised.
- Steam chunks of squash and then mash with feta cheese or grated fresh ginger and butter.
By Tom Moggach, author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City’ (Kyle Books, £16.99).