News from the Reference Desk Category: Gardening

Squash Pollination

This time of year, home gardeners are seeing lots of flowers on their maturing squash plants. Squash and cucumbers are monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers are present on the same plant. The male and female flowers are similar in appearance but the female has immature fruit at its base.

honeynut squash bud

Pollinated female flower on winter squash plant

Pollinators (mostly bees in this case) are needed to fertilize the female flowers with the pollen of the male flowers in order to develop fruit. Male flowers are the first to appear on squash plants and the female flowers follow within a few weeks. As the female flowers develop, fruit should start to be formed and be visible on the plant. But in recent years, due to the reduction in the number of natural pollinators in our environment, squash gardeners have complained of poor fruit production but many flowers. Squash plants can be hand pollinated if bees are not present in the garden.

Remedies for increasing the bee population include eliminating the use of pesticides and insecticides in the vegetable garden and other chemical lawn treatments. Suburban home owners feel compelled to have green lush lawns of grass, but the use of chemicals is decimating bee populations.

Here’s an informative article about how important bees are in gardens and remedies to protect pollinators: Illinois Extension: Good Growing–Bee Lazy for Pollinators

Asclepias Tuberosa aka Butterfly Weed

One beneficial perennial plant that every home gardener should consider growing is Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa). Besides being a native Illinois plant, Butterfly Weed  provides larval food for Monarchs and its nectar is enjoyed by honeybees other species of butterflies as well.

asclepias tuberosa plant (aka butterfly weed)

Asclepias Tuberosa buds before flowering

On top of all that, Butterfly Weed (also called milkweed, a term applied to all Asclepias species) is attractive in the garden and is easy to grow if it is planted in the right spot. It likes lots of sun and drier soil conditions, and like many natives, it is drought resistant. Butterfly Weed emerges later in the spring, so gardeners should be careful when doing early clean-ups in the garden so as to not disturb its seasonal development.

Check out this 2017 informative article from the Illinois Extension: Butterfly Weed – Perennial Plant of the Year.

Curcubit Pests

Cucumbers, pumpkins, summer and winter squash are all from the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family. And being from the same family (as in taxonomic rank), all varieties of curcubits can succumb to the same diseases and pests.

minicuke flowerAt this stage of the growing season (i.e. late June), curcubits typically are flowering and getting ready to set fruit. One may even be seeing fruit on the vines of these plants. But now is the time to beware of common problems associated with these plants in the home garden.

Squash beetles, squash bugs, and squash vine borers are prevalent in northeast Illinois. These pests specifically target curcubits in all forms but there are methods to take that can eradicate or mitigate their effect on the plant’s health. Powdery mildew is another common problem associated with curcubits and can be avoided if they are well-spaced in the garden and located in full sun.

Here is some useful information on how to deal with these problems from the Illinois Extension: Good Growing–The Trouble with Curcubits.

Hot Weather Watering

Now that the days are warming up and hot weather is here to stay, watering the vegetable garden can be a tricky business. The most common mistake a new vegetable gardener can make is over-watering. Outdoor garden plants generally need about one inch of water per week.

watering cans

The best approach is to water deeply and infrequently (i.e. weekly). Deep watering encourages deep root growth–if watering is done often and sparsely, roots will will stay nearer the soil surface, eventually stunting plant growth. Rainfall should be taken in to account when assessing the water needs of garden plants. One strategy to ensure sufficient watering is to water at the base of a plant and count to 20. Come back in 30 minutes and check to see if the soil is moist down at least 6 inches.

The timing of when to water is also an important consideration. On hot days, it’s best to water very early in the morning before the sun is hot enough to evaporate the soil moisture of newly watered plants. Some home gardeners opt to water in the evening during hot weather, but if the leaves of garden plants are left wet overnight one risks the growth of powdery mildew.

The use of mulch (straw, wood chips, leaves etc.) can help retain soil moisture and suppress weed growth. In the case of tomatoes and potatoes, mulch serves an extra purpose as it keeps the soil from splashing on the leaves and infecting the plant with soil-borne fungi and disease.

Check out this article for more information: Illinois Extension: New Vegetable Garden Maintenance–Weed and Watering.

Garlic Scape Season

bed of garlicGrowing garlic in home gardens is easy and fun. And one of the best times of the year for growing garlic is garlic scape time!

There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Softneck is typically the variety sold in grocery stores as it can be stored longer than hardneck. Hardneck garlic is the variety that produces a garlic scape–essentially a hard flower stalk

bed of garlicGarlic scapes should be cut from the stalk when they are long enough to curl back toward the stalk. By removing them, the plant will be using it’s energy to increase the garlic bulb/head size instead of toward flowering and seed production.

Garlic scapes are also delicious and can be used in place of garlic in most any recipe. Here’s a link to some recipe ideas: University of Illinois Extension: Game for Garlic Scapes?

Here in northeast Illinois, garlic should be planted in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before the ground is expected to freeze. But even garlic planted in late November to early December can produce good-sized garlic heads. Garlic is typically ready to harvest in mid to late July. Check out this guide from the University of Illinois Extension: Growing Garlic.