Growing Squash and Pumpkins

article image
Photo by Getty Images/vavlt
A young pumpkin grows on a plant in well-balanced soil.

There’s no question that squash and pumpkins are among most everyone’s favorite vine crops. However, even the most experienced of gardeners, with the most nimble of green thumbs, can be afflicted by dropping fruit.

It can be very frustrating to see all of our hard work falling off the vine to rot on the ground, before it even had a chance to grow. Following are some ways you can take preventative steps against fruit drop, along with a few tips for encouraging healthy growth of your developing fruit.

Causes & Remedies

While there are multiple reasons for fruit drop in squash and pumpkin plants, the four most common include lack of pollination, extreme weather, poor soil, and improper irrigation. Here are some simple steps you can take to fix the problem, no matter the reason.

Lack of Pollination

Cross-pollination between the male and female flower enables the fruit to grow. Pollination usually occurs when bees land on the male flower and carry the pollen on their legs to the female flower.

The male and female blossoms look similar, but if you take a closer look, you’ll spot the difference. Male flowers are more numerous and don’t bear fruit. They appear earlier in the growth cycle, and they have long, thin stems. Female flowers, on the other hand, sit closer to the vine, with a small round fruit at the base of the blossom. The dropping of the male blossom is considered normal, because only the female flowers produce fruit.

When bees don’t perform their job of pollinating the female flowers, you can opt for manual pollination, which should be performed early in the morning, when the flowers naturally open, and can be done in one of two ways.

One way is to use a soft paintbrush and swipe pollen from the male flower to the female flower. The second option is to remove a male blossom and rub the stamen directly on the female flower. Both techniques will ensure pollination takes place.

Extreme Weather

Since the flowers of squash and pumpkin plants are very susceptible to stress, extreme weather can take a toll on newly budding fruits. Extremes, such as frost, humidity, and intense heat, can affect the growth of the developing fruits on the vine and ruin an entire crop.

That being the case, it’s important to protect your buds from extreme weather. Providing protection is more of a preventative measure than a fix, because once extreme weather has done its damage, it’s unlikely you’ll have anything left to fix.

Therefore, it’s essential to choose the right location to plant your seeds, in order to minimize the effect of a bout of bad weather. Be sure to plant in an area that’s protected from any anticipated extreme weather. For example, if your area sees intensively hot days or drought, you’ll want to plant in a shaded area or down slope for better water retention.

Poor Soil

Vine crops usually thrive in slightly acidic soil between 6.0 and 6.5 on the pH scale. Although the majority of vine plants are fairly robust and will grow well in most soils, soil with extreme pH levels will definitely inhibit the healthy growth of your plants.

It’s important to perform a soil test to determine the pH level of your soil. Once you know the pH level, you can determine the type and amount of fertilizer needed to balance the pH level.

A quick fix is to put on a small amount of fertilizer (low on nitrogen) when the first blooms appear, and add a layer of mulch to retain the moisture of the soil. Too much nitrogen and lack of calcium can also cause the dropping of the small fruit.

Improper Irrigation

Both a lack of irrigation, as well as overwatering can cause fruit drop.

Squash and pumpkin plants require a lot of water compared with many other garden plants. They need a deep watering at least once a week. On these deep-watering days, the water should reach 4 inches down into the soil, so don’t be afraid to give them a good soaking.

However, while frequent and consistent watering is needed when fruits form, and throughout their growth period, be sure water isn’t gathering in pools around the roots. Too much water will cause root rot, which will lead to your fruits dropping off the vine before they should.

TLC for Fruiting Plants

  • Here are some tips to help you take care of your developing squash and pumpkins.
  • Handle the fruits less, and with more care. The young fruit is sensitive, so avoid touching it too often.
  • Avoid scarring or bruising by placing a shingle between the developing fruit and the soil.
  • The fruit will rot if the soil is too soggy, so be sure the soil has proper irrigation by checking the surrounding ground regularly. This way you avoid disturbing the actual plant.
  • Monitor new fruits by checking your plants regularly. The vines are prickly, so wear gloves when handling them.
  • To achieve the perfect shape, lift the fruit and the vine in both hands, then gently adjust the position of the small fruit. You can only do this when the fruit is well-established.
  • Instead of breaking the gourds from the vine, use scissors or a knife to cut them off.

Encourage Growth and Prevent Fruit Drop

My aunt, who’s an expert gardener, shared a simple procedure she uses to encourage growth and prevent fruit drop. Her garden, full of healthy pumpkins and squash, was all the proof I needed.

She says to take a bamboo stick or some other kind of hardened wooden stick – a barbecue skewer is fine – and cut it thinly, a little less than 1⁄4 inch wide and 4 to 5 inches long. Make sure the stick is very thin so as not to damage the vines.

Insert the stick into the main vines of the pumpkins or squash. Be sure to insert it into the main vines, not the smaller vines, which are found near the flowers. The main vines are found near the roots, away from the flowers.

Although there has been no scientific study to identify the reasons why this technique is so effective, it seems to work well and encourages growth within the entire plant.