August 8 is the day, or rather night, to celebrate a long-standing, but often overlooked national holiday: "National Sneak Some Zucchini On Your Neighbor's Porch Night."

Please sneak some onto mine! I adore zucchini. We use it fresh in many dishes. It also freezes well, either raw and grated or sliced and lightly steamed. At the holidays, take some out of the freezer and make yummy chocolate zucchini bread. Great to give because it is a fruitcake everyone enjoys.

Yes, zucchini is a fruit, not a vegetable. If it has seeds in it, it's a fruit.

I mention this fine fruit now because it is not too late to plant some. Desert gardening books and the Cooperative Extension Office will swear that July 31 is the last planting date for summer and winter squashes, but I have had success planting squash as late as Labor Day. The only drawback is that you may not get as much produce before a hard frost kills the plants.

Which squash to plant? As I always say, plant what you like. Don't like zucchini? Don't plant it. But have you ever had the really fresh stuff, right out of the garden? Not the stuff picked underripe and six weeks earlier then shipped across the country. Better yet, try the zucchini kin, yellow summer squash. Sweet and tasty. I even eat them raw, dipped in dill chip dip.

Ideally, start summer (soft-skinned) squash May 1 to July 31.

Some summer squash to try: Clarimore cousa, costata Romanesco, crooknecks of all variety, Peter Pan or Patty Pan, ronde de Nice, spineless beauty, scallops including butter, sunburst, and green, straightnecks, sundrop, yellow squash, zephyr, zucchetta rampicante, zebra zucchini, and plain old fashioned zucchini. Some taste nutty, some are naturally

buttery flavored, some are awesome grilled while others are best lightly steamed. Experiment!

Ideally, start winter (hard-skinned) squash July 1 to July 31. The name comes from the fact that you can store hard-skinned squash through the winter. Choose from: acorn, available as green or orange, buttercup, butternut, chestnut, delicata, golden nugget, Hubbard, pumpkin, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, and turban. The time frame is more important with the hard-skinned squash, because they must be fully ripe before harvesting, otherwise they can be bitter. Most winter squash take 100 to 120 days to mature. You could still plant Halloween pumpkins since you don't eat them.

Soil — Squash grow fine in well-drained desert soil that has some added compost. Ten to 50 percent compost is good. To start your garden, till compost in at least 18 inches deep, 24 inches is better. In subsequent years you only need to turn over the top 6 to 8 inches.

Plant — Squash grow well in hills or rows. Site rows or hills three feet apart for summer squash, five feet for winter squash. Sow three to five seeds per hill.

Water — Keep soil moist until plants have eight to 10 leaves. Then start watering deeper and less often. Squash leaves will naturally droop in the afternoon sun. If the leaf stalks (petioles) start to droop as well, your plants need water.

Fruit — Flowers need pollination for fruit set. If the bees don't visit your garden, use a small paint brush to transfer pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers, or simply pick the male flower, peel off the petals, and use the whole thing as your brush.

Fertilizer doesn't hurt once your plants are well established. Use a fruiting fertilizer, like "tomato food." Remember, you may call it a vegetable, but the plants know they are producing fruit.

Why not start some squash this weekend? Once you have a garden growing and taste delicious fresh squash, you'll be hooked. Next year you can start early enough to have some zucchini for "Sneak Some on Your Neighbors Porch Night."

Jacqueline has been gardening in the Southwest since childhood. Dr. Soule has been writing articles about how to garden successfully in our area for over two decades. Look for her column in these pages every week.

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