Homegrown column Aug. 22, 2009
• I planted two yellow hook-neck squash plants and I am getting a lot of buds, but the squash only grow to the size of a peanut then shrivel up. What am I not doing?
Squash shriveling up before they have a chance to size up and ripen can be caused by several things. Sometimes it’s just that the plant isn’t growing well. Make sure you’re doing all you can to make it happy. Water deeply but allow the soil to dry just a bit before soaking again. Fertilize every four to six weeks. If the plants are looking good and healthy, this probably isn’t the problem. But it doesn’t hurt to check on things.
The second possibility is that the plant isn’t mature enough to produce fruit. You see, squash produces male and female flowers, and you need both for successful fruit development. Sometimes you’ll get one kind of flower but not the other. The female flowers are easy to identify because they all have a miniature fruit just below the flower (the males don’t) and if it isn’t pollinized, that embryonic fruit will shrivel up and die. If this is the case, you just need to be patient. In time, the plant will produce both flowers and fruit will start coming.
The last possibility is that there’s something interfering with pollinization. Squash are pollinized by insects, usually bees and flies. Anything that interferes with their activity will result in poor fruit set. Be careful about spraying insecticides around the plants; you might be killing off the guys you need for fruit. If you’re using row covers to protect the plants, you’ll have to uncover them so the insects can get to them.
• We just moved into our house that has some cherry trees that have been neglected for four years. We noticed that the cherries are very small. What can we do to improve the size of the cherries?
— Sherri, Bend, Ore.
Small fruit is usually because of one of three problems. The first is general stress on the plant. You mentioned that the tree has been neglected for several years and that could explain the problem. Get on a program to take good care of the tree. See that it’s watered deeply but infrequently. Fertilize it in the spring when it sprouts new growth. It might take a couple of years but, in time, you should see the plant (and the fruit) respond.
The second problem is stress caused by insect or disease infestation. There are a number of potential culprits to blame. I don’t know what all is common out your way, but around here our main problem is an insect called peach tree borer. Look closely at the base of the trunk (right at ground level). Peach tree borer tunnels around under the bark down here where nobody notices until significant damage has been done to the tree.
If you have the borer, you’ll usually see a gummy jelly-like ooze at the base; sometimes it may be hard and dried up. There are some drench treatments to apply around the base of the tree to control it. While you’re looking there, take a close look at the entire trunk and the lower part of the main branches. You’re looking for things that shouldn’t be there. Those include cracking and peeling bark, oozing sap, sunken or discolored areas of bark, holes, sawdust, etc. If you see anything, let me know or talk to a good independent garden center in your area or your local Extension office for diagnosis and advice.
The last possibility is overbearing by the tree. A fruit tree can only successfully ripen so much fruit on it. Usually, the tree regulates that well, but sometimes things go awry and the tree needs help shedding the excess fruit. Honestly, I hardly ever see this problem on cherries (usually apples and peaches), but I suppose it is possible. My suspicion is that your trouble lies with one of the first two reasons I outlined.