PLUS: Dealing with Cucumber and Squash Pest Problems
Welcome to Week 8 of Crop of the Week. Today, we’ll talk about growing cucurbits, which are pumpkins and summer and winter squash, including zucchini, acorn and butternut squash, plus cucumbers.
I’ll give you some growing tips, but what I want to primarily deal with are three of the most obnoxious pests of these crops, and give you some interesting, innovative, and, most importantly, organic ways to deal with them.
Ooooh, and I have a special treat for you (especially if you love pickles), but you’ll have to read to the bottom for that!
If you’re new around here, you may have missed the first 7 installments of Crop of the Week, but don’t worry, you can find them here: Peas, Beets, Potatoes, Salad Crops, Brassicas (cabbage family crops), Raspberries, and Beans. Don’t forget that if you’re an email subscriber, growing and care cheat sheets for all the crops are available for FREE in the Resource Library. You can sign up here. No spam, ever, just goodies!
Pre-Planting and Planting
Squash and cucumbers LOVE rich soil, so be really generous with the compost before planting. I just got done harvesting compost from my worm composter (you can read all about my worm composting adventures here and here), so I turned that compost in to the two rows where my cukes are going this year.
Any type of squash does just fine planted directly from seed in the garden after danger of last frost. Because squash of all types are very frost-sensitive, waiting a week or two after your last expected frost is a very good idea.
I do start my squash indoors about a month ahead of my last frost date, and that’s also an option. Just be sure to acclimate them to the outdoors before planting so they don’t get sunburned or shocked by changes in temperature.
I’ve also recently found out that you can plant the squash plants deeper than they were in the pots, much like you can with tomatoes. I’ve never tried this before, but will be giving it a shot this year. I’ll update on my Facebook page here with results, so be sure to like my page to stay in the know!
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Summer and winter squash do best when planted in soil that’s at least 60F, while cucumbers like it a little warmer, approximately 70F. If you don’t want to take any chances, you can find a good quality soil thermometer here.
You may want to consider laying black plastic on the soil before planting your cucumbers to increase soil temps, but only if you live in the North. Although I’ve never done this with cucumbers, I have with sweet potatoes. It’s quite simple, here’s how:
Take one of those heavy black contractor bags, cut the seam so the bag is only one layer thick and lay it on the ground, putting soil or mulch over top to keep it from blowing away. Then cut holes where you want your plants, and plant them right through the holes. Be sure to make the holes big enough that you can water if needed. That’s it! Super simple.
Plant squash and cucumber seeds 1/2 to 1″ deep and approximately 6 inches apart. The authorities say to thin to 1 1/2 to 3 feet apart, but I have to admit that I don’t do that. I don’t have the space to grow them so far apart, so I grow vining varieties and haven’t had any problems with them being approximately 6 inches apart.
My only exception to this is my zucchini. Because they are a bush variety, I keep them 1 1/2 to 2 feet apart to give them room to grow. This year, I’m growing Cocozelle zucchini and also a round variety, Ronde de Nice, which is new to me. Should be fun!
By the way, two cucumber varieties I absolutely love, both for fresh eating and pickling, are Suyo Long and Poona Kheera. Although the Poona Kheeras do look “seedy”, they’re really delicious. I’ve even missed a few on the plants and they’ve gotten quite large, and they were still yummy. I’m also going to try Endeavour and Marketmore 76 this year, but I’ve never grown them before so can’t speak to their quality (YET!).
Care in the Garden
Squash and cucumbers don’t require a lot of care in the garden, but there are a few things to do.
Because squash fruits contain so much water, be sure they are receiving adequate water each week. If the rain isn’t coming, supplemental water is crucial. Just be sure to water from below and not wet the leaves, as squash can be susceptible to several fungal diseases that are spread easily via water on the leaves.
Compost and Mulch
I know you incorporated compost into the soil before planting (right?), but side dressing with compost, or watering with compost tea as the first fruits begin to set is a good idea.
Remember, the richer the soil, the better.
Once the plants are up and growing, add a nice thick layer of mulch, preferably straw or grass.
Keep the Fruits off the Ground
If you’re growing your squash and cucumbers on trellises, keeping the fruit off the ground isn’t an issue.
Oh, by the way, if you need DIY trellis plans, sign up for my email list and you’ll get instant access to them in the Resource Library. The plans are suitable for people with minimal woodworking skills and can be made in just a few hours. I’ve used my trellises for beans, peas, and cucumbers so far, and they’ve worked beautifully.
It’s not as important to keep zucchini and cucumbers off the ground as they won’t be growing very long before you pick them (although growing them up a trellis is advised for good air circulation), but winter squash is another story. As winter squash takes the entire summer to mature, you want to be sure to have either a nice thick bed of mulch under the fruits or to place a board or flat rock under them. This will keep them from rotting.
Harvest and Storage
You’ll want to harvest your summer squash and zucchini regularly and while they’re fairly small. PLEASE, by all that is holy, DON’T leave your zucchini on the plant until it resembles a baseball bat! They don’t taste good at that stage, and the plant will put so much energy into just a few large fruits that your harvest will suffer.
Plus, if just one fruit gets to the point where the seeds have matured completely, that vine or plant will completely stop producing fruit.
As for winter squash, such as butternut, acorn and pumpkins, you’ll be leaving them on the vine for the entire summer. When you have trouble denting the rind of your squash with your fingernail, it’s ready to be picked.
NOTE: DO NOT leave winter squash on the vine if a hard frost threatens. You must harvest before frost or fruit quality will suffer and they won’t keep as well.
You’ll want to cure your winter squash in the sun until the stems turn gray. Acorn squash is the exception as it doesn’t have to be cured. They should be stored at roughly 45-50F and 65-70% humidity and will keep for months this way.
Pests and Diseases
As with most plants, the best way to avoid diseases in your cucumbers and squash are to plant resistant varieties, keep your plants healthy with adequate nutrition and water, space them adequately so airflow is maximized, and practice good cleanup techniques at the end of the season.
The worst thing you can do is leave old plants or vines in the garden over the winter. Not only does this encourage disease problems, it gives pests (which we’ll talk about in a minute) a lovely, warm home in the cold months. NOT something you want!
Cucurbits can be susceptible to anthracnose, bacterial wilt, downy and powdery mildew and mosaic virus.
Anthracnose, powdery and downy mildews are all soil-borne diseases, so as mentioned, good garden cleanup will go a long way towards avoiding these. Good crop rotation practices, where you don’t grow cucurbit crops in the same area more than once every 2 to 3 years, will also help greatly.
I did end up with downy mildew on my zucchini last summer and it eventually killed the plants, but we had a ridiculously wet and humid summer, so I wasn’t surprised.
I just found a completely natural spray for powdery or downy mildew. I haven’t tried it personally (YET!), but it won’t harm pollinators, and my very own alma mater, the University of CT, did a study that showed it worked, so it’s definitely worth a try. Just mix 1 oz powdered milk to 2 liters of water and spray on your plants twice a week. My guess is that this is more effective when infestations aren’t too great, so I would start it as soon as any mildew is seen.
Bacterial wilt and mosaic virus are both spread by insects, so controlling them (as we’ll talk about below) will go a long way towards preventing these diseases.
These guys are elongated yellowish-green beetles and have either black spots or stripes. The easiest way to deal with them is simply to hand pick and drown the little buggers. You can also try planting radishes close to your cucumbers as a trap crop for them.
Bacterial wilt and mosaic virus are both spread by cucumber beetles, so you definitely want to keep on top of controlling them. Really, though, they’re the easiest of the three main cucurbit pests to deal with.
Squash Vine Borers
I DO NOT like squash vine borers. Although in theory they don’t like butternut or acorn squash, the ones in my garden didn’t get the memo last year. Besides the fact that they messed with my butternut and acorn squash, THEY’RE GROSS! They supposedly really like hubbard squash, pumpkins and zucchini, but my zucchini weren’t bothered at all. Go figure!
Most experts agree that the best way to deal with squash vine borers is to use floating row covers on your squash plants until they begin to blossom. I have to admit (because I’m not gonna lie to you!), that I’ve had real trouble keeping my row covers sealed tightly enough to keep the bugs out, so I use alternative means to deal with them.
The control method I’m going to try this year is to wrap the base of my plants with aluminum foil. You can also use cheesecloth, apparently.
Another option, which I might try if I can find a few plants at the nursery, is to grow hubbard squash some distance from the other squash as a trap crop. The trap plants need to be a bit more developed than your other squash when you plant them, presumably so they attract the pests right away.
Once the adults lay their eggs and they’ve just begun to hatch, you can then destroy the trap plants and, in theory at least, most of your borer problem.
How to Know if You Have Squash Vine Borers
If you look at the base of your squash plants and see small holes with what looks like sawdust just outside the holes, you have borers. If the plants don’t look sick yet, you may still be able to salvage things, but I warn you, it’s kinda gross!
Here’s what to do:
One, you can carefully slit the vine about an inch above the hole and look for the borer. It will look like a little white worm or grub. Either squish or remove the worm, then mound the soil up over the vine past the slit you made. This will encourage the vine to grow roots to that point and repair the damage.
Two, another option (particularly for the squeamish among us), is to push a pin, or some other small, sharp object, through the vine starting about a half inch above the hole and continuing up a couple of inches to try to spear the little bugger and murder it. The only drawback with this method is that you won’t be certain you killed the borer.
I may dislike squash vine borers, but I positively HATE squash bugs!!!! Remember how I mentioned (more than) once how much I hate scale on my houseplants? (If you missed it, you can find that post here). Well, I hate squash bugs equally.
If you live in an area of the country with stink bugs, you know what a squash bug looks like. They look very similar, but you will only find squash bugs on squash family plants, whereas stink bugs are more wide-ranging.
Companion Planting to Control Squash Bugs
There are lots of different plants that will either repel squash bugs or attract beneficials that will kill them.
To repel them:
- Bee balm
- Mint (but only in containers, it’s very invasive!)
- Onions & garlic
To attract beneficials (particularly tachinid flies, which really LIKE squash bugs. And by like, I mean, kill!):
- Queen Anne’s lace
- Mustard greens
NOTE: If you’re growing carrots for food, you don’t want to grow Queen Anne’s lace, dill, or fennel in the same vicinity. They can inhibit the carrots’ growth. Likewise, if you grow dill or fennel to use as spices in the kitchen, don’t grow them close together. They’re very closely related and may cross, giving you dilly-fennel or fennely-dill-tasting plants in the second generation (ICK!)
Other Squash Bug Controls
Unfortunately, companion planting isn’t going to keep all the squash bugs away.
Looking for clusters of brownish eggs on the undersides of your squash leaves is a good thing to do, and you’ll want to do it every day, because scraping the eggs off is MUCH easier than trying to catch the bugs once they hatch.
I found a genius hack so you don’t have to just about stand on your head to look under the leaves for eggs. Tape a mirror to an old hoe and hold that under the plants to look for eggs. LOVE this!
Again, once they’ve hatched, hand-picking and drowning the adults and nymphs (they look like miniature adults) is the best way to go, although they’re fast and SMART! They’ll hide if you try to grab them. Really! I’ve experienced it. I have several 4×4 wood supports in my garden and they’ll run around the backside of the 4×4 when I try to grab them. Grrrrrr….
One tip I’ve seen quite a bit is to lay a board (maybe a piece of plywood would work better) in your garden close to your squash plants. Then go out first thing in the morning and flip the board over. The bugs like to spend the night under the board and can then (theoretically at least) be picked off and drowned in soapy water.
Assuming your mornings are cool, this will likely work, as they will be slower when the temps are cooler. If you have hot nights, though, this may not be effective.
Another recommendation I’ve seen is to use diatomaceous earth. Sprinkle it around the base of your plants (but be VERY careful not to get it on the blossoms as it could hurt beneficials). This will be much more effective on nymphs (they’re still soft and will get damaged by the sharp edges of the DE) than it will be on the adults (that are effectively armored). If you need to order DE, you can do that here. I’ve found it locally at my Tractor Supply store as well.
Now, I promised you a special treat. My grandmother gave me a recipe years ago for Freezer Pickles. These are super easy to make, sweet pickles that don’t need to be canned. You just throw them in the freezer! My husband is addicted to these, which is why I’m growing 4 different varieties of cucumbers this summer!!!
All you have to do is go here to sign up for my FREE Resource Library. You’ll receive a welcome email with the password to the Resource Library where you’ll find the full recipe, plus the cheat sheet from today’s crop of the week (along with the preceding seven), plus lots of other goodies. There’s no risk, you can unsubscribe at any time, and I’ll NEVER spam you!
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post and that it was helpful for you. Please be sure to pin one of the images below so you can find it again.
As always, smile and have a crazy organic day!
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