All included in the Cucurbits or gourd group are Cucumbers, Melons (netted, smooth skins and watermelons), and Squashes (summer, winter, pumpkin and exotic). All of these have climbing capabilities, have spreading vines and edible flowers. Each category has many variations and types.
Three basic types of cucumbers are:
Traditional green garden cucumber, used fresh or pickled
Citron cucumbers, which are small watermelon looking fruits that are consumed pickled, preserved in sugar syrup or candied
Lemon cucumbers, which are round about the size of a tennis ball and are eaten fresh or pickled.
Plant the cucumbers well after the last frost in full sun. They grow best in warm sunny spots. They can do well in pots as well as in the garden. Providing something for the cucumbers something to climb on will give you more space in your garden and allow you to plant closer together. Plant a few extra seeds per plot to make up for those that don’t make it. If you get lucky and more make it than you expect wait until they are at least 8 inches tall and thin them to 10 inches between climbing plants or 4 plants per hill.
Cucumbers are 95% water, giving them a heavy watering at least once a week. Don’t let them dry out. This is another reason letting them climb is great; heavy watering when the vine is on the ground can cause them to mold and rot.
Depending on the use and variety of the cucumbers will tell you when they should be harvested. Pickling cucumbers are picked when they are smaller and the fresh eating cucumbers can be left to grow to a longer size.
If you plan to keep seed from your cucumbers and want it to be “true” to it’s variety extra planning needs to be done. Everything in the gourd family is divided oddly. Checking the genus of your vines will tell you which ones can cross pollinate. If your just experimenting then here’s the next step. Pick the fruit that you wish to take seed from and mark it. I usually use a hot pink ribbon tied around the stem. Allow the cucumber to grow, it will turn green, then yellow, then brown and get a tough gourd-like skin. Pick the browned fruit. Cut the cucumber in half. Scoop out the seeds. Allow the seeds and pulp to ferment on the counter for a few days. Then carefully rinse the seeds removing all the pulp. Allow the seeds to dry then store for next years planting.
Summer squashes are known for excellent production. Everyone around here does so well it’s hard to get anyone to take the extra off your hands. Last summer we had a few grow to the size of a large softball bat; those were enjoyed by the chickens. Zucchini, Yellow Crookneck, and Yellow Straightneck are the popular one here.
Give each plant about 4 feet in all directions. Seeds should be set about 1 inch deep after the last frost. They don’t transplant well, but will grow and produce like crazy from directly sowing. Just a warning, unless you plan to use these as chicken and pig feed or open a summer squash farm don’t plant the whole packet! Two plants will get you plenty, four plants will get most families through the winter, more than that good luck!
Pick the squash when they are small. Not only will this keep you from having pounds and pounds of squash but they taste the best young.
If you plan to store them in a cellar let them grow as big as they will, then pick and store. The young or large can be canned, pickled, froze or dried.
Winter squash including pumpkins have a tougher skin and do very well climbing on something sturdy. We had a neighbor that would plant his squash by an old chain link dog kennel so they could climb. These include acorn, butternut, buttercup, hubbard, turks cap and many more.
Plant them 1 inch deep, 4 to a hill and 3-6 feet apart, closer if they can climb, well after the last frost. These also need plenty of water all the way through the growing season.
Harvest the squash after the first frost. They can handle multiple light frosts, just don’t let them freeze.
Before you put them up for storage they need to be cured. To do this cut the squash from the plant leaving a small stem. Allow them to set out for a few days. Then bring them in to the warmest part of your house, wood shed or shop. They will get a harder skin when left to sit at 80-85 degrees for a week. During this time any bruising or cuts to the skin will heal. Then they can be stored in a cool spots or cellar. They can also be peeled, cut and canned, froze or dried. If your have many more then you can eat cut them into chunks and feed them to chickens, pigs goats or cows.
Some exotic squashes have “melon” in their name but really are squash. (Because that’s not confusing!) Bitter Melon-very bumpy outside with a cucumber like inside, eating these seeds will make you sick, Fuzzy Melon-similar to our summer squash with a kiwi like fuzz, Winter Melon- when mature the green skin gets a waxy coat, eaten young it’s like zucchini left to grow will be more like winter squash, Calabaza- vines can grow up to 60 feet and can be used like pumpkin and Lady Godiva- grown for hull-less edible seeds rather then the flesh, are a few that belong here. The only one I have grown is spaghetti squash and we eat a lot of these. I plant the spaghetti squash the same as winter squash.
There are also craft gourds which are allowed to climb and grow to full maturity. Don’t let these stay out through a frost. Cut them from the vine, allow them to dry for a few days to a few weeks. Dip them in diluted bleach or alcohol and there you have it. These are not edible but can be made into bowls, ladles, vases, birdhouses and much more.
Luffa Squash is a fun variety of squash. Eaten young they can be used like fresh cucumber. If you have a greenhouse or live in the south you can allow these to grow long enough to get the luffa sponge used in the kitchen or shower.
Melons grow best in hot dry climates. They have roots that are great at searching out water. Rainy or cloudy days will stop melon growth. Cantaloupes are the hardiest of all the melons.
Living in the north, melons are a tough go, but every year I try a few varieties (this year I have seed for 6 different ones… fingers crossed!) I plant mine as I do winter squash. Every melon has different maturity time to harvest, so check the seed packet or ask the farmer you got the seed from.