How to Grow and Cook Summer Squash

In this edition of The Gardener’s Table, learn delicious ways to cook summer squash, plus get tips for growing squash — from familiar squashes, such as zucchini and yellow squash, to more exotic squashes, such as ‘Zucchetta Rampicante’ — in your summer garden.

| June/July 2014

Summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) is the first fruiting vegetable to appear in the summer garden, long before the first tomato is ripe. Maybe by August the squash will seem ordinary, but now — with squash blossoms sounding their golden trumpets — the season has officially begun. The flowers held aloft on a slender stem are male. The female ones look similar, but at their base there is a small bump that will, in a few days, become a delicious little squash — ready to pick.

Summer squash takes varied forms, from the standard green zucchini to the bright yellow squash (crookneck or straight); from round ones, such as ‘Ronde de Nice,’ to flat, scalloped pattypan. Most grow on large, bushy plants; exceptions include the heirloom Italian “trombone” squash (such as ‘Zucchetta Rampicante’), which trails on long vines and has a denser texture. All squash types are mild-tasting, which, on the one hand, makes them non-threatening to those put off by strong vegetable flavors, but on the other hand, issues a call to action for the creative cook. When I cook summer squash, I rely on its light background flavor to overlay with the more complex notes of herbs.

As luck would have it, early summer heralds the best time in the herb garden — when foliage is at its freshest, the essential oils that give herbs their flavors are the most powerful, and flowers for garnishing often bloom. Perennial herbs, such as sage, tarragon and thyme, and annuals, such as dill and parsley, will spark up squash dishes.

Tips for Growing Summer Squash

Choose a sunny site where cucurbits, such as squash, cucumbers and melons, have not grown recently. Hungry squash plants prefer fertile soil rich in organic matter. When the soil has warmed to at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit, sow three seeds each in hills spaced 3 feet apart. When seedlings emerge, thin to one.

Keep the bed weed-free by cultivating shallowly with a hoe while the plants are growing. Later, the large leaves will shade out most weeds. 

Unlike hard-skinned winter squash, summer squash can be enjoyed before they’ve reached full maturity, and can be harvested at any size, from a few inches long to more than a foot in length. But the fruits go from tiny to enormous in a flash, so if you’re after squash that are, say, 6 inches or smaller — when they are especially lovely and tender — you’ll need to check the plants daily to catch fruits at just the right moment. Harvesting squash often will also spur the plants to continue to produce fruit. The formation of squash monsters, which can grow unnoticed beneath the giant leaves, makes a plant less productive, so keep up with the picking!

5/27/2014 10:19:18 PM

Can't wait for the soil to arm up to get my zuchini seeds in the ground. We use zucchini relish in our potatoe salad, make dehydrated zucchini chips, and not to mention zucchini bread. Ahhh… So much to do with zucchini!

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