Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
There’s much more to the cucumber family than cucumbers.
Cucurbitaceae – the cucumber family – provides a wide variety of vegetables popular in the home garden.
Members of the family that can be planted now include summer squash, winter squash, mirlitons, pumpkins, gourds, cucuzzis, watermelons, cantaloupes, cushaws, luffa gourds and, of course, cucumbers.
All of these vegetables produce vines that run along the ground or climb. Summer squash vines are rather short and thick and therefore are more bush-like 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 – although pollen still 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 gardeners who thought they were about to see a bumper crop of cucumbers but 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 flowers often is very similar, but behind the flowers is where the differences can be observed. The female flowers are 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 only develop into fruit, however, if the flower is pollinated.
Squash are among the most popular and productive warm-season vegetables. Most people need only a few plants to supply them with an abundance of squash, and now is an excellent time to plants seeds or transplants in 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 squash 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. Instead it indicates that the fruit store well and may be consumed during the winter. Types of winter squash grown locally include butternut, acorn, Turk's turban and hubbard.
Cucumbers are an easy vegetable to grow. Plant seeds or transplants in your garden now. If you buy transplants, there often is more than one plant in the pot. Pinch off all but the largest one before planting. Most gardeners allow cucumber vines to grow along the ground, but it is highly recommended to trellis them. Provide a sturdy trellis 3-4 feet tall and space plants along the base 6 inches apart. Tests conducted at LSU AgCenter research stations show substantial yield increases, as well as fewer disease problems and better-quality cucumbers, for those that are trellised.
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 its dark green leaves that stay healthy all summer and its large, bright yellow male flowers. The fruit is edible when 6-inches to 8-iniches long, and it 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 that makes 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.