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Peak Pick: Summer Squash

Summer squash is the over achiever of any garden. Planted early or late, there is always a point in the season where a single plant will produce more than any reasonably sized family could ever hope to consume. It’s also one of the most commonly planted home garden vegetables so sometime around the middle of summer, my neighborhood (like most around the country I suspect) becomes a surplus summer squash exchange where gardeners compete to place their excess with an ever dwindling list of willing recipients. The peak production period for most any plant is like this, but summer squash is in a class by itself — once the plant is established it seems there is no limit to the amount of squash it can produce. Amber and Stella of Balakian Farms — Reedley, California Commercial summer squash production is similarly feast or famine. In the cold winter months, production settles into the southernmost parts of the U.S. and Mexico, and supplies are extremely tight and unpredictable. As winter gives way to spring, summer squash production migrates northward to virtually all parts of the U.S. By mid-summer, it’s everywhere and the summer surplus exchange plays out on a much larger and grander scale. The multiple harvest aspect of summer squash is very attractive to growers — it is not uncommon for a single planting to yield a dozen or more harvests. Early in the season the harvest of squash blossoms for stuffing is another source of income. Zucchini Blossoms — Yolo County, California The term “summer squash” is actually a designator for what stage the squash is harvested. Summer squash is harvested young — or at an immature stage as compared to winter varieties. There are hundreds of commercial varieties of summer squash produced in the U.S. Most are variations on the three most common zucchini, yellow and round flat types (like the yellow sunburst). In the last few years there has been a resurgence of interest in heirloom varieties and cross breeding with modern types to develop new breeds. Some farmers have also taken to harvesting traditional winter squash varieties at an early “summer” stage – producing “summer style” winter squash with very interesting flavor characteristics. “Summer-stage” winter squash — Reedley, California The peak for commercial (and garden) summer squash production coincides with grilling season, so my most common way to prepare squash in the summer is grilling (either chunked in kebabs or sliced into thick strips for direct grilling). When I haven’t fired up the grill, a simple sauté in olive oil with the last of the fresh oregano from my herb garden is my inside back up. There is also the shredded cheddar on top of sautéed squash version from my childhood that seems to work with my kids as well. 2010 harvest of pumpkins, “hard” summer and winter squashes My new strategy for using my surplus summer squash is to plant later – this enables me to mooch off of my neighbors in the early summer and still have a crop of my own. I also discovered that summer squashes that I allow to stay on the plant continue to grow to truly mutant proportions and, like their winter cousins, develop a hard outer shell. This has given me a whole new generation of Halloween carving squashes to experiment with in the fall. Common varieties like Zucchini, Scaloppini and Sunburst are easier to carve than many of the other hard squash varieties and the range of shapes and sizes make for a fun blend with pumpkins. Also remember if you are removing young pumpkins off the vine to enable the plant to focus on a single pumpkin, they too can be prepared like summer squash. How do you prepare your surplus summer squash? My neighbor gardeners and I would all love to know.