|By Jay White
According to the National Gardening Association, 32 percent of gardeners grow summer squash in their gardens. According to that same survey, 43 million households in the U.S. have food gardens. With a little math we can determine that at least 14 million Americans grow and then feed squash to their families and friends. That is a lot of squash!
If certain vegetables are representatives of the different seasons, then squash is definitely a reminder of summer. Since it is so easy to grow, and so prolific, people in Texas cannot imagine a summer that is not full of fresh squash. In fact, most varieties of squash are so prolific that there are countless jokes about them. One of my favorites goes like this: Q: “Why do people make sure to lock their cars during June?” A: “They are afraid that if they don’t, someone will leave a box of zucchini in it!”
My favorite variety of squash is a round, green squash from Mexico called ‘tatume.’ ‘Tatume’ is a hardy, open-pollinated variety that does very well in our hot Texas climate. Unlike the bushing habit of zucchini or yellow crookneck, ‘tatume’ produces very long vines like a gourd. The long vines are prolific bloomers and produce a large amount of flowers that are beautiful to look at and almost as good to eat as the squash itself. It is a big producer and its fruit is more firm and flavorful than yellow squash or zucchini. Plus, as a huge added bonus, ‘tatume’ is almost immune to the squash vine borer! In my opinion, all of these traits combine to make ‘tatume’ the perfect summer squash for the Texas garden.
Most of the squash varieties that we are familiar with come from the species Cucurbita pepo. Botanists believe that most C. pepo varieties originated in Meso-America (where the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs lived). Archeological evidence shows that gardeners there have been growing different varieties of C. pepo for the past 8,000 to 10,000 years.
Squash is generally divided into two types based on when it is harvested. The most commonly grown types in the south are what we call summer squash. Summer squash is simply a squash that is harvested in its immature form. Some of the more common varieties in the Texas garden are yellow crookneck, zucchini and patty pan (or UFO, as it is called in our house). These squash are harvested in their immature state. Immature squash have soft skin, flesh and seeds. Because they are immature when they are harvested, summer squash does not store well. Winter squash, on the other hand, is grown all over the world for its storage capabilities. Winter squash is harvested when fully mature. Mature squash have hard outer shells and firm, sweet flesh. Some of the more commonly grown varieties are butternut, spaghetti and acorn. ‘Tatume’ is one of just a few varieties of squash that can be harvested as either a summer or winter squash.
How to Grow ‘Tatume’
I discovered this wonderful squash by accident. A couple of years ago, I did not get my squash seeds in the ground soon enough. So I decided to buy some plants at the A&M Horticulture Club’s annual sale. I got there a little late, so the only squash left were patty pan and ‘tatume.’ Since the thought of a spring garden without squash was just too much to bear, I grabbed two of the patty pan and two of the ‘tatume.’
If you are lucky enough to find ‘tatume’ plants at your nursery, plant them in well-worked soil anytime after all danger of frost has past. If conditions are right, you can harvest your first fruit from transplants in about 45 days (60-65 days from seed).
If growing from seed, plant your squash as soon as all danger of frost has passed and the soil has begun to warm. Most people recommend building a mound in the bed and then placing three seeds about an inch deep in the top of the mound. Once the true leaves form, pinch off the smallest of the three seedlings. After the remaining two plants get about six inches, remove the least vigorous of the two. Planting in this manner will greatly increase your chances of getting a healthy plant in each mound.
Have you ever wondered why the recommended way to plant squash (and cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes and pumpkins) is in a mound? Cucurbits are planted in mounds because they hate wet feet! They need good drainage to thrive. Since the mound is raised and more loosely packed than the under-laying soil, it drains quicker. This drainage requirement is why the big melon-producing areas of the South are located in places that have very sandy soil. If your garden plot is sandy or drains well because it is thoroughly worked with organic material, you can skip the mound-building process and plant your cucurbits directly in the ground.
Whether you grow from seeds or transplants, be prepared for rapid vine growth. The first year I grew ‘tatume’ I planted my transplants in early April. By late April I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. In three weeks time the plant sent out vines that were more than six feet long! In addition, each place a node lay against the ground, it rooted and sent out more vines. The “aggressive” vining habit of this plant is about the only thing bad I can say about it. If you choose to grow ‘tatume,’ put it in a place that allows it room to grow since it is not uncommon for it to send out 12-foot vines in all directions.
The rapid rate of vine growth slows noticeably once the blooms start. Since ‘tatume’ creates such a large plant, it produces a lot of flowers. These flowers are full of pollen that is irresistible to bees. When in bloom, your garden will literally be “abuzz” with the sound of all of the bees that are working the “squash blossoms.” This is a good thing. Without pollinators, the pollen from the male plant will not reach the female flowers.
Lack of good pollination causes a very common problem in squash called “drop.” If you see small fruits beginning to develop normally and then they just fall off of the vine, you are suffering from drop. Drop usually occurs in gardens exposed to pesticides. Unfortunately, many of the pesticides used to control common garden pests either kill or repel bees. To reduce the effects of the pesticides on bees, apply them in the late afternoon. Bees are most active in the morning, so an afternoon spray will allow the smell and effects of the pesticide to dissipate before the bees come to do their work for the day.
If you want to ensure good pollination without bees, you can pollinate your squash by hand. Since squash produce large amounts of fairly large pollen, they are very easy to pollinate by hand. Squash plants (and all cucurbits for that matter) produce both male and female flowers. The male and female flowers are very easy to identify. Female flowers have a miniature fruit beginning to develop under the flower. If you see no fruit, then the flower is male. To hand pollinate, pick a male flower from the plant and remove all of the petals. You will be left with a stem and the pollen-covered stamen. Use the stamen as a paint brush to apply the pollen to the pistol inside the female flower.
After pollination, the plant begins to set fruit. The fruit of the ‘tatume’ is round or oblate in shape. The skin of the fruit is striped green and resembles a small watermelon or pumpkin in immature form. The fruits develop quickly. Once you find a small fruit in all of that foliage, it is a good idea to keep an eye on it. If it is receiving ample water, it will go from the size of the end of your finger to harvest size in about a week. It is best to pick ‘tatume’ when it is about the size of a baseball. If allowed to grow bigger than this, the seeds begin to get firm and make the flesh a lot less fun to eat.
If you have ever grown squash, you know it is a bug magnet. While it can be bothered by aphids, spider mites and white flies, its worst pests are squash bugs (Anasa tristis) and the squash vine borer (Melittia satyriniformis).
Squash bugs are gray-winged insects that are often mistaken for stinkbugs. They are sucking insects that can damage both the leaves and the fruit. While mostly a nuisance, a large infestation can kill the plant. Squash bugs can be found under the leaves of the plant where they lay their eggs in small clusters. Since the long vines of ‘tatume’ have hundreds of leaves, it is particularly susceptible to squash bugs. The best way to control these pests is to find and remove the eggs before they hatch. Once the eggs hatch, they produce 1/8-inch-long larvae that are green and reddish in color. The young bugs congregate under leaves but migrate to all parts of the plant as they mature. The only effective pesticide available to the home gardener is Sevin dust. To organically control the bugs, I have used a handheld car vacuum to literally suck them off the leaves. You can also place shingles or small boards under your plants. The squash bugs will congregate under them during the night. You can then pick the boards or shingles up in the morning, place on a hard, flat surface and “squash” your squash bugs. I have also sprayed my plants with Neem Oil, but it didn’t seem to do a very good job of repelling the bugs. Also, adult squash bugs overwinter in plant litter. If you mulch your plants heavily, it is best to remove and burn the mulch after each season.
In my opinion, squash vine borers are the worst of the pests that infest squash plants. These moths lay their eggs in the stem of the plant close to the ground. The caterpillar then matures into an inch-long animal that resembles a grub. Once hatched, it proceeds to eat its way out of the plant. The bad thing about squash vine borers is that by the time you notice that you have them, your plant is too far gone to save. Luckily, ‘tatume’ is not bothered by this destructive pest.
Saving Squash Seed
As mentioned earlier, ‘tatume’ is an open-pollinated variety of squash. It will not readily cross pollinate with other varieties in the garden. Because of this, you can easily save seeds from each year’s crop. There are two ways to save the seeds.
The easiest way for me is to leave a couple of the fruits on the plant until it dies. The fruit will dry and harden just like a gourd. Once fully dry I simply put the whole dried fruit in the garage until spring. Come planting time, I cut the ‘tatume’ open and take out the seeds that I need.
If you don’t want to save the whole fruit, you can easily harvest the seed from a mature ‘tatume.’ A mature ‘tatume’ is considerably larger than the baseball size that you harvest for food. As ‘tatume’ matures, its skin loses the stripes and becomes a solid, dark mottled green color. This is when you want to harvest for use as a winter squash or to gather the seeds. Cut the mature ‘tatume’ in half and scoop out the seeds into a small dish. Add enough water to cover. With your hands, gently rub the seeds to remove the pulp. Pour the water and seed mixture into a strainer and remove as much pulp as possible. Lay the seeds out on a paper towel and place in a window or on a covered porch for 10 to 20 days. You must remove as much moisture as possible from the seeds in order to be able to successfully save them for next year’s planting.
‘Tatume’ is a staple in Mexican cooking. My wife and I use it in lieu of zucchini or yellow squash in all of our squash recipes. We fry it, bake it, boil it with onions, make it into casseroles and use it to bake bread and cakes. We even harvest and eat the male blossoms. However, our favorite way to prepare ‘tatume’ is on the grill. ‘Tatume’ is more flavorful than yellow squash and its white flesh is much firmer. Its round shape and firm texture allows it to be cut into thick round patties that are perfect for the grill. A little olive oil, garlic salt, and fresh ground black pepper make for a simple and delicious summer side dish.
‘Tatume’ is hardy, productive and almost immune to the squash borer insect. Its long vines produce a fabulous show of big yellow flowers that draw bees into the garden. Plus, it is tasty and versatile in the kitchen. When I first planted ‘tatume’ I had never heard of it. Now, three years later, I can’t imagine a spring garden without it. Give it a try (and a whole lot of room) and I am certain it will become one of your favorites, too!