Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A. | 10/4/2004 4:24:12 AM
The cucumber family, or Cucurbitaceae, provides a wide variety of vegetables popular in the home garden.
Members of that family, which can be planted now, include summer squash, winter squash, mirliton, pumpkin, gourd, cucuzzi, watermelon, cantaloupe, cushaw, luffa and, of course, cucumber.
All of these vegetables produce vines that run along the ground or climb – although summer squash vines are rather short and thick and therefore resemble a bush more than other members of the family.
The vegetables in this family produce separate male and female flowers, but both types of flowers occur on the same plant. Still, pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers to obtain fruit set. The transfer of pollen is done by bees and other insects, so it is extremely important not to spray insecticides in the morning when bees are most active. Wait until late afternoon or early evening if insecticides must be used.
Although male flowers are needed for pollination, only the female flowers actually develop into fruit. Cucumbers, for instance, produce enormous numbers of male flowers compared to female flowers. I have talked to many a gardener who thought they were about to see a bumper crop of cucumbers and then wound up watching in stunned disappointment as most of the flowers fell off without making fruit.
To distinguish the male flowers from the female flowers, it is necessary to look at them closely. The showy part of the flower often is very similar; it is behind the flower where the differences can be observed.
Looking behind the flower, you’ll find the female flower is connected to the plant by an ovary that looks like a miniature of the fruit that will eventually form. The female flower of a cucumber, for instance, is connected to the vine by what looks like a tiny cucumber, and the ovary of a female squash flower looks like a tiny squash. These ovaries will develop into fruit, however, only if the flower is pollinated.
Squash are among the most popular and productive warm-season vegetables. Most families need to plant only a few plants to supply them with an abundance of squash, and now is an excellent time to plant seeds or transplants into the garden. The short-vine, bushy summer squash plants are rather large (24-36 inches across), but will fit into most home gardens. The fruit is harvested immature while it is young and tender. Commonly grown types of summer squashes are yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck, zucchini, scallop and cocozelle.
Winter squash usually have a more vining growth habit and need more room to grow than summer squash. Their fruit is allowed to remain on the vine until fully matured – when the rind is hard. The name winter squash does not refer to when they are grown, but rather that the fruit store well and may be consumed during the winter. Types of winter squash locally grown include butternut, acorn, Turk's turban and hubbard.
Cucumbers are an easy vegetable to grow. Plant seeds or transplants into your garden now. If you buy transplants, there is often more than one plant in the pot. Pinch off all but the largest plant before planting.
Most gardeners allow cucumber vines to grow along the ground, but it is highly recommended that you trellis them. Provide a sturdy trellis that is 3-4 feet tall, and space plants along the base 6 inches apart. Tests conducted at LSU AgCenter research stations show substantial yield increases for trellised cucumbers, as well as fewer disease problems and better quality cucumbers.
Delicious to eat, the cantaloupe is a more challenging member of the group to grow. Production generally is not a problem, but the quality of the melon often is disappointing – with a general lack of sweetness being the most common complaint. Make sure the vines are planted into well-prepared beds with generous amounts of organic matter added. Fertilize lightly when the vines begin to run, and water regularly if the weather is dry.
When a melon is ready for harvest it will develop a strong aroma of cantaloupe, and the stem connecting it to the vine will easily pull away from the melon, leaving a clean, concave scar. Growing cantaloupes on trellises saves room, and the vines are surprisingly capable of holding the heavy fruit. If the vines are trellised, place a thick layer of pine straw under the vines as a cushion, and when the fruit are ripe they will fall onto the pine straw.
One of my favorites of the Cucurbitaceae family is the luffa gourd. This vine does triple duty in the garden. It is attractive enough to be used as an ornamental – with dark green leaves that stay healthy all summer and large, bright yellow male flowers.
The luffa gourd fruit is edible when 6-8 inches long and can be sliced, breaded and fried like okra. Indeed, two traditional names for this gourd, climbing okra and Chinese okra, refer to its similarity to okra in flavor when fried. When the gourds are mature and the skin turns brown, peel away the skin to reveal the most remarkable aspect of this plant — a tough network of fibers which make an excellent sponge.
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.