Squash offers an easy-to-grow bumper crop

Tasty vegetables chock full of vitamin C, plus antioxidants in the summer

From (A) Acorn to (Z) Zucchini, there is a squash for almost ever letter of the alphabet.

Your choices don't stop there - challenge your taste buds for squash that look like spaghetti or taste like sweet potatoes. Known collectively as cucurbits (which also includes pumpkins, gourds, melons and cucumbers), members of the squash family continue to fascinate gardeners and are relatively easy to grow.

Squash find their origin in Central and South America from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. We know Native Americans have grown squash for centuries.

There are two groups of squash: Summer and winter.

Summer squash grows on non-vining bushes. Varieties come in different shapes and colors. There are even varieties suitable for container gardening. The three main types include: yellow straight neck or crooked neck squash, which have yellow skins that can be smooth or bumpy; scalloped or Patty-pan, which is usually white but can be yellow or green, and is flat with scalloped edges; and of course zucchini, either oblong or round, green, gray or gold.

Summer squash mature quickly, in as little as 50 days from seed. Summer squash is the most tasty and tender when harvested young. Harvest squash when the skin is still soft enough to be penetrated by the thumbnail.

Pick Patty-pan when they are four to six inches in diameter. Pick crooked neck or straight neck when they are six to eight inches.

Pick zucchini when the fruits are four to six inches long, unless you like to stuff your zucchini.

Don't allow summer squash to grow overripe. Huge zucchini may be impressive, but you forfeit quality and reduce the yield if you allow then to grow too large.

Keep harvesting for continuous production right up to the first frost. Remove fruits by cutting stems with a sharp knife, since pulling or twisting can damage the plant

Winter squash varies widely in shape and color. Bush plants require less space but often produce fewer fruit. Most of the winter squash vine, from three to 10 feet, requiring a lot of space. Winter squash include: acorn (excellent for stuffing or baking), Hubbard, delicate (sweet potato-like flesh) banana, and spaghetti (a pasta substitute). Winter squash take longer to mature than their summer cousins, and you wait to harvest them until their skins are too tough for a thumb nail to penetrate them.

Few vegetables are easier to grow than squash. The plants need four basic elements to thrive: full sun, warm temperatures, fertile soil and consistent moisture. But they do not like wet feet! Almost any well drained soil and at least six hours of sun daily will produce a good crop of squash. Soil with plenty of organic matter is always helpful.

Drip irrigation is best. If you have no other choice but to hand or overhead water, do it in the morning so the leaves dry rapidly. This helps prevent foliar diseases.

Squash can be started indoors in peat pots, peat pellets or toilet paper tubes three to four weeks before the last frost.

Squash seedlings do not like to be transplanted, so start them in something that can be placed directly in the soil that decomposes so the fragile roots are not disturbed. Be sure to harden off (gradually getting them exposed to direct sun) the transplants before placing them in the soil.

Squash are more commonly started by planting seeds directly in soil. Wait until after the last possible frost and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees. In heavy soils, plant them 1 inch deep; plant them up to 2 inches deep in sandy soils. Space plants 3 feet apart with 4 to 5 feet between rows.

As a general rule, the closer you plant, the smaller your yields will be. Germination usually takes seven to 10 days. In many areas where drainage is a problem or lots of rain is received, seeds are planted on mounds. If you do not have a drainage problem, mounding is not necessary. Squash are heavy feeders and require moderate amounts of nitrogen and high amounts of phosphorus. A 5-10-10, or 5-10-5 fertilizer worked into the soil will help insure a bumper crop.

All squash plants have both male and female flowers. The male flowers always show up first, so don't be worried if your first blossoms fall off. The female blossom is the one to produce your fruit. Hopefully you have some pollinators to carry the pollen from the male to the female flower.

Squash are perfect for any budget; often just two or three squash plants will yield enough fruit for a small family. You can also feel good about eating it: low-calorie and chock full of vitamin C, it also contains potassium and magnesium. In addition, summer squash contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents.

Smell, taste and enjoy a variety of delectable squash this summer.