Vital Veggie for October: Squashes

Growing perfect squash

Squash and pumpkins have been enjoyed on South African dinner tables for centuries. This is not surprising considering how delicious they are and the ease with which they grow.

Starting Off

Most squash varieties need quite a bit of space in which to grow and have historically only been grown by gardeners with large vegetable gardens. Fortunately, through modern hybridising techniques, new cultivars have been developed that will not take over large areas and can be grown in most gardens. A quick look on the back of the seed packet will tell you if the cultivar is suitable for your garden.

It is advisable to plant your squash seed as soon as all danger of frost has passed. Alternatively, they can be started off early in pots kept in a sheltered, frost-free environment and planted out once the weather has warmed up. If you live in the Lowveld, you can plant throughout the year. Squash perform at their best in a deeply dug bed that has had plenty of compost and well-rotted manure turned into it. Plant the seed in stations of about 450mm in diameter and 1m apart (less for bush varieties) and grow 3 to 5 seed per planting station.

General Care

Keep the soil constantly moist until the seedlings are established, and then water deeply whenever the soil starts to dry out. If possible, water by flood irrigation as this reduces the chances of fungal attack. Feeding the plants with a balanced fertiliser or liquid manure every few weeks will give you the best results. Because of their trailing habit, most varieties can be trained up trellises to help conserve space. When the fruit gets bigger, give it some support so that it does not snap off prematurely.


You can look forward to picking your first fruit in as little as three months, less if you are growing baby varieties. With pumpkins and Hubbard squash, only harvest once the skin has lost its shine and hardened. It is important to use a sharp knife or pair of secateurs to cut the stem about 50mm above the fruit. If the stem is snapped off at the base, a wound is opened which will be susceptible to bacterial attack, drastically reducing storage potential. Once harvested, keep the fruit in a cool, well-ventilated place and it should last for a number of months.

There is a huge variety of squash and pumpkin seeds available – visit your local GCA Garden Centre and take your pick!


1) Gem squash

Gem squash is one of South Africa’s most popular vegetables. Originally from Central America, it was hybridised locally many years ago.  

  • Pinch off the tips to contain the spread of the plant and produce better quality fruit. This helps the root system to sustain the plant.
  • Don’t wet the leaves when watering, as gems are very susceptible to mildew.
  • Supplement with a kelp-based tonic if feeding is necessary. Apply to the leaves in the morning so that they dry out by nightfall
  • If growing on a trellis, support the fruit as the stems are brittle and snap easily.
  • Gem squashes are ready for harvesting within 70-90 days. The skin should be hard when harvested.

2) Baby marrows and patty pans

These bushy squashes are easy to grow, prolific producers and quick to harvest (65 days), making them ideal for the home veggie gardener.

  • Each plant needs about 1m² of space for growing.
  • Start plants as early as possible because they suffer from mildew during the rainy season, which shortens their productive span.
  • They need plenty of water and are drought sensitive because of their shallow root system.
  • Water the plants deeply around the base so that the leaves remain dry, and mulch to keep the leaves off the moist soil.
  • Feed twice during the growing season with a potassium-rich fertiliser (3:1:5).
  • The squashes form quickly once the female flower has dropped. Remove the fruit by cutting it off the stem with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors.

3) Butternut

This squash needs a lot of space, but can be grown vertically in a small garden. Although the fruit can take more than 100 days to mature, it is worth the wait.

  • Being a long-season crop, butternut requires fertile soil.
  • Water the soil and not the leaves, to avoid diseases like mildew. Don’t handle plants when they are wet.
  • Once the vines have grown about 6-7m, pinch off the growing tips to encourage fruit-bearing side shoots.
  • By mid-summer, a plant will have set all the fruit that can mature before winter, so remove all remaining flowers to allow the plant to put its energy into ripening the crop.
  • Keep maturing fruit off the soil by putting a board, mulch or a rock under the fruit. Fruit that is suspended in the air should be supported.
  • Harvest when the skins have lost their shine and are a rich colour. Pick with 5cm of stalk so that there is no entry point for fungus to develop when storing.

Zucchini cake

This moist cake is very similar to carrot cake, and with a cream cheese frosting is a real winner.

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon mixed spice
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 cups grated zucchini
1 cup chopped nuts (macadamias, pecans, walnuts)
½ cup raisins
1 tub cream cheese (250 g)
¼ cup butter
3 cups icing sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Sift the flour, bicarbonate, baking powder, spices and salt together and set aside.
  3. Add the eggs to a mixing bowl and beat on high speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, oil, vanilla essence and lemon zest in batches, beating continuously until well incorporated.
  4. Fold in the zucchini, nuts and raisins.
  5. Butter a large Pyrex dish and pour in the mixture. Bake for 45-50 minutes until set in the middle.
  6. Leave to cool before adding the frosting.
  7. For the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together and gradually add the icing sugar.
  8. Add the lemon juice and beat.
  9. Spoon over the cooled cake and serve.
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