Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Don't count your squash before they grow ...

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A few weeks ago, Margaret Button mentioned in her column in the Food section of The Berkshire Eagle that she anticipated a large harvest of zucchini this year, her conclusion based on the abundance of flowers on her squash plants. She is not alone in such thinking. Over the years, I've often heard many people make the same statement, but then express disappointment when they see so few squash being produced. The primary reason for this disparity is that squash and other cucurbits such as melons and cucumbers produce far more male blossoms than female blossoms. In fact, early in the season, squash produce only male flowers. Eventually, they will begin to produce female blossoms but in a ratio of about 3 to 1 in favor of male blossoms.

"So what?" you ask. To start with, send any pre-adolescent kids from the room, pull the shades and let's have a serious discussion about sex, that is, the sex life of squash. Unlike tomatoes, for example, squash, melons and cucumbers represent a group of plants that have separate male and female blossoms, albeit on the same plant. The male flower produces pollen on structures called stamens, located in the center of the flower. Stick your finger in the center of the flower and it will come out covered with yellow pollen, just like a bee does but without using fingers. The female flower can be recognized by a tiny fruit at the base of the flower. At the center of the female flower is a structure called the pistil, which has a sticky tip (the stigma) to capture pollen delivered by pollinators, especially by bees. It is the female flower that produces the squash fruit, but only if the flower is pollinated. If pollination does not occur due to stormy weather or absence of pollinators, that tiny fruit will abort. It is possible to pretend that you are a bee and, using a small artist brush or a Q-tip, remove some of the pollen from male blossoms and transfer it to the stigma at the center of the female blossom. Try not to buzz loudly when doing this as you may attract unwanted attention and worries about your mental state.

Oh, about those tomatoes. They don't suffer from absence of bees since tomatoes produce only one kind of flower, which has both the male and female structures within each blossom. Pollination occurs mostly by the shaking of the blossoms in breezes, which leads to transfer of pollen from stamens to the pistil. Poor fruit development in tomatoes and its relatives, peppers and eggplant, is usually related to temperature extremes rather than absence of pollinators.

So, Margaret, I hope you and others anticipating an abundant harvest will not be disappointed if it is a little less than expected.***

Phew! I'm feeling a bit sweaty after that discussion. Maybe it's time for a vacation. Speaking of vacation, this is a time of year when many gardeners hang up their gardening duds and hit the trail. However, here is a checklist of gardening tasks to attend to before hitching up the buggy:

- Weed! Yes, weed vegetable and flower gardens. Even though weeds may be small now, little weeds grow up to be big weeds (That comment is for my buddy the Old Admiral who will never let me live down having made that statement in the early years of writing this column.). The last thing you want is to return from a relaxing vacation only to find gardens overrun with weeds. After weeding, water gardens if soils are dry. Water deeply and then apply mulch over the soil and around plants. If gone for more than a week, ask a friend to water at least the vegetable garden and plants in containers.

- Harvest mature vegetable crops. Even if gone for only an extended weekend, vegetables can ripen quickly and to the point of being overly mature and tasteless, if not useless. You may want to take some of the harvest with you but it is likely that you'll have more produce than you can consume. In that case, if time allows, preserve the surplus via freezing or canning. Otherwise, give the harvest to friends, neighbors, or to the local food pantry (there is always a need). Another option is to coerce, I mean ask a friend or neighbor if they would continue the harvest of your crops while you're away. Of course, the harvest is theirs to keep. That is better than allowing crops to over-ripen. If not harvested regularly, most crops will simply stop producing.

- Do a pest checkup! Examine plants for signs or symptoms of pests and/or diseases. It doesn't take long for pest populations to build and for disease infections to spread, especially in the heat and humidity of summer. Most insects can be kept under control with applications of a few "organic" materials such as spinosad for caterpillars and cabbage worms, and neem oil for beetles. Foliar diseases, including early blight on tomatoes and powdery mildew on squash, develop quickly at this time of year. Reasonably safe materials to be applied to prevent such diseases include copper-based fungicides.

Hmmm, that's a lot of work. Maybe you better just stay home and enjoy the beautiful Berkshires.

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