Danger of Squashing

Thanksgiving is a most appropriate time to put together a truly American meal, one made up of native plants, many of which are easily grown, that might have shown up on the original Thanksgiving table about 400 years ago.

(The date of that first feast was 1623 but the date for celebrating Thanksgiving in all states— on the final Thursday in November — was not fixed until 1863, with a presidential proclamation. Lincoln hoped that a unified date throughout the country would help unify the nation during the divisive days of the Civil War. Not so. Confederate States refused to accept that date until the next decade, during Reconstruction. Another presidential proclamation, by F.D.R. changed the date to the 4th Thursday of November, in an attempt to boost the economy. Would a new date help now?)

On to garden history . . . Back in early November, I picked a 20 pound berry that was growing from my compost pile. Actually, I harvested about a dozen of these heavy berries. Don’t imagine them in terms of strawberries or blueberries. Imagine a winter squash, which botanically-speaking is a berry, a special kind of berry called a pepo. Squashes are native American fruits.

Twenty pounds is no lightweight for a squash. Nothing like the 2,023 pound (still a berry) record-holding pumpkin, of course, but big nonetheless. Especially so when you consider that mine weren’t grown to vie for any records, but for eating.

Argonaut is the variety name of my 20 pound berries. It seems to be a kind of butternut squash stretched out anywhere from 20 to 30 inches long and 8 inches across at its fattest point. It’s relatively easy to grow if you can figure out where to let the 20-foot-long vines trail. In May I had sown the seeds in 4-inch pots and then transplanted a few right atop my compost bin. I put another couple into compost-filled holes I had scooped out in a mountain of leaves (for future use, after rotting down into rich “leaf mold”) kindly deposited here by a local landscaper.Argonaut squash hanging in basement

Argonaut needs a long season before the fruits turn buff tan ripe. Longer than my plants got, this year, at least, because only some of them had only some ripe color. Still, they taste very good, and squashes will ripen, to some degree, after harvest.

The question is what to do with a dozen humongous squashes. Ideal storage is in a cool room: my basement, where temperatures no and in the next few weeks will be in the low 50s. Mice occasionally make their way into my basement. They could make many meals of the squashes. I mouse-proofed each one by tying it with a sturdy length of rope in a noose around its neck, then hanging it from the basement rafters.

More Than a Snack Food

Corn is another native American food, with popcorn predating that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements almost 7000 years old. Four hundred years ago, the Pawtuxet Indian Chief, Massasoit, showed up at the first Thanksgiving feast with a deerskin sack filled with popcorn, a food hitherto unknown to the colonists.

Popcorn is the corn I’ll bring to our Thanksgiving table. Most people eat popcorn as a snack, but there’s no reason it couldn’t stand-in for potatoes, rice, bread, or any other carbohydrate-rich foods. Popcorn has the advantage of always being whole grain, and being very quick and easy to prepare.Popcorn hanging from kitchen rafters

Corn was the best grain crop to grow in the rude conditions of a settler’s clearing. Little land preparation was needed, and the ripe ears could be left dangling on the stalks until there was time for harvest. I could grow it under “ruder” conditions, but I plant it in compost-enriched soil with drip irrigation for consistent water. Two 12-foot long by 3-foot wide beds provide enough popcorn to carry us through the year to the next harvest season.

Since harvest, a few weeks ago, unshelled ears of Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter popcorn have been hanging from the kitchen rafters, decoratively and conveniently at hand.

Bogless Cranberries

Cranberries are among the few native American fruits sold commercially.  Although they do not provide a great deal of nourishment, they spice up present and past holiday dinners.

Cranberries can be grown in a home garden if the soil is very acidic (sulfur will make it so if it is not), rich in organic matter, and has consistent moisture. A bog is not needed.Cranberries on plants

Given the right growing conditions, cranberries can be an ornamental, edible groundcover. I once planted them as such, along with the other edible, ornamentals lowbush blueberry and lingonberry, as well as rhododendron and mountain laurel, non-edibles that enjoy these same soil conditions. The cranberries grew too well, threatening to overtake the rest of the bed. Since they were not my favorites among all the plants in the bed, they no longer live there.

Many more native American plants, such as beans, groundnuts, and Jerusalem artichokes, can round out this Thanksgiving feast. And, of course, among non-plants, turkey.


Finish Squash

    “Zucchini bread is for people who don’t have compost piles.” That’s what I told Deb after she suggested, first ratatouille, and then zucchini bread, as vehicles for our excess zucchini.
    Most years I make an early, too large planting of zucchini (about 6 plants), and then, six to eight weeks later, make another sowing of only a couple of plants. The first planting puts enough zucchinis into the freezer for winter, as well as leaving enough for eating. The second planting is to yield an occasional zucchini for fresh eating through summer after plants of that initial planting have succumbed to squash vine borer, cucumber beetles, bacterial wilt, and any of the other maladies that usually do in the plants a few weeks after they begin bearing. Usually and thankfully do in the plants. But not this year.
    Almost every time I check that early planting of zucchini, a new fruit has swelled at the end of a vine now trailing beyond its bed beneath stalks of popcorn in an adjacent bed. I feel no obligation to eat zucchini, whether in zucchini bread, ratatouille, or any other concoction.

Where Are the Insects?

    In all my decades of gardening, I’ve never experienced a season with so few insect pests. A few Japanese beetles reared their ugly heads back in July; they were the only ones who showed up, except for an occasional straggler. Likewise for bean beetles. Eggplants hosted the few requisite flea beetles, but never enough for concern. (I did spray a few times with horticultural oil; judging from other gardeners’ flea beetle-less experiences this year, doubt that the effect was from the oil.)
    Cabbageworms, always requiring some late summer action on my part in the past in the form of one or two sprays of the biological insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis, have let me occupy that time with other things.
    Spotted wing drosophila, known non-affectionately as SWD, showed up, as usual, in sufficient numbers in early August to warrant a spray of spinosad, an extract from a naturally-occuring bacteria found in the soil of a defunct rum factory in the Virgin Islands. That one spray, along with some experimental traps from Cornell, was sufficient to keep the buggers from using my blueberries as nurseries in which to raise their young.
    As is so often the case with complex systems, in this case involving the vagaries of this season’s weather, the biology and the chemical and physical make-up of the soil, interactions between garden plants as well as between garden plants and weeds, timing of plantings . . .  what I’m trying to say is that I have no idea why the year was so auspicious, as far as insects.

Here Are the Diseases

    That was insects. Diseases are another story. Don’t look at my tomato plants.
    The tomato plants started the season neatly and decoratively trained as single stems up bamboo poles, soon clothing those poles in lush, green leaves and red or orange tomatoes. Now? Stems are pretty much bare from ground level up a couple of feet, with some shriveled, brown remnants of leaves dangling downwards. The disease is not fusarium or verticillium, to which so many modern tomato varieties are touted for being resistant.Diseased tomato plants
    The affliction is leaf spot disease, which is actually one or more of three diseases: early blight, septoria leaf spot, and/or late blight. The worst of the three is late blight, which makes us gardeners and farmers especially nervous after a severe outbreak ravaged a large swath of the Northeast a few years ago. Air currents and humidity have not been favorable this year for late blight to hitchhike up from the South, where it overwinters, and any that might have reached here couldn’t get footholds with this season’s hot, dry weather.
    Thorough cleanup of old leaves and stems, which house early blight and septoria leaf spot through the winter, and planting tomatoes where they haven’t been plant for the previous two years, was supposed to keep these diseases in check. Perhaps it did, but not enough.
    I have two vegetable gardens, and next year I’ll plant tomatoes in the one that housed no tomatoes for the past couple of years, putting more distance between overwintering disease spores and my plants. Clean up and distance should also quell one other disease, anthracnose, responsible for sunken, rotting areas that develop on some of the fruits.
    Diseases notwithstanding, plenty of glass jars filled either with sparkling red, canned tomatoes and dull red, dried tomatoes line shelves to bring some essence of summer into through the dark months ahead.

Pepper Heaven

    Tomatoes may be the essence of summer for their ubiquity in gardens; for me, though, ripe, red peppers more represent a summery flavor. My peppers rarely experience insect or disease problems. The challenge, this far north, is ripe, red peppers in abundance.

Italian Sweet peppers

Italian Sweet peppers

    My favorite variety for flavor, earliness, and productivity, especially this far north, is Italian Sweet. I put in many plants this past spring, and the harvest is prolific.
    Unfortunately, dried or frozen peppers offer only wan hints of the fresh peppers’ summery flavor and texture.

Turning compost

Compost and Cucurbits

You’d think, this time of year, that all I’d be doing is sowing seeds and transplanting small and large plants. I am. But I’m also turning compost piles, getting ready to use that “black gold” this autumn. Why now? So the stuff has time to mellow and to make space for new compost piles that will be built from now through autumn.
Here’s my compost routine: All summer and into autumn I fill empty compost bins with hay, wood shavings, horse manure, weeds, kitchen waste, and old garden plants along with some sprinklings of soil, limestone, soybean meal (if extra nitrogen is needed), and sufficient water to moisten the ingredients. When a bin is full, which means loaded up about 5 feet high, it gets covered with a sheet of EPDM rubber roofing material to keep excess moisture out and to seal in whatever moisture is within. A numbered label on each pile gets recorded to remind me when the pile was completed, what went in, and, with the help of a 2-foot-long thermometer, how much heat, if any, was generated.
Fast forward to today. I’m flipping over the contents of two compost bins, one completed last July and the other last August, into empty adjacent bins. Turning over the contents lets me see how the compost

has fared over the past 10 months; some piles might still be a bit raw, others are just about finished and ready for use. No matter, I don’t need any compost yet.

No rule that says compost piles have to be turned at all. I do it because I like to see what’s been going on and so I can make slight adjustments, as needed.  Sometimes a little more water is needed. Turning the pile also gives me the opportunity to break up any clumps of material and render the finished pile more uniform.
One of the piles I turned this spring had so much undecomposed hay in it that I sprinkled on some soybean meal as I turned it. Even that wasn’t one-hundred percent necessary; the high nitrogen soybean meal just speeds decomposition. Leave any organic materials (that is, something that is or was living) piled together long enough, with a bit of moisture, and it will definitely turn to compost. As my bumper sticker reads: “Compost happens.”
One more reason for turning and organizing all of last year’s compost piles is to make space for growing melons and squashes. My vegetable garden is very intensively planted, with 3 foot wide beds packed tight with one or more vegetables growing together or in sequence, perhaps even trained skyward to get more out of the space. The long, sprawling vines of melons and squashes don’t fit into this scheme of things.
The compost bins — 4 foot by four foot by 3 to 4 foot high cubes —  are perfect for these vines. Three or 4 plants poked into the rich compost through holes made in the rubber roofing can sprawl to their hearts’ content, spreading out to cover the tops of the bins and then, if they like, draping down to the ground, even creeping along the ground if that’s their whim. 
Melons and squashes thrive in rich soil, and my plants roots couldn’t find themselves in a richer soil than the pure compost within the bins. Plenty of water is needed to plump up the fruits; the compost clings to enough water so that watering is hardly necessary.
The only melon that does not get planted on a compost bin is watermelon. But even watermelon doesn’t go in the garden. It goes onto a pile of wood chips or leaves I had dumped here last autumn and winter.
In contrast to the muskmelons, honeydews, and cantaloupes, all which bear a few fruits and then give up the ship, watermelon vines just keep bearing and bearing until stopped by frost or short days. I’ll

need to get into the compost bins before frost and short days; muskmelons, honeydews, and cantaloupes will be gone and out of the way but watermelon would not.

Also, watermelons don’t demand a rich soil. “Soil” that’s either partially decomposed leaves or wood chips is poor in nutrients, to say the least. So poor that when I plant in the leaf or wood chip pile, I scoop out a generous hole and fill it with compost to get the plant off to a good start. During the growing season, I’ll occasionally dose the watermelon plants with some soluble fertilizer.
All kinds of melons thrive in heat, in the air and in the ground. Freshly turned compost and old leaves or wood chips aren’t static. They are decomposing and, in doing so, generating some heat. All of which makes for good crops of good-tasting melons.