The cucurbit plant family, aka the squash family or the vine crops, is grown for its fruits, some that are eaten as vegetables.
Familiar members of this family are summer and winter squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, watermelons, muskmelons, honeydews and ornamental gourds such as luffa and bottle gourds.
Cucurbits are warm-season, frost-sensitive vegetable crops, so seedlings should not be set out until April 1 in the Lowcountry.
On the other hand, hot and humid weather interferes with fruit set in most cucurbits. Cucumbers are the least heat tolerant, followed by squash and pumpkins.
Muskmelons and other melons are moderately heat tolerant, and watermelons, which originated in the deserts of Africa, are the most tolerant of high temperatures.
To maximize yields, gardeners should plant cucurbits in early April and again in late July to early August. Spring-planted cucurbits mature before the heat of summer, while late summer crops flower at the end of August, when temperatures moderate a bit.
When starting cucurbits from seed, cucumbers, muskmelons and watermelons need three weeks to grow to transplanting size, while two weeks is long enough for squashes and pumpkins.
Because most cucurbits are vining crops, they take up a lot of space. Rather than just thinking about the distance between plants within a row, the best way to determine how many cucurbits fit in a garden is to calculate the square feet available, since cucurbits grow in all directions. Watermelons need at least 18 square feet per plant. Although summer squashes don’t have vines, they still need 6 to 9 square feet per plant.
Compact varieties of pickling and slicing cucumbers and yellow summer squash that fit in small spaces and containers are available from Burpee (burpee.com). ‘Salad Bush’ is a short-vine cucumber and an All-America Selection from Harris Seeds (harrisseeds.com).
Cucumbers and summer squashes are easier to grow in the home garden than melons and pumpkin. They mature faster, so they are not exposed to weather extremes and pests as long as pumpkins, watermelons, and winter squashes, which take 100 days to mature.
If you want to pickle cucumbers, try ‘Sassy’ (Harris), one of the cucumbers bred to set a lot of fruit at the same time. Commercial growers use these cultivars for one-time harvest by machine instead of hand-picking them for weeks. In the home garden, ‘Sassy’ will produce a few more cucumbers after the main picking.
For fresh cucumbers, grow ‘General Lee’ (Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Johnnyseeds.com), an older variety that is still recommended, or the newer ‘Stonewall’ (Harris).
Two unusual cucumbers that caught my eye have pale white, thin skin that blends with the color of the flesh: ‘Silver Slicer’ (Harris) and ‘Salt and Pepper’ (Johnny’s). (Note that white cucumbers have not been tested in the South.)
Several summer squashes that have proven their worth by consistently delivering high yields are offered by Johnny’s. They include ‘Gentry’ yellow crookneck squash, ‘Multipik’ yellow straightneck squash, ‘Spineless Perfection’ zucchini and ‘Tigress’ zucchini. The latter three are recommended for fall, because they have resistance to viruses and powdery mildew. Burpee offers ‘Sunburst,’ a yellow summer squash with scalloped, flattened fruit.
Although winter squash and pumpkins are associated with fall and Halloween, these cucurbits grow better here in the Lowcountry when they are planted in spring than in late summer.
Several heirloom winter squashes are still grown more than 100 years since they were bred. ‘Table Queen’ (Burpee) is the “mother” acorn squash, grown for its superior flavor since 1913. ‘Waltham Butternut’ (Burpee, Johnny’s), the standard butternut squash, is my favorite winter squash. The flesh is firm, not “stringy,” a deep orange and sweet.
‘True Hubbard’ (Burpee) may be the original green Hubbard squash from 1789. ‘Blue Hubbard’ (Johnny’s or rareseeds.com) is an improved variety from 1909. Both are large squashes, 12 pounds or more, that will feed an entire table of Thanksgiving guests. I’ve always wanted to try ‘Lakota’ (Burpee), a winter squash descended from squashes grown by the Native American Lakota Sioux.
One drawback to heirloom squashes is they lack resistance to powdery mildew. They must be sprayed to prevent this common squash and pumpkin disease from robbing sugars that should go to the fruit. I will say more about powdery mildew and other cucurbit diseases in my column in six weeks.
Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org