The Gourd Family — a Spindly Bunch

The Cucurbitaceae or gourd family is a sizeable group of both edible and decorative fruit-bearing plants. Plants in this family are most recognizable by the long, spindly vines that creep across the ground bearing plump fruit. Home gardeners with limited space can enjoy growing this species by choosing varieties that grow on smaller vines and in bush form.

Most of the gourd family is monoecious, which means that separate male and female flowers appear on the same plant. Male flowers will appear first with the role of attracting bees and other pollinators. Female flowers, the ones that produce fruit, cannot do so without these male flowers. A female flower can be distinguished by a visible ovary, which looks like a miniature fruit that develops just below the flower.

The gourd family does not do well in cold weather and it is not frost hardy. Plant seeds two weeks after the frost free date. The soil is warmer at this time and many of the early insects have already laid eggs. Plant two to three seeds on a mound or hill of well-draining, compost-rich soil. This mound of soil will allow the plant to grow deeper roots, often preferred by members of the gourd family.

If you must have a jump start on the growing season you may start seeds indoors but only by two weeks. Plant seeds in a peat pot to allow for the entire pot to be planted in the soil-this family does not like to be transplanted and having its roots disturbed. Planting will be almost impossible once the seedlings start to vine.

Cucumbers can be grown to spread along the ground, up a trellis or fence, or in a container with or without a trellis. They need 6-8 hours of full sun and warm soil 70 degrees and above. Cucumbers like rich, organic, moist soil. Try to avoid overhead watering which encourages mildew. Bush cucumbers are smaller plants that grow well in smaller gardens and containers.

Types of cucumbers:

  • Slicing cucumbers tend to have a uniform dark green, waxy skin. The skin and seeds taste bitter.
  • Pickling cucumbers have small fruit that should be picked while it’s young.
  • English cucumbers are longer and narrower than slicing cucumbers, with a thinner skin. These are sometimes called burpless cucumbers due to the lack of seeds.

Depending on the cucumber variety, fruit will be ready to harvest between 50 and 75 days. Pick often to encourage productivity. Pick cucumbers early for a tastier salad; the larger they grow the more bitter they taste. Cucumbers are ripe, and very bitter, when they’ve turned yellow on the vine.

Melons, including cantaloupe, muskmelon and watermelon, grow slowly and love warm weather. Some gardeners, due to the plant size and need for heat, will let melons grow on their compost pile. Melons require plenty of moisture when growing. Never let the soil dry out except when the fruit is ripening. Dryer soil will produce more sugar and less water in the fruit.

  • Cantaloupes are muskmelons with a netted rind. They like warm temperatures, 65 degrees and up, and ripen best in hot, dry conditions. Ohio tends to be a bit humid for these, so choose a garden spot with well-drained soil and plenty of air circulation.
  • Watermelons need a long growing season with high temperatures, 70-80 degrees and up during the day and 65-70 degrees at night. The smaller fruit varieties tend to perform better for Ohio gardeners. Harvest when the tendrils near the fruit dry out and turn brown. Ripe fruit will sound muted and dull when thumped.

Squash also thrives in warm weather and compost-rich soil. Plant groups of two to three seeds, 1-inch deep and 24 to 36 inches apart on mounds of garden soil. Be sure to water them thoroughly after planting.

Summer squash are productive summer vegetables. You do not need many plants to supply enough for the whole family. Summer squash vines tend to be shorter than others in the gourd family. The fruit should be harvested when it is still immature and tender. Don’t wait too long to harvest as these mature rapidly and will over-ripen quickly. Popular summer squash varieties include yellow crookneck, yellow straight neck, patty pan and zucchini.

Despite the name, Winter squash does not grow in colder months. Rather, the name comes from the fruit’s long storage life. Winter squash tends to grow on longer vines so they’ll need more space. Leave fruit on the vine until fully ripened with a hard rind. Popular winter squash varieties include butternut, acorn, spaghetti and Hubbard.

Almost anyone can grow one of the edible members of the Cucurbitaceae family despite the size of the garden or the skill of the gardener. If anything, they’re a fun plant to grow and provide a great learning experience. Give them a try.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.