Q: I planted a new variety of winter squash this year. Everything was fine until a week ago. Now this plant is like a monster escaped from a horror movie. It is sending out tentacles all over the garden, on top of the other vegetables. Can I chop off some of it, or would that kill the baby squashes which are starting to grow?
A: Squash vines can grow at an amazing speed in hot weather, can’t they? I have been tempted to put a ruler under a vine tip on some morning and check to see how far it progressed by evening.
You can control the size of your vine a little, but not until its squash are well started. You can also exert a little control over its direction. You don’t want to cut off leaves; they are feeding the growing squash. In our short summers, those squash need to grow at maximum speed. To remove pieces of vine would slow down their growth, increasing the chance that they would not be mature when frost comes.
First of all, plan to allow only one squash on each branch of the vine. If they are going to be big squash – Hubbard, for instance – do not try to grow more than one squash on a whole plant. The plants will keep on starting new squash. If you permit them to grow, you will end the summer with a collection of immature squash.
Some squash may dry up before they get well started. Let them grow long enough to be sure that they are healthy. At that point, cut off new squash as they appear. Whenever any branch of the vine has a developing squash, you also can pinch the tip of that branch. That will encourage its leaves to feed its squash instead of its tip.
Since your vines are already colonizing the whole garden, try to control their direction. You have three options. If there is lawn nearby, move the vines so that they are crawling across the grass. Move them gently, since the stems are stiff and hollow. You don’t want them to break.
You can also train your vines to grow in a circle around the base of the plant. Curl them around and push a stake into the ground outside the curve, forcing the vine to keep circling. You may need to keep moving the stake as the vine grows and tries to straighten itself out.
The third possibility is to take to the air. Put a trellis near the base of the plant and teach the vine to climb. You will need to support each developing squash so that its weight does not pull the vine back down. A sling made from old pantyhose or a mesh onion bag will work. Do not try this trick with a Hubbard squash; it might pull down the whole trellis.
Next year, repeat one of the tricks. Or allow each vining squash a huge space. Eight feet on each side is about right. Or look for squash varieties which are supposed to grow compact vines.
Taming tomato plants
Q: What should I do about my tomato plants? They are going wild, growing outside their cages, tangling up with each other.
A: As with squash plants, you want tomatoes to keep as many leaves as possible. That will give you more ripe tomatoes. And, as with squash, there are some tomato plants which outgrow the space you have assigned to them. It may be necessary to prune them a little, but the techniques are slightly different than with squash.
If one branch of a tomato plant outgrows all the others, don’t hesitate to shorten it. A very tall stem which develops a flower cluster is doomed to bend and perhaps break when tomatoes replace the flowers and add their weight to the stem. A branch which develops tomatoes in a path is likely to die in traffic. Any of these problem stems can be cut back.
There are two considerations to keep in mind when pruning tomatoes. Never cut off leaves which shade tomatoes from the sun. At this altitude tomatoes in full sun will probably get yellow and white areas of sunscald. In another week or two it is time to cut off all the tomato flowers. They have no future, since they will not have long enough to turn into mature tomatoes before cold weather strikes down the plants. Let the leaves feed tomatoes which have a chance of reaching maturity.
Signs of watermelon ripeness
Q: Do you know of any way to tell when my watermelons are ripe?
A: There are a couple of ways to make an educated guess. Thump the melon with your knuckles every day. When it stops sounding like a piece of wood and sounds hollow, it is ripe. Also, when the patch of skin which lies against the ground changes from light green to yellow, the melon is ripe.
The most exact test is the weight. When you think that a melon is approaching ripeness, begin weighing it every day. When its weight does not change for three days, it is ripe.
Q: I would buy some compost except that I am worried about herbicides in it. What if it contained grass clippings from sprayed lawns? Wouldn’t it kill my vegetables and flowers?
A: You don’t need to worry. Commercial compost from any municipal area is mostly made from trees. If it once contained any herbicide residue from grass, the herbicide is gone, broken down into other substances or volatilized during the composting process. There have been several experiments in recent years, and all agree that these commercial composts are safe to use.
Perhaps you are thinking of the problems from manure which contained knapweed killers, particularly Tordon. Those chemicals did not break down inside grazing animals; they stayed in the manure. In garden soil they very gradually changed over several years. Until they broke down, they did distort or kill plants.
Tordon is no longer used around here. There are three agricultural herbicides which could exist in manure. They would not be in compost. These herbicides break down in two to five years, and local ranchers should all be aware of the potential problem. Furthermore, a regulation new this year requires hay containing these herbicides to be fed only on the property where the hay was grown. It still is smart to ask about herbicides if you are given manure, but there are more and more protections for gardeners.