By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
An often asked question at the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension office during gardening season is which cultivar is best to plant. The response is usually the nebulous sounding statement of “It depends…”
Squash are a good example of how this vague pronouncement functions. The grower must select a cultivar based on their needs and preferences, which should be considered before the planting begins.
Historically, squash were first cultivated in pre-Columbian America over 2000 years ago. These early open-pollinator or heirloom varieties performed well in the tropical climate and delivered a generous volume of food per acre.
They had the additional benefit of being easily transported and had a reasonable storage-life. With the advent of improved transportation routes and population shifts, the squash gradually made its way west to Europe and beyond.
Today’s gardener has an excellent selection of squash cultivars from which to choose. In addition to the heirloom cultivars, there are many hybrids with excellent production traits.
Any of these can be cultivated using either seed or transplants, both of which are readily available from catalogues, commercial nurseries or retail establishments. All have been very successful at delivering this vegetable for the home gardener.
Squash have entered the realm of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in the last five years. The GMO cultivars are utilized only in commercial production.
Another important feature to consider is whether the cultivar is determinate or indeterminate. Determinate means most of the vegetables set in a short time period and indeterminate means they set over a much longer period of time.
For the home gardener this can mean the difference of eating some fresh and preserving the remainder, or eating fresh all season long. Commercial varieties are typically determinate because it is economically efficient to pick a field once or twice over two week as opposed to all season long.
For the home gardener, transplants will take 70 to 90 days to produce. Seed will take about two weeks longer. The plants require about an inch of rain per week during their growing season, and pollinators are very important to insuring the plants successfully set squash.
Many heirloom varieties have been placed in that classification because they are indeterminate and not efficient from a labor standpoint to repeatedly harvest. For the home gardener, the wide window of production can be a distinct advantage.
Two squash varieties were grown in the 2016 Master Gardener Summer Demonstration Garden, crooked neck and lemon squash. Each was planted at the same time receiving the same care and treatment.
The crook neck variety began yielding in mid-May with the plants producing a 14 pound average. By mid-June they were wilting and had succumbed to the weather.
The lemon squash began yielding the last week of May with plants producing a 32 pound average yield of the bulbous yellow vegetable. They remained in production until the end of August.
For the family food budget, retail squash prices range in the $2.00 to $2.50 per pound. If consumed fresh, each lemon squash plant produced an average of $64 value over the summer without the necessity to incur freezing or canning expenses.
In reality, the answer to the question is which cultivars will same the home gardener the most money and provide a healthy and tasty side dish. It is a good answer to know.