These plants are members of the gourd family, and all are native to the Americas. Most pumpkins and squashes originated in Mexico and Central America and were used all over North America by the Indians. Most winter squashes came from or near the Andes in northern Argentina.
Summer squash has a large bushy plant whose fruit is harvested and eaten when immature, when the rind is soft. Winter squash is primarily a vining plant whose fruits are harvested when mature, when the rind is hard; they are so named because they store well over the winter.
Squashes, pumpkins and gourds, except for the bush types, are space users, not practical for minispace gardeners lacking ways to use vertical space, such as training up a fence or trellis. Even a compost pile can serve as a place for a vine to ramble. They are sometimes grown with corn, but should be spaced some distance apart.
On the ground, vining types need 10 feet or more between rows but can be grown in less space by training or pruning. Long runners may be cut off after some fruit sets if a good supply of leaves are left to feed the fruit.
Squashes, pumpkins and gourds are warm-season crops the are heat-resistant. Plant them when the soil is thoroughly warm, usually a week after the last frost. Direct seeding is best, but if the season is short to mature a direct sow crop, use transplants from nurseries or start your own 4 to 5 weeks before the time to plant. For best results use hot caps or row covers to educe transplant shock. Leave 2 to 4 feet between plants, depending upon the vigor of the variety. Bush types do best in rows 5 to 6 feet apart, but they can be grown as little as 16 to 24 inches apart in rows.
Fertilizing and watering is the same as for cucumbers and melons. They all need generous amounts of organic matter in the soil, and 2 pounds of 5-10-10 fertilizer to a 50 foot row. Watering should be slow and deep. Leaves may wilt during mid-day but should pick up again as the day cools. Don't worry when the first blossoms fail to set fruit. Some female flowers will bloom before there are male flowers for pollen, so they will dry up or produce small fruits that abort or rot. This is natural behavior, not a disease. The same thing happens when a large load of fruit is set and the plant is using all of its resources to develop them. The aborting young fruit will occur as a self pruning process.
Pick summer squashes when they are young and tender. The seeds should be undeveloped and the rind soft. Pick often for a steady supply of young fruit. Zucchini, straightneck and crookneck types are usually picked at 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and scallops at 3 to 4 inches across. Summer squashes are generally divided into four types: crookneck, with tapered bodies and curved necks: scallop, which is round to plate shaped with scalloped edges; straightneck, long, straight, and tapering: and zucchini, straight and cylindrical.
Winter squashes must be thoroughly mature to have good quality. When picked immature they are watery and poor flavor. After some cold weather increases the sugar content, the flavor usually improves. Learn to judge by color, most green types have some brown or bronze coloring when ripe in the fall. Winter squashes are divided into broad classifications: acorn, with round, deeply ribbed dark green fruit, butternut, shaped like a large pear with a long, thick neck; hubbard, large, round to oval, ribbed, bumpy fruit; and turban, with flat, rounded fruit, some of which have a distinct center that resembles the headgear of the same name.
Pumpkins are harvested in the fall when the rind becomes hard and the foliage starts to die. As the pumpkins mature, raise them off the ground on a board to prevent bottom rotting. There are also pumpkin varieties developed specifically to produce hull-less seeds for eating. (roasted pumpkin seeds are great from this type).
Gourds are a true gardening curiosity. Unusual in shape, color, and markings, gourds defy predictable results because they can cross with one another. All gourds are fast growers if they have their quota of heat, especially at night. Delay planting until the soil is warm. In short-season areas start seeds indoors in pots 3 to 4 weeks before the average last frost. Set out transplants or thin seedlings to 2 feet apart. Soil, water and fertilizer needs are the same as for their relatives the squashes, melons and cucumbers.
Most gourds can be dried. Pick them when the stems turn brownish and punch the end close to the stem with a long needle to allow air inside, then hang for several months in a well-ventilated place. The seeds will rattle when the gourds are fully dry. To make containers, cut them with a sharp saw and scape out the insides; clean the rind with a scrubber and cover inside and out with shellac.
Luffa, also known as the vegetable sponge, the dishrag gourd and Chinese okra, grows rapidly to 10 to 15 feet, making cylindrical fruits 1 to 2 feet long. Luffas are thought to have originated in tropical Asia. They reached China about A.D. 600, and are now cultivated throughout the tropics. Although they are tropical plants, the best are grown in Japan.
To reach the spongy, fibrous interior, the ripe gourds are immersed in a tank of running water until the outer wall disintegrates. They are then bleached and dried in the sun. The luffa is grown commercially for use as sponges and to manufacture many products, filters in marine and diesel engines, bath mats, table mats, sandals, and even gloves. In India the young, tender fruits are even eaten raw like cucumbers or cooked as a vegetable. In Hawaii and China the small pods are used to replace edible pod peas.
Luffa must grow to maturity to be used as sponges, but for eating they should be picked when no more than 4 to 5 inches long. Slice them raw into salads or butter-steam as you would summer squash. They adapt to most zucchini recipes and combine well with tomatoes. use the leaves in salads, or cook as greens. The flowers can be dipped in batter and deep-fried. To make homemade scrubbers, soak luffas in water for several days until the skin falls off, then dry them in the sun.
Snake gourd or serpent cucumber, grows up to 6 feet in length, it's best for eating when harvested at a fraction of that size. Snake gourds taste like cucumbers when eaten raw. When cooked they resemble zucchini in flavor and go well in almost any recipe for summer squash. They are a prized delicacy in much of Asia.
Edible gourds are closely related to both squashes and pumpkins, the vegetable gourd is a vigorously growing vine, it has attractive foliage and fruits, which are displayed to advantage when trained on a trellis. The fruits are shaped like miniature pumpkins, 3 to 5 inches across, and weigh about 1/2 pound. When mature the fruit is striped a creamy white with dark green mottling. Vegetable gourds taste like sweet winter squash. They can be stuffed like bell peppers with meat and rice, then baked, or boiled and mashed like winter squash.
For the best eating, edible gourds should be harvested young, while the fuzz is still on them. They have a rich, full flavor and can be cooked just about any way you would prepare summer squash or eggplant. Try them baked with fresh tomatoes and sprinkled with basil and olive oil.
Except for maybe the mustard family, the gourd family has, among the vegetables, the greatest diversity in its edible forms, and certainly the widest variation in color and form of fruit. Cross two varieties of summer squash, such as zucchini or yellow crookneck with a bush scallop, and the second generation will display and unbelievable array of color, shape, texture, and size of fruit. In a population numbering in the hundreds, no two will be alike.
The pumpkin and squash seeds you buy are from varieties grown in areas free from the pollen of any other variety. However, nature has a way of sneaking in a cross or two. These will show up as occasional strange plants in the garden. Seeds saved from these will produce many different forms the next year.