A Squash to Remember:From Compost to Dinner Table21/07/2012 10:52
I had a pepper squash with my dinner tonight.Baked in the oven with butter and brown sugar.Delicious.A squash to remember.
Hard to believe that something so delicious had such humble beginnings as a compost pile put that's the truth of it.In fact,all the squash I have been growing for many years now originated as none other than kitchen scraps.When I prepare a squash for eating,I scoop out the innards including the seeds and into the compost pile they go.Like many,my compost doesn't get hot enough to render many seeds non viable,especially larger ones,so come Spring when I spread the compost on the garden various seeds sprout and grow and pepper squash are one of them.
We gardeners call such plants volunteers.A plant that we didn't purchase or intentionally grow but we're glad to have it.Well,usually glad to have it.Weeds can volunteer just as well as more desirable plants.
When I see the squash plants sprouting,I let them grow for awhile and than I choose the strongest of the bunch and transplant them to an assigned space.I usually have many seedlings to choose from but I only keep two or three of the strongest as squash plants need a fair amount of room.
Now,there is one risk of growing squash from compost volunteers and that is the possibility that you may not end up with the same squash you so enjoyed eating the previous year.Why?Cross-pollination.Squash are insect pollinated and mainly by bees.It seems bees can't resist the color yellow which squash flowers are.Being busy bees ,as the expression goes,they may have visited other squash plants in the area before arriving on yours and thus cross-pollination may occur.This will not affect the current years crop but only the genetic make up of the seeds within the squash.So,when growing squash from seeds that are the result of a cross-pollination,you can't be sure what you will get.It may be just fine or you may get a mutation from hell that simply can't be eaten.Well,no one is growing squash around me so I don't have to worry about that.My squash develop true.
Once transplanted to their sunny location,the seedlings soon take off and begin growing rapidly.It doesn't take long for the patch to get several feet across and at that point I begin to move the vines around to keep them growing in the direction I want.Squash can indeed take quite a bit of space but the vines are easily moved and I usually have them spilling out of one corner of the vegetable garden and onto the grass.They can be trained nicely along the base of a fence to keep them even more controlled.I usually shoot for about 10 squash/fruit and I find that a patch 10 feet across provides enough leaves to produce that many.At that point I will prune the vines to prevent further growth and have the plants energy directed into the developing squash.I will also cut out some of the large leaves to open the patch to sunlight penetration and air circulation.This helps prevent disease,the most common on squash being Powdery Mildew.Hate that stuff.So,depending on how many squash you want to harvest,you don't have to find yourself living in a jungle like Tarzan.Squash plants can be controlled.
Powdery Mildew can indeed be a problem but I will often prevent it by providing good air circulation and even more importantly by the way I water.I water the base of the plant,not the leaves.This is a good rule of thumb for most plants as wet leaves,especially during the night,provide a more hospitable breeding ground for disease like Powdery Mildew.Infrequent but deep watering is best for squash.Their large leaves act as a mulch and help hold moisture in the soil.
Although I haven't been bothered by them very much,another problem that can affect squash is the dreaded Squash Borer.
Squash borer is the larva of a moth and it's one of the few moths that are seen flying around during the day.It's quite similar in appearance to a wasp.The moth lays its eggs near the base of the vine and when the eggs become larva they tunnel into the vine and can eventually kill it.One way of dealing with the borer is using floating row covers.Putting them over the plant(except when blossoms are present)prevents the moth from laying eggs in the first place.
Now the waiting game begins.Once the plant is a decent size the blossoms will begin to appear but here's the rub;the first to appear are always male.Like many women,the female blossoms like to make a late entrance.I will often have only male blossoms for a couple of weeks or so before the ladies arrive.It's easy to tell the difference between the males and females.The males always leave the toilet seat up.I'm joking.No,the male blossoms are on a long stem and the females a much shorter stem with a swelling(ovary)at the base of the blossom.This swelling is where the baby squash will develop once the males and females do their thing.What thing?Why plant sex of course.But that can't happen until the females arrive.Well,they do eventually arrive so we now have male and female blossoms at the same time.But there's another problem.In order to get a baby squash,the pollen from the male blossom has to get over to the female blossom.You've heard of the birds and the bees?Well,this is where they come in.Just the bees to be specific.As I said before,bees love the colour yellow or however they see that colour as bees see colours different than we do but none the less,bees are the primary pollinators of squash.Excuse me for a moment will you,it's Miller Time.
I'm back.What was I saying?Oh yes,bees are needed to transfer the pollen from the male to the female blossom.That's all well and good when one has lots of bees buzzing around but in recent years the honey bee population has steeply declined.It's called Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder.A mouth full that means a hell of a lot of bees have died.I blame the over use of pesticides but scientists are not clear on the cause.It may be pesticides or a virus or both.Whatever the cause,I didn't have any bees so I had a problem.The female blossoms had arrived but they had no way to get together with the males so to speak.
The problem called for me to play the role of Cupid and I was equal to the task.It's called hand pollination.Oh,I was as nervous as virgins on their honeymoon but a man has to do what he has to do.It's not that difficult but you have to get enough pollen onto the female or the blossom may abort.Some will just take a fine paint brush or say a Q-Tip,get it coated in the male pollen and than rub it on the female stigma but I find too much pollen remains clinging to the brush or Q-Tip.I prefer rough sex.I cut the male blossom right off the vine,trim off it's petals to better expose the pollen and shove it into the female blossom and rub it all over the stigma.It's brutal but effective.I do the same with the other blossoms and than I have a nice smoke.Nothing like a smoke after sex.Even plant sex.
You will know if your role as Cupid worked if that swelling beneath the female blossom begins to swell even more.That means you have a squash developing.If for some reason it didn't work,the whole blossom will fall off.Well,the majority of my ladies became pregnant and I was quite proud.
Now it's back to waiting again.Squash take awhile to develop so one has to be patient.I would water them deeply once a week or so and give them a feeding now and than.I did get some Powdery Mildew but nothing life threatening.It looks like hell but Powdery Mildew is rarely fatal unless it completely coats the leaves.I pruned off the few badly coated leaves and used a baking soda solution to help keep it from spreading more.
The gardening season went on and I was kept busy with my other vegetables while my squash continued to develop.It's a very satisfying feeling watching them get bigger and bigger.Being Winter squash,you want the outer shell to get nice and hard before harvesting them.Mine were getting to that point as the main gardening season was winding up and I knew it wouldn't be long now.
Finally.Harvest time.They were a decent size and the shells nice and hard.I came out with a sharp knife to sever one from the vine but I hesitated.I took a moment to reflect on what had led up to this point.From kitchen scrap seeds sprouting in compost to beautiful,healthy mature squash.With a bit of love making in between.
Truly a squash to remember.