Archives for posts with tag: winter squash

I’m still going through the process of evaluating last year’s plantings to determine what will go into the garden this year.  Last time (see January 15, 2014), I used three criteria:  how much we liked the vegetable; how well it grew; and, if not well, what could be done about it.  So far, I have concluded that all of the cucurbits—summer and winter squashes; cucumbers—are loved, grew reasonably well (with exceptions) and can be encouraged to grow better.

What else did we grow?  Well, lots of root vegetables.  And, I should point out, lots of root vegetable greens.  The radishes, carrots, beets and turnips all sprouted quickly and then produced a full crop of verdant leaves.  This was not at all a bad thing because I have come to enjoy the greens almost more than the roots that generate them.  Whether plucked from the garden early (as part of the thinning process) and thrown into a salad or clipped from the mature roots and sautéed, they are a delicious addition to the table.

Sadly, the roots took a lot longer to develop, if they did at all, and their eventual success was varied.  The radishes did particularly poorly with the first and second plantings yielding a root only about half of the time while the third planting never really reached maturity.  The carrots and beets performed moderately better but were painfully slow (especially the carrots) to ripen.  I don’t think any of them got as big as they could have.  The turnips were the top performers and provided both sizeable roots and plentiful greens through most of the summer.

I think we’ll give them all another chance this year (we still have plenty of seeds) but will make sure to limit their Nitrogen, by which I mean that I will not add any to the soil.  That means using fertilizers that do not contain it (i.e., those with zero as the first number in their N-P-K rating).  I will have to do some research into what might work best but that’s a topic for a future post.

I would prefer to limit the colors of the radishes and the carrots because we found that the purple varieties were the tastiest (I guess I like the flavor of anthocyanins; see October 20, 2013), followed by the red.  However, that would be difficult without buying new seed.  Our current radish and carrot seeds are “rainbow” mixtures and there is no way to determine the root color from the seed’s appearance.  I suppose this is one good reason not to buy seed mixes.

Five of the six tomato varieties we planted last year passed the taste test and for the most part, all of them performed well.  We’ll replant the Country Taste Beefsteak, the Brandywine (although, perhaps, only the yellow), the Black Cherry, and the ever-popular Sungold but we’ll skip the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  Therefore, we’ll have room for some new varieties.

And speaking of room, I think we will give each tomato plant a bit more this year.  Pruning remains a critical factor for tomato plants and the lack of space (due to the vines’ exuberant growth) compounds the issue.  The first year we gardened, we pruned too little; the next year, we pruned too much.  We’d hoped that last year would be just right and, in the beginning of the season, it was.  But then, at the peak of the summer, the tomatoes’ rapid growth overwhelmed us.

This year, we’ll plant one tomato seedling per cage and keep a closer eye on them.  Each plant will have more space to spread into and will have less impact on its neighbors.  With luck and careful pruning, each vine will remain within the confines of its own cage and will wrap around it rather than spill over the top.

Keeping the tomato plants separate will be also important to prevent the spread of blight which, having made an unwelcome appearance last year, is likely to return this year.  Once it arrived (on the Brandywine or Black Cherry vines), the blight quickly spread to the other plants.

The only vines that did not contract the disease were the Country Taste Beefsteak, which is another reason to replant them.  Even though the beefsteaks were infected by some other disorder (Septoria leaf spot?), it did not really affect their output.  Spraying everything with a bicarbonate of soda solution should also help.

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At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

It’s that time of year again (past time, actually):  Time to send the soil out for testing.

Why is it that time?  Because the growing season is over and the soil is as depleted as it will get this year.  Now is the time to add supplements or nutrients that the soil may need before the new season starts in spring.  And I won’t know what to add without an assessment of what is—or is not—there.  Also, the planters are (almost) bare so it is convenient to take samples.

Testing is becoming less critical for the east planter, which has just completed its third year of service.  Its soil needed adjustment after the first year (to increase its acidity) but received no amendments last year.  We did add a small amount of compost (to bring the soil surface higher) and may do so again this year.  Otherwise, I don’t expect that the soil’s properties have changed much.

Similarly, the soil in the west planter was nearly on the mark in terms of pH and nutrient concentrations, as evidenced by its first soil testing last year (see October 4, 2012).  It received the same treatment as the east planter (a minor infusion of compost) and in conjunction with the solid performance of this year’s crops, is unlikely to need any modifications.

The condition of the newest soil in the garden, the mounds where we planted the squashes and cucumbers, is another matter entirely.  We were not particularly careful in designing this soil and simply mixed together roughly equal parts of compost and peat moss.  It looked right and was good enough but apparently only just so.  While the summer squashes performed adequately (especially the yellow crookneck), the winter squashes and cucumbers did poorly (in fact, only one Kabocha and none of the Delicata squashes reached maturity).

Clearly, there is something missing from (or otherwise not quite right with) this soil.  Testing should help uncover what that is.

As in previous years, for each of the planters and the mounds, I dug soil from four locations, mixed it together and dumped it into a labeled zip-top bag.  I slipped each baggie into a larger one (to contain possible spillage) and packed the three sacks into a box for shipping.  To the box I added the testing lab’s forms (one for each sample) and a check to cover expenses.

Next week, I’ll send them to New Jersey and in another week to 10 days, we should have the results.

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

After an unusually warm July, we’ve been experiencing a strangely cool August.  It is great for sleeping (no need to run the air conditioner) but it is not so good for the garden.  The humidity remains high (unavoidable in the northeast in summer) and, consequently, there is a heavy dew every morning.

Anyone growing cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) knows that these conditions are conducive to powdery mildew.  And the evidence in our garden is proof.  The leaves of all of the squash plants—summer and winter—are covered with the white fuzz.  It seems to be increasing daily, almost as I watch, despite periodic (but, admittedly, infrequent) milk sprays.

Luckily (and so far, so good), the mildew has not affected squash production significantly.  New leaf growth is still quite strong, there are plenty of blossoms and the pollinators have not been interrupted.  We will still be eating squash for a few weeks (at least) to come.

Where powdery mildew seems to have the greatest negative impact is on the older end of the vine, nearest the roots.  This portion of the vine has already produced fruit and its leaves would be dying back anyway.  However, the mildew seems to speed up the process.  The question has now become, will the rate of mildew progress overtake the vine’s growth?

It’s clear who the alpha squash in our garden is:  the western Supersett Yellow crookneck.  Of the four summer varieties, it has twice the volume of leaves (treating the plant as a hemisphere) as the others and easily four times as many squash growing at any given time.  The other crookneck squash plant and one of the Cavili zucchini are next in size while the remaining zucchini plant is markedly smaller.

Equally clear is the runt:  the Zeppelin Delicata.  In fact, it is not much bigger than the summer squash seedlings were when we set them out back in May.  The Naguri winter squash (a Kabocha variant) cannot be easily compared to the others because it is a climber.  However, if I coiled it up in a pile, it would probably be about the same size as the summer squashes, not counting the alpha.

Why there is such variation is beyond me.  All of the summer squashes were started in exactly the same way, given the same watering and fertilizer, potted up and set out at the same time, into the same soil, and watered by the same hose.  Similarly, the winter squashes were sowed outdoors in the same soil and have been watered along with everyone else.  They all get the same amount of rain and solar exposure.  There are virtually no differences in their growing conditions.

I suppose there is a minor difference in the amount of water each receives.  All six squash plants are on the same soaker hose and timer, along with the cucumbers.  However, due to variations in the hose (there are actually two linked in the run) and the decrease in fluid pressure from the hose bib (high) to the capped end (low), the amount of water delivered by the hose varies along its length.  The cucumbers get the most and the Naguri gets the least.

But I don’t think that explains the differences.  The alpha squash and the runt are adjacent to each other at the far end of the soaker hose.  The difference in the amount of water each receives would be minimal.  I guess that the variations are due mainly to differences between species (crookneck, zucchini, Kabocha and Delicata) and individuals (just as there are differences between each of us).

One thing that is the same about all of the squashes is that each is showing of powdery mildew.  To combat it, I have started spraying the leaves with a solution of milk and water (diluted at a 1:10 ratio).  I’m not very optimistic—the milk is the pasteurized supermarket variety and the spray is easily washed off by rain—but I will give it a try.

While showing (off) the garden to new neighbors who just moved in at the beginning of summer, we were faced with a philosophical question:  Does spraying the squash with milk, an animal product, mean that the squash is no longer vegan?  It makes no difference to me—I’ll eat just about anything—but it could make all difference to a vegan.

Baseball has been described as a game of mostly tedious inactivity interspersed with brief moments of intense excitement.  For example, a game might go eight innings with only a scattering of hits and no score, a dull display of routine grounders and fly balls.

And then the offense makes a charge with a ground-rule double, a successful bunt and a deep line drive.  Suddenly, the bases are loaded with no outs.  The pitcher is still strong and the manager leaves him in to get out of the inning.

The outcome of the game hangs on the next few pitches and it could go either way.  Will there be a base-clearing grand slam homer or, even rarer, a triple play to save the day for the defense?  Or, as is often the case, will the excitement fizzle out with a pop fly followed by an easy double play at second and first?

Gardening could be described in a similar way.  For much of the year, nothing much changes from day to day and if one actually stopped to watch, there would not be much to see.  But an emerging seedling, new blossom, or ripening tomato can get one’s blood flowing.

In fact, there are other similarities between gardening and baseball that give it a run for the money as America’s favorite pastime.

The season starts with the intense physical activity of cleaning up the planters, starting seeds indoors and preparing new beds (spring training).  This is followed by the growing of seedlings, a potentially dull period (preseason play) that is not without its exciting moments, such as when the freshly-germinated seeds first pop through the soil surface (the emergence of a potential star player).  Of course, the non-performers must be culled (roster cuts).

Then comes early spring and the first planting of seeds and seedlings outdoors (Opening Day).  Nothing can match the exhilarating feeling of transforming a fallow garden into a verdant patch of hopefulness and promise (anything is possible).

Early Summer is for growing, which can be quite monotonous.  There can be long stretches where the garden looks more or less the same every day for a week (early season games).  But then the radishes ripen and the Sugar Snap peas start producing and the thrills of having a garden are remembered (a perfect game is pitched).

By mid-July, it is clear which vegetables, a particularly productive variety of turnips, say, are the best performers (the All-Star Game).  Favorites are determined and shared with family and friends, often accompanied by recipes.  Fellow gardeners trade seeds with each other (baseball cards).

At summer’s peak, the abundance of the garden is appreciated every day when planning dinner (give me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks).  At some point, a friend might gift a seedling of their own to try in the garden (a free agent is signed).  Throughout this period, a carefully planned order of succession planting must be followed and, sometimes, tweaked (batting order adjustments).

As summer progresses, the early performers are harvested and fade away while later season vegetables take the stage (changes in division standings).  Some develop disease or are infested by insects and have to be removed (players placed on injured reserve or out for the season).  Others will produce beyond the wildest imaginings (home run hitting records).

When fall approaches, only the plants with the greatest stamina still survive (the playoffs).  Each week, as the days shorten and the temperature cools, the tomatoes, then the string beans and next the autumn radishes (late-season surge) fall away, unable to sustain their summer success.  Finally, only the hardiest plants, such as the winter squashes are still standing (World Series champions).

After the euphoria of harvest (the Fall Classic) fades, there is a lull of activity followed by the preparation of the gardens for winter.  What grew well and what did not?  Tough decisions must be made (off-season trading).  Despite the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat, plans are made for a better garden (just wait until next year!).

Warning:  Insect photo below.

This morning, we found the culprit who has been munching its way through the basil and leaving a nasty mess behind:  a large, hairy caterpillar.  I’m not sure what it will eventually morph into (a moth, probably) but it looks more like something I would see if I put a drop of swamp water on a glass slide and looked at it under a microscope (i.e., more Parameciidae than Lepidoptera).  We clipped off the leaf it was clinging to, along with the other soiled leaves, and tossed them into the woods.

We also replanted—again—the arugula seedlings that a friend gave to us.  They had not been doing well in their pot (too small) and we are hoping that by moving them to the east raised bed (where the other lettuces have been happily growing) they will have a better shot at survival.

At the other end of the garden, the Kabocha squash plant looks to be a climber. It has been steadily creeping outward from its mound of soil, searching for something to wrap its tendrils around.  To accommodate it, we built a tripod of six-foot-high stakes (the green plastic type, tied together at the top with twine) and trained the vine up one of the legs.  Its leaves are now facing the wrong way (north) but they should soon readjust.

From the top of the tripod, we hung a temple bell that a friend gave me for my birthday (the same generous friend who gifted me the blue ceramic pot; see June 29, 2013).  Gleaming with reflected sunlight, the bell now anchors the west end of the garden and provides a meditative—and melodic—focal point for anyone passing by.

I was relieved to discover this morning that the Delicata squash seeds have finally sprouted.  We had begun to think that germination had failed and that we would need to reseed.  Apparently, they just needed a little extra time and lot of extra moisture (it rained all day yesterday).

We now have two seedlings of each winter squash variety (the other is a Kabocha variant).  We’ll let them grow a bit longer before deciding which ones to cull.

The effects of last weekend’s heat wave on the second batch of lettuce seedlings have lingered into this week and more of them have wasted away.  Of the 24 seeds I planted (three each in eight spots) and the 16 (or so) that sprouted, only three red leaf seedlings remain.

To make up for the loss, I reseeded the remaining red leaf location and all four of the romaines.  I covered each spot with an old cloth napkin (to reduce evaporation) and will keep a close eye on them.  With luck, the new seeds will sprout and the seedlings will get established before the heat returns.

I may have to do the same with the Delicata winter squash seeds if they do not sprout in a day or two.  They are well past their expected germination date and may have succumbed to the high temperatures as well (the Kabocha seeds sprouted two days ago).