Monday, October 8, 2007

Baseball Bat Squash

I found this huge baseball bat of a squash under the stem of a Costata Romanesco plant, where it was hidden from view until it got too large to miss. It weighed 4.2 lbs. The second large squash was also hidden, but I found it sooner. It weighed 1.2 lbs.

I was prepared to sell the huge squash at the Farmers' Market for about 50 cents, a tremendous bargain on a per pound basis, but there were no takers. The three smaller squash sold, however. Huge squash like this are often used for stuffing, or grated for zucchini bread.

I brought it home, and we sliced it into large rounds and grilled it, along with an eggplant, for sandwiches. Most of the grilled slices were frozen for winter use. I was surprised that the squash had not yet developed seeds; it was solid all the way through, and reasonably tender. When the plant is investing resources in a large squash like this, it tends to reduce the resources that it puts into making new flowers and small squash. Eventually the huge squash fruit slows in growth while the seeds mature. We rarely allow the seeds to reach maturity, unless we want to save them for next year. It may have taken another two or even three weeks for the seeds to mature in this fruit, if I hadn't harvested it. Hopefully the plant will start producing flowers and small fruits again.

Temperature were cold all of last week, barely making it into the 60s during the day, and hovering in the 30s and low 40s at night. The squash didn't grow very much in this cold. At Saturday's market I wore my down jacket and felt like I was in the refrigerator. Not many customers came to market, and only a few of them bought squash. I brought about 29 lbs of mini squash, 349 little fruits, to market, plus about 18 large squash. I only sold $18.50 of squash, not a good yield for 4.9 hours of harvest. Bon Appetit was not interested in buying the rest from me, as they have done the past few weeks. The executive chef told me he was over-stocked this week. So, Parma Senior Center will be the recipient of the excess. They are appreciative.

Saturday evening after dark I checked the weather report and saw that there was a a freeze warning; temperatures were supposed to fall to 34oF. It was too late to cover the plants. Fortunately, we didn't get frost after all. This week temperatures are due to rise into the 70s, an Indian Summer. Development of flowers and fruit should speed up again.

With warmer temperatures we'll need to get some water on the patch. Irrigation water has ended for the season, but John attached a hose from our well to our irrigation system . The pressure isn't as great as water from the canal, so we can only turn on two sprinklers at a time, but at least I won't have to drag soaker hoses and occillating sprinklers around.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Waiting for frost

Here's how the squash patch is looking these days, in full maturity. We've escaped a frost so far, but we could get one any day now. Saturday night - Sunday morning our temperature was supposed to drop to 34oF. That's close enough to freezing that there was some risk of a frost, particularly in my squash patch which is at the bottom of a slope. In a light frost, cold air accumulates at the bottom of the slope, so that part of my garden is the first to freeze.

Saturday at dusk John and I were in the patch spreading shade cloth, remay row covers, and assorted sheets and table cloths over as many plants as possible. In a light frost they could save the crop.

This morning when I went out, there was no sign of frost. But I'm glad we took the precaution. The rest of this week is supposed to have nights in the 40s, so we'll continue to have squash at the market.

In addition, Thursday was the last day for irrigation water from the Black Canyon Irrigation District. We gave the garden a good soak. From here on we depend on rain (some is due this morning, but it's not arrived yet), or on well water. From here on in, anything we harvest is icing on the cake, more than can be expected.

Our income from squash at the market this week was just $29.50, for squash accumulated between Tuesday evening and Friday evening. I spent a total of about 4 hours to harvest a little over 16 lbs of squash during that time period. We sold about 4 lbs to Bon Appetit after the market, about 25% of our harvest.

I'm hoping for a few days of Indian summer to boost squash productiviy for these last few weeks of market.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Harvest Moon

Last night was the harvest moon, the first full moon of autumn. They say that farmers used to harvest their crops by moonlight at the harvest moon and for several days after, because the moon continued to come up close to sunset.

I’m not going to harvest my crops by moonlight, especially not the squash. The green varieties are hard enough to see in daylight, because they can be camouflaged under leaves and stems.

Last Sunday I found several large squash, all of them green varieties, hidden at the bottom of the plants, like this Starship. The yellow varieties are more of a contrast with the leaves and stems, so they are less likely to be missed when I harvest mini squash.

Harvest by moonlight would insure lots more oversized squash, at least the green varieties.

Here’s more large squash, compared with their mini versions. The large Magda and Costata Romanesco would probably sell at market, but fewer people are interested in large patty pan types, like this Peter Pan.

Squash harvest has been taking me about an hour to an hour and a half at least once a day. It took me an hour to harvest about 5 pounds of squash yesterday, plus about 10 minutes to wash the squash and get them into the refrigerator. Last week I brought to market squash that was harvested Tuesday through Friday, putting in 3.3 hours to harvest 30 lbs of mini squash and about 3 pounds of large squash. I made a total of $51.80 from the squash, selling about 2/3 at the Farmers’ Market and the rest to Bon Appétit.

With cool temperatures and days getting shorter, the squash yield is going down, and with it my squash income.

On the other hand, my lettuce is doing well in the short days and cooler weather. Salad mix, made with about 12 different varieties of speciality and heirloom lettuce and a little spinach, is probably my biggest seller over the season, with squash a close second. I’m able to grow lettuce in my cold frame so I have it to sell earlier than other vendors. Plus this year I planted a fall crop.

I get about $8.00 per pound for the mix, which is much nicer than any salad mix you buy in a package in the store. It keeps in the refrigerator much better than store bought salad mix, up to two weeks, because it is so fresh. If it doesn’t sell out at the market, we have quite a few customers here in Parma who will buy it as well.

The price is high because of the time and effort spent making the mix. I harvest the outer leaves of each lettuce plant so it will grow back the next week (not the most efficient method of harvesting), and I wash it in three or four buckets of water to get out the dirt and straw. Then John spins out the excess water, and we bag the mix for sale in small and large bags. We store it overnight in the fridge. It takes all morning to make it, and sometimes additional time in the evening.

So, when a woman approached me late in the market last Saturday, asking if she could have one of my small bags of lettuce for $1.00 instead of $1.50, my first reaction was to say no. You can bargain me down on most of what I sell at market, especially at the end of the day, but not salad mix, since it is so time consuming to make it, and I can usually sell elsewhere any salad mix that is left at the end of market.

I started to explain, but this woman looked crestfallen. She apparently had only one dollar left in her purse, and like many of the older people who come to market, she was probably on a fixed income. Seeing her long face, I changed my mind and agreed, perhaps too reluctantly, to let her have the bag for $1.00. I mentioned that I would have more next week. Her response was quiet, so it took a minute for its full impact to sink in. “I won’t be back,” she said. I feel badly that I came across so hardnosed, and apparently offended her.

Chef and author Deborah Madison describes a similar encounter in the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market:

“Several years ago I watched a shopper pick up an enormous Brandywine and ask its grower, Eremita Campos, how much it cost. It weighted nearly two pounds. It was easily salad for four. “Four dollars,” Eremita said. The customer threw it down and said, “I work too hard to pay four dollars for a tomato!” Eremita crossed her arms and quietly said, “And I work too hard to sell it for less.”

“Prompted by this stalemate, I spent a day on the farm, finding out from Eremita and her daughter, Margaret, what it takes to grow a good, organic heirloom tomato. I concluded that $4 was a bargain. (Try picking off those big green horn worms in the hot sun for even fifteen minutes and you’ll most likely agree.)

“Last year I happened to be standing once again with Eremita when the scene repeated itself. Only this time four or five customers jumped into the fray and explained to the probably frightened shopper why Eremita’s price was fair.”
- from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, Broadway Books, NY, 2002.

I hope that most of my customers also appreciate the effort that goes into growing specialty produce on a small scale for Farmers’ Market.

At the same time, I wish there were a way to offer more of my produce, especially the popular and fun items like my salad mix, at a price that everyone can afford.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bon Appétit

The food service for Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell is managed by Bon Appétit, a company with a ethic of social responsibility and a policy of supporting local food as much as possible. Yesterday, September 25, was their “Eat Local Challenge. The goal was to serve a lunch made entirely of ingredients from within a 150 mile radius of the café. Chilly, rainy weather at the end of last week slowed squash growth, but I managed to put together 16 lbs of mini squash for the event from harvests on Sunday and Monday morning. They also purchased some of my arugula, ground cherries, cherry tomatoes and grapes for the salad bar. Monday evening I harvested a quart of strawberries, and brought them to the café for the local food challenge as well.

This year executive chef Matt Caldwell invited me to come to the café during lunch hour to show students my produce and answer questions. I brought a basket with samples, and Matt ran off copies of some photos of my garden and market booth. Joyce, the baker for Bon Appétit, shared the display table with me. She is a fruit grower and a vendor at the Nampa Farmers’ Market, like me. She had a large basket of Jonathan apples and pluots. Joyce is a great sales person, and knows that sampling sells produce. She came up with the idea of preparing cups with samples of our produce to pass out as the students came in for lunch. The sample cups started with just a slice of apple and pluot, but we soon added a ground cherry and strawberry to the cup. Then a small slice of mini squash and a tiny piece of arugula. We didn’t think to add a purple grape until late in the lunch period, but meanwhile, the sample cups turned into little works of art. We had fun explaining everything to students who were interested enough to stop and taste.

Among the most enthusiastic samplers were a group of young people in black tee shirts, most of them of Oriental heritage. They were intrigued by the ground cherries and interested in Joyce’s explanation of how the color of pluots depends on the color of the plum that is grafted on to an apricot tree. When I explained that the piece of leaf was arugula, one woman exclaimed, “I love arugula!”

At first I thought these were students from Albertson College, but after a minute or two I noticed that their shirts said “Taiko”, and asked about it. Turns out they were members of San Jose Taiko,
in town to perform for Caldwell Fine Arts that evening on campus. No wonder they were more interested in our produce than most of the college students; the local food movement is doing very well in California. The Taiko members encouraged us to come see their performance.

When lunch was over, Joyce and I cleaned up our display table. I had an opportunity to try one of the lunch items, a plate of noodles with grilled fairy tale eggplant, onion, garlic and basil, made fresh to order by one of the Bon Appetit chefs. As I sat in the almost empty dining room, I considering whether to take more time off from harvesting to come back to Caldwell that evening. One of the S.J.Taiko members walked past my table, and smiled at me, thanking me for the food, as if I were the chef! (I learned later she was S.J.T. founder, PJ Hirabayashi).

Moments later another woman approached me, asking if I would like tickets to the performance. She turned out to be Sylvia Hunt from Caldwell Fine Arts, passing out tickets to interested students. Though I’m not a student, she thought I might like the tickets.

Indeed I did. John and I went back this evening for a fantastic performance. Taiko is more than just drumming; it is very visual and athletic, involving strength, stamina, balance, coordination, complex choreographed routines, and interplay between individuals and the group. The last number, in particular, had drummers moving back and forth between drums, trading places with each other, playing each other’s drums and alternating between individual improvisation and ensemble performance. It was a treat to watch.

Thank you, SJ Taiko, and especially to Britt Mattern, who appreciated the produce at lunch, and encouraged me to come to the performance. There are some unexpected perks in this business of growing local food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Squash Varieties

Our local food bank, the Sunshine Cupboard, is open once a month on the third Monday of the month. That's yesterday. I don't often have anything left in enough quantity to bring to the Food Bank, which is feeding 50 families at this time. But today I brought 31 small 12 ounce bags of mini squash medley from Sunday's and Monday's harvest. I could have sold them to Bon Appetit, but decided to donate instead. It's only once a month.

The photo shows the 12 varieties that I am growing this year. Actually there are 14 varieties, but 3 are plain green zucchini, and I haven't tried to distinguish which is which.

Patty Pan types (top left):
Starship (dark green), Sunburst (yellow), Peter Pan (pale green), Papaya Pear (yellow, shaped like the namesake fruits).

Top row - Round zucchini (top right):
Eight Ball (dark green), Floridor (yellow, looks like a lemon)

Bottom row - Zucchini:

Raven (dark green), Zephyr (yellow with green tip), Costata Romanesco (green stripes and ridges), Magda (light green, short, fat at the bottom), Butterstick (yellow), Sungreen, Cash Flow, and Revenue (medium green).

There are two more varieties that I like but didn't plant this year because I didn't have any more seeds: Geode is a round zucchini like Eight Ball, but a lighter green. Flying Saucer is pale yellow with green patches in the center, and points like a star.

My favorite of the ones that I am growing this year is Magda. It has a slightly sweeter flavor than the others. People are always asking if the different varieties taste different. They are all very similar in taste, though occasionally there are subtle differences.

The yellow varieties Sunburst and Zephyr are the most prolific varieties this year. Magda, Costata Romanesco , and Peter Pan are the slowest growing, and the least abundant. The quantity of each variety that I bring to market varies from year to year. Most produce about one fruit per hill per day, but the slow growing varieties may take two days or more for the fruit to reach my target harvest size.

Most of my seeds come from Johnny's Select Seed in Maine, and Territorial Seed in Oregon.

Many people look at these mini squash and ask, "What do you do with them?" We offer some preparation and serving suggestions:
- Rinse squash, cut off stem and any damaged spots. No need to peel.
-Steam or sauté whole, drizzle with oil or margarine & herbs.
-Grill whole, or cut into large chunks to grill on skewers
-Cut into chunks and stir fry in a tablespoon or two of oil with onion, garlic, peppers, eggplant chunks and/or corn. Add cherry tomatoes 2-4 minutes before the stir fry is ready.
-Sprinkle with oil and herbs; roast in the oven until tender.
-Marinate cooked or raw squash chunks in oil & vinegar or your favorite salad dressing and add to summer salads.
-Add chunks to lasagna or spaghetti sauce.

There you have it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


A big storm blew through on September 4, a little over a week ago, pushing some of the squash plants on to their side. As the storm passed, it created an impressive rainbow. I was almost too late to capture this image. The squash plants recovered by the next day.

Speaking of hazards to squash production,this morning I found a male flower bud that was covered with tiny squash bug nymphs. It’s the first time this year that I’ve seen squash bugs. I quickly plucked the bud from it’s stalk and threw it several feet away from my garden plot, into the weeds. Hopefully that’s all that there were, and none escaped to the rest of the plant. In the weeds these tiny nymphs won’t be able to travel back to the squash patch in the heat. They are too young to fly, and there is no squash for them to feed on for a considerable distance. But they are a warning to watch for the third generation of bugs in my patch.

I promised to write about taking squash to market. We’ve now been twice, and will be going for the third time this Saturday. Here’s how things went.

On September 1 we brought squash that had been harvested August 28, 29, 30 and 31. There were a total of 54 large squash, about 7 inches long. I sold all but 2. The ones that didn’t sell were of the variety Zephyr. Some sold at 2 for $1.00 (they were 240 gm and over) and others at 2 for 75 cents. These prices come to 75 cents to $1.00 per pound. I could sell them by the pound, but last year customers told me they preferred to purchase squash by the piece rather than by the pound. The sale of large squashes brought in $21.75.

I also had 192 mini squash, sold at 5 or 6 for $1.00, depending on the size. That comes to $1.50 to $1.75 per pound. Good deal. I sold 175 of the mini squash for $33. If I’d sold the last 17 I would have made an extra $3.00. They say to aim to bring home 20% of what you bring. That way you have enough for everyone who may want your product without too much waste. I brought home about 10%.

So, the total income from squash on Sept. 1 came to $54.75.

Meanwhile, between Aug. 28 and Aug. 31, I put in 20 to 45 minutes a day to harvest and clean the squash, for a total of 4.3 hours. That comes to $12.64 per hour, not including the time spent at market or the 14 hours spent in the squash patch before it started producing squash for harvest.

September 8 was our second day at market with squash. This time I brought 96 large squash to market, and sold only 32 of them, 1/3 of what I brought. I made $16.75. So the harvest was up, but people weren’t buying the large squash.

I harvested 291 mini squash and sold 177 of them, 61%, for $30.40. Total squash income for the week was $46.65. Glenn Scott, one of the vendors who has been selling at our Farmers’ Market much longer than me, agreed that Sept. 8 was a relatively slow week for sales. It’s between paychecks, he explained. People spend more if they were paid that week.

I estimate that I was putting in an hour or more per day, two hours on Friday, to harvest and wash the squash. The total was 7.4 hours. So, for the week of Sept. 8, my sales amounted to $6.30 per hour. At least it’s over the minimum wage!

What happens to all of the unsold squash? We use some of it. We grill a bunch after the market and freeze it for pizza and pasta dishes during the winter. We also make a big batch of ratatouille and freeze some of it. We give some to our neighbors, if they want it. Most of the rest goes to the Parma Senior Center. Glenda, the chef at the senior center, finds creative ways to use it. This year the master gardeners have started collecting leftover produce from our vendors to take to Ronald McDonald House. Some went to them.

Seeing how much didn’t sell last week, I contacted the chef at Bon Appetit, the food service at Albertson College of Idaho. Last year they purchased some of my mini-squash, and this year the executive chef is also interested. So, we have arranged to bring him our unsold squash after the market on Saturday, and more on Tuesday or Wednesday if we have a reason to drive into town, or enough to sell to make the trip worthwhile. I’m very grateful to have that extra market for the squash.

There isn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow over my squash patch, but hopefully there is enough compensation to do better than break even.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Slow pokes

After my last post, I looked for plants that were just starting to bloom, and found two with a male flower first to bloom. This photo is of one. You can just make out a female bud up against the stem. The shape of the ovary tells me that it's one of the green patty pan types, probably the classic pale green variety, Peter Pan. My Peter Pan plants have been very slow growing. I'm not sure if that's because the variety is slower to develop than the other varieties that I've planted, or because the seeds are so old. Old, weak seed would explain the slow growth, and also why the plant produced a male flower first. It doesn't yet have the strength to mature a fruit. I took the photo on Aug. 30, and there still hasn't been a mature fruit harvested from this plant. At least a male flower gives the plant an opportunity to reproduce via pollen.

Notice the honey bee on the flower. If you click on the image, you'll see that her thorax is covered in pollen. She's likely to pollinate the next flower that she visits with this pollen, as long as she touches the stigma on her way down to the nectary. This seems to be a nectar forager, because she doesn't have any pollen on her hind legs.

One morning while I was in the squash patch looking for squash bees (still haven't seen any yet) I watched a honey bee fly up from a flower and hover over the squash leaves. She was so covered with pollen that I suspect she couldn't see anything.

I mentioned last time that the canopy was closing in the patch. Here's a photo of the patch, also from Aug. 30. The row in the middle lost several plants to a gopher; hence the bare space there.

From now on many of these plants will be competing with their neighbors for light. I have to step gingerly over their leaves as I search daily for squash fruits to harvest.

Next time I'll write about our return to the Nampa Farmer's Market last Saturday with our first squash of the season. I was nervous about it. After all, I'm very late with my squash harvest, and there are perahps 8 other vendors who have been selling squash since early July or late June. Why would anyone buy squash from me if they are used to buying from someone else? Come visit this blog in a few days and find out.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

First Fruits!

I'm getting way behind on keeping up with this blog! So here are highlights of what has happened in the squash patch since the 14th.
Most importantly, I harvested our first squash fruits on August 21. They included three yellow Butterstick zucchini, and one Papaya Pear. Those first squash went into - but of course, Ratatouille! The photo shows 4 of the eggplants that went into the dish: The round lime green eggplant is "Italian White", the white eggplant is "Snowy", and the long, Japanese style lavender eggplant are "Orient Charm". All were picked that day.

Here are a series of photos of the little Butterstick ovary that I've been following in the squash patch. The earliest photo shows the ovary and bud on Aug. 15. We're following the larger bud, but notice that there are several other, smaller ovaries and buds developing that will be ready to bloom soon after the first.

The second photo was taken on Aug. 17, the day after flower bloom. Notice that the ovaries have all been expanding. The third photo was taken on Aug. 21, the day that I harvested the fruit. It was 6 inches long, and 4 inches in diameter when harvested.

In the days between the first bloom and the first harvest, John noticed the first honeybee visiting the flowers on August 16. Click on the photo to see the two honeybees taking nectar at the base of this pistillate flower. Are they leaving pollen on the stigma? It doesn't look like there is any pollen on their hind legs, where honeybees collect pollen.

For the first few days of bloom, the only flowers that opened were female flowers. There was no pollen in the squash patch. I think that the honeybees must have been bringing in some squash pollen from elsewhere, because some fruits developed and started to grow before male flowers started blooming. However, quite a few of the first fruits have not been growing, and the ovary starts to rot on the plant if I don't pick it. I noticed the first male flowers on Sunday, August 19. Now that the male flowers have started blooming, the fruits are getting pollinated and have been growing.

In case you are not sure how to distinguish male (staminate) from female (pistillate) flowers in squash, here are two photos. The male flower is raised on a long stalk without an ovary, whereas the pistillate flower has a zucchini ovary behind the petals.

The earliest varieties to set fruit have been Butterstick, Floridor and Papaya Pear, all yellow varieties, as well as some 8-ball, a round green zucchini. The patty pan types started blooming and setting fruit a few days later. I think I harvested the first sunburst (yellow patty pan) on August 25, and starship a day later. Peter Pan, a light green patty pan type, has not yet developed fruits big enough to pick, though I expect one to be ready by the end of the day today (Aug. 29). There are still a few hills of squash that haven't started blooming. I'll have to check to see if the first flowers on those plants are also pistillate.

I expect to bring squash to the Nampa Farmers' Market this week. This afternoon (Aug. 28) I harvested about 7 pounds of squash. If it's Saturday through Tuesday, I'm planning to leave the Butterstick and green zucchini on the vine to grow large. After Tuesday, I'll pick these varieties at a mini size. I hope that will give me a good mix of large and small zucchini to sell at market. Last year I harvested some hills daily, and others every 2 to 3 days. I found that there was a market for the large zucchini, although the small ones sold better. This year I hope to get a mixture of large and small zucchini from each hill, which I hope will be more productive and efficient than using different harvest criteria for different hills.

The patty pan and round zucchini types I'll harvest small all week. Last yearI found that large patty pan types just don't sell very well. We'll probably eat the small squash that I harvest between Saturday and Tuesday, because they are not likely to be suitable for sale the following Saturday. If there are too many for John and me, I'll bring them to the Parma Senior Center. Glenda, the senior center cook does a fantastic job of making meals for the seniors in town, and she appreciates any fresh veggies that I bring.

The canopy is closing through much of the squash patch. As the plants get larger, I develop a pattern of moving through the patch so I can check each hill and harvest the fruits that have reached my target size. It helps where there are a few gaps in the canopy so I can set down my harvest basket.

This morning I noticed that the plants that have been blooming the longest have lots of staminate flowers now - much more than pistillate flowers.

So far, no squash bugs in sight.

Saturday (August 25) John and I joined Jerry (pictured left), my partner and supplier for orchard bee nests, and his girlfriend Janet, at Bug Day at the Idaho Botanical Garden. 1200 people come to this event for kids (300 - 400 families) that has been running for 7 years or so. Jerry ran the baby bee nursery, always a big hit with kids. He opened leafcutting bee cocoons and orchard bee cocoons non-stop from 9am until 3pm. Some of the kids get very absorbed in opening cocoons and pulling out larvae with small forcepts, and their parents can't get them to move on. I think it has something to do with developing their motor skills.

John and Janet manned our Binderboard booth and explained our nesting materials. Janet's grandson Jeffrey stamped the maps that kids were bringing around to earn their certificates of bugology.

I showed the visitors a poster from the Pollinator Partnership with images of animal pollinators and their plants. All of the kids who stopped to view the poster were able to identify the pollinators, which was very gratifying. But when I asked why it is important for the plant to have pollinators, the best answer that most kids gave me was that pollinators helped the plant to grow, or to grow bigger. Only one or two kids, and not many more adults, made the connection between flowers and fruits with seeds inside: the baby plant. When I asked kids what fruits they eat that have seeds inside, they started to get the idea. Apples and watermelon were named most often. Tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers took a bit more prodding. It occurred to me that the connection between flowers and fruits is not all that obvious. It takes time for the fruit to develop, and the flower is unrecognizable by the time the fruit is recognizable. Those of us who study pollination, and who are trying to make the public aware of the importance of pollinators, need to encourage people to look closely at plants with flowers and fruits, and to appreciate the transformation that takes place as a result of pollination as the flower wilts and the pistil expands. It's relatively easy to observe in squash plants.

Time in the squash patch over the last two weeks:

About 1hr, 15 minutes hours hoeing the weeds.
1 hr, 45 minutes harvesting squash (about 20 minutes a day) since 8/25.
Total man-hours spent on the squash patch to date (not including the time to photograph it and write this blog!): 14 hours, 10 minutes.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

First Flower!

Two flowers bloomed this morning in my squash patch! Neither were on the plant that I've been following. This one is on a plant of the variety 8-ball. It's a round, green zucchini that looks like a little green bowling ball. If you look closely at the base of the flower, you can see the ovary that will grow into a fruit over the next few days.

The other plant to bloom was the variety butterstick, a yellow zucchini. In both cases a pistillate flower was first to bloom. I haven't seen any staminate flowers in bloom yet, which suggests that there was no pollen around to pollinate the first two blooming flowers. No matter. I'm picking them as mini squash, so they won't get very big anyway.

Squash are monoecious. That's a botanical term meaning that individual flowers on the plant are either male (staminate) or female (pistillate). Female flowers have an enlarged ovary that will grow into the fruit. Male flowers have lots of pollen and nectar, but they don't make a fruit.

The plant that I've been following still has a bud, but the ovary behind the bud has been getting larger. Here it is this afternoon. Now I see a second little yellow ovary forming above the first. Meanwhile, the hill is getting steadily larger.

Monday, August 13, 2007

First Bud!

Can you see it? The first bud is forming. It's right in the center of the photo, at the end of the yellow ovary, which will turn into a fruit after the flower is pollinated. There are several other buds forming down there as well.

I took the photo at about 1pm this afternoon. The plants have been growing great guns this week. Here is the hill that I've been photographing, and the entire patch, for comparison with my last photo of the patch on July 31.

Monday morning we'll be irrigating the garden, but on Tuesday I'll be back to see how the bud is doing. It has a few days of growth before it will be ready to open.

Friday, August 10, 2007


While we wait for our squash to start producing fruit, we have not had enough other produce to justify setting up our booth at Farmers' Market. However, our eggplants are doing well, so we asked another vendor from Parma to sell them at the market for us. This year's eggplants are among the best I've grown. I think the cover crop of alfalfa, Austrian pea, and vetch that I planted last season has made a big difference. We have , bright white "Snowy" eggplant that are 13 ounces, and our "Orient Express", a Japanese style, lavendar eggplant, are 15 inches long and almost two inches in diameter. Last week the 18 eggplant that I sent to market sold out, bringing in all of $9.50. I probably should try a higher price, but this week they will be sold at the same price as last week.

Because we didn't have enough to sell, on July 28 husband John and I did a customer count and dot questionnaire at the Nampa Farmers’ Market. We estimated that about 1926 people came through the Market that day, up from 1812 people last year on July 22. That was good news. We also estimated that people spent an average of $4.18 per person, down from $4.61 last year. That was a disapointment. Many markets that have estimated customer expenditures report $20 or more spent per customer.

The business news on the radio yesterday said that retail sales were down in July compared to last year, so the decline in customer spending at our market may be part of a more general decline in spending.

Last year we asked customers if they would purchase more if there was more available at the market that interested them, or if they were spending all that they could afford. Most said they would purchase more. So, we need to figure out what we don't have at our market that customers would buy.

This year as part of our dot questionnaire, visitors to the market were asked to choose the one thing that they liked best about the market. 50% of respondents said they like the produce best. That percentage didn't change even late in the day when there was much less produce available! Lots of people told us that they want to see more fresh produce at the market.

I've been thinking about that. We've lost a couple of produce vendors this year to retirement or burnout, or late plantings like me. But we also have a few new vendors. So, the problem may not be the number of produce vendors, but a midseason slump in produce availability.

We at the Nampa Farmers' Market take pride in the fact that our vendors produce most of their products within 100 miles of the market. In this area July tends to be relatively slow for produce because of the heat, and because late varieties aren’t ready to harvest.

There has been lots of news about the newest trend in eating habits, "locavores". Several recent books have been written about the advantages of knowing where your food comes from and who grew it, and of reducing the distance that food travels to help reduce global warming. Try reading Gary Nabhan's "Coming Home to Eat", or Barbara Kingsolver's new book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." Nabhan tried to restrict his diet to items that came from within 250 miles of home (Tucson, AZ). Kingsolver ate mostly what she and her family grew themselves or purchased at Farmers' Market in Virginia from vendors within 100 miles of home. Kingsolver found that the ethical and environmental choice of eating locally is also the most pleasurable choice, since local food is also fresher and tastier.

In a
recent interview, Kingsolver said: "I think what surprised me the most is that we didn't really miss anything. We went into it probably thinking too much about what we were not going to be able to have. But when we changed our thinking and started every meal with the question, 'What do we have? What's in season? What do we have plenty of?' — it became really a long exercise in gratitude."

That's the best attitude to bring to the Farmers' Market as well. Every week is a little different, but every week something is fresh and plentiful. We should be grateful, and creative with what we have. And hopeful. September is our peak produce month. The best is yet to come.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

8 Leaves

My squash plants have grown quite a bit since last Tuesday, July 31. We irrigated Monday July 30, and again yesterday, August 6. On July 31, just after watering the garden, the plant in the above hill of zucchini had 3 leaves, as can be seen in my July 31 post.

Yesterday, August 6, we irrigated again. I took the first photo, the one at the top of this page, on August 5. The second photo of the same hill was taken today, the day after irrigation. Different lighting accounts for the different colors in the photo.

My question is, has there been faster growth of the plant after irrigation than before?

Here's a brief, unscientific test. Last Sunday before irrigation, the plant in the center of the photo had 6 leaves, with a seventh very small leaf in the center. So, the plant went from 4 leaves a week ago to 6 leaves after irrigation. That's two leaves in 5 days, an average of .4 leaves a day.

Today after irrigation there are 8 leaves on the same plant with a ninth in the center. That's two new leaves added in 2 days, or an average of 1 leaf's growth per day. So it appears that my impression is supported by my anecdotal observation.

The plant is on one of the largest in my squash patch. Others are growing at a slower rate. Plant growth should increase once the plant puts down roots and starts to accumulate leaves. The more leaves, the faster photosynthesis takes place, so the fastser the leaves grow. How growth increases with increasing plant size is something I'd like to investigate.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I can't believe that Disney has put out a film about an aspiring gourmet chef. A rat who aspires to be a gourmet chef! Ok, so it's about following your dream and not being discouraged no matter how ill-suited you appear for the job to others, about the synergy that develops when we help each other, and all that good stuff. But a chef!

You have to suspend disbelief to accept the idea of a rat chef, and late in the movie, a whole clan of rats in the kitchen. Surprisingly, it works and it’s lots of fun.

Not only does the film feature the preparation of food (to the motto “Anyone Can Cook”), but the signature dish is Ratatouille! That's my signature dish, too! In the film the dish is pronounced Răt' a too ee, as would be expected if the hero is a Răt. But I've always pronounced it Răw ta too' ee. I'm probably wrong. Nothing in the dish is raw.

However you pronounce it, ratatouille (the dish, not the movie) is the reason that I started growing squash in the first place. It’s one of my favorite comfort foods. We are just getting into prime ratatouille season, so the film is particularly timely.

The artists working on the film participated in cooking classes and worked with chef Thomas Keller who developed his version of the signature dish. His recipe for CONFIT BYALDI was recently published in the Idaho Statesman. It's not really ratatouille, but uses the same ingredients: summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. It sounds delicious, but it's fancy and time consuming.

No farmers' market scenes made it into the film. Rats! (pun intended). The film doesn’t even mention the ingredients of the signature dish. Nor does it show that the local farmers’ market is the best place to find the freshest ingredients. I have plenty of eggplants in my garden: I started bringing them to the Nampa Farmers’ Market on July 21. I’m growing several unusual varieties, including orient charm, a long Japanese style eggplant that is about the same diameter as a nice sized zucchini. Perfect for Chef Keller's Confit Byaldi. Also some snowy white eggplants, a little thicker but smaller than orient charm. Both have wonderful flavor, not too astringint. They lack bitterness, and don’t need to be peeled. You can’t find these varieties at most grocery stores.

It’s frustrating not to have our own squash to go along with the eggplant yet. We are buying from other market vendors who planted earlier in the season.

One theme in the film that I appreciate is the play between innovation and tradition in cooking. Innovation when Remy, the Rat Chef, tries to explain to his brother how two distinct flavors mixed together can produce new flavors that are even better than the original separate flavors, more powerful and exciting. Pairing white peaches and lemon basil comes to mind. Tradition when a restaurant customer tastes a dish and its flavor recalls his youth.

As a market vendor, I know how important memory foods are. One of our customers always buys a bag of New Zealand spinach from us because he used to harvest it wild on the beach in Northern California. When we bring ground cherries, Physalis, older women tell us stories about harvesting them wild when they were growing up in Kansas or Michigan, or Emmett Idaho. Former Southerners are often thrilled to find a bag of collard or turnip greens at our booth.

We also appreciate the innovative customers who ask us "what do you do with this?" and purchase something they have never tried before based on tasting a sample, or reading a recipe.

In the movie the sole female chef calls ratatouille "a peasant dish". So, my recipe is a peasant dish. That's fine with me. It’s more of a stew, or an alternative to spaghetti sauce. If you haven’t tried it before, maybe the movie will inspire you to be innovative:

RATATOUILLE (Mediterranean vegetable sauté)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/8" wide slivers
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 medium eggplant, cut into ½ - 1" cubes
2 lb approx. summer squash – zucchini, patty pan, yellow, or a mixture, sliced
2 - 3 medium bell or other sweet peppers, preferably in several colors, cut into chunks.
½ lb mushrooms, sliced
1 lb fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks
Basil, Oregano, Parsley to taste (lots and lots!), fresh or (if need be) dry
Mozzarella cheese
In a wok or large skillet, heat olive oil until almost smoking. Add onion and garlic; sauté until translucent. Add cubed eggplant; sauté until it darkens. Add sliced squashes and peppers and continue to cook over medium-high heat until almost tender. Add herbs and tomatoes, lower heat to simmer, and cook until everything is tender. Right before serving, cover with sliced mozzarella cheese and let it melt. Serve over spaghetti.
~4 servings

For a cute preview of the film, visit the web site: .

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Four Leaves

Yesterday we irrigated for about 7 hours. Today when I went out at noon to check on the condition of the squash bed, some of the plants were up to three leaves with a small fourth leaf starting to expand.

The growth pattern of the squash plants at this young stage is interesting. We irrigate once a week, with occasional additional waterings for a couple of weeks after planting the seeds. The squash plants puts on a spurt of above ground growth for the first couple of days after an irrigation. Then growth seems to be arrested as the soil dries down. I wish I could see what was going on under the ground during the slow growth period. Does all growth slow down, or do the roots continue to grow into the soil at a rapid rate? I'd like to think that the roots continue to grow rapidly even if the leaves and stems grow slowly. But I have seen no data.

Several hills of squash had no seedlings when I last wrote, but now there are only two or three hills with no seedlings. Some of those seedlings are growing very slowly. Here's what the patch looks like today:

I put in another half hour before irrigating to spread straw around the patch.

Total time spent on squash patch so far: 11 man - hours.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Continued Seedling Growth

This morning I counted 51 hills of the 58 with at least one set of cotyledons up. Some seem to be taking their time coming up. In some cases the first true leaf is up, and even the second leaf. The top photo is a hill of a zucchini type of squash, with the first true leaf coming to a point. The bottom photo is a patty-pan type of squash, with a more rounded first leaf. The zucchini leaves also have some whitish patches that are lacking in the patty pans, but they are hard to see in this image.

In a few weeks there will be squash for sale at the Nampa Farmers' Market!

I've done a little work in the squash bed since planting the seeds. First, I scattered sulfur pellets and rock phosphate pellets on each hill. I should have scattered them around the garden when we put the compost on, but I forgot, or didn't have time. It's OK to get them on late. The sulfur dissolves with irrigation into sulfuric acid which temporarily decreases the soil pH. Our soil is very alkaline, about 8.3. By adding sulfur, I can lower the pH for a while to something closer to a neutral 7.0 which is most plants prefer over the high 8.3 alkaline soil. It's a temporary fix; I'll have to add sulfur again once or twice this season to keep the pH low.
The lower pH also helps make iron more readily available to the plant. Iron binds with soil particles at high pH, preventing the plant from using it. The leaves start to yellow. Lower the pH and the plant can absorb more iron, and they leaves are a richer green color.

Phosphorus is not a problem in our soil generally, but I like to add a little to crops that have fruits. Once tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squash start to flower and set fruit, they use more phosphorus. You don't want to give the plants too much nitrogen or they get very leafy and don't produce as many fruit.

I've also spread some straw over the ground around some of the squash hills to help keep in moisture. This may help bring up the seedlings that have been slow to sprout. I need to spread more straw this weekend. The straw may also hold down weeds some, but the weeds seem to grow through anyways. So, my main reason for the straw mulch is to conserve soil moisture.

Time spent so far on the squash patch:
20 minutes spreading sulfur and phosphorus
20 minutes spreading straw
15 minutes planting three additional hills, and replanting 3 hills with no seedlings yet.

Total so far: ~10.5 man hours

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's happening down there?

We planted on Tuesday, and now it's Sunday, 5 days later. True to the seed packets, when I went out to check my garden this morning, there were squash cotyledons emerging from about 14 of my 58 squash hills. Good start!
So, for 5 days, the soil appeared barren, and then all of a sudden these fleshy green leaves have emerged. What's been happening down there under the soil?

I don't know much about seed physiology, but I googled the topic and found the first page of a 1956 review of the topic. While I'm sure that much has been learned since then, the authors describe the basic process very well. They write "A seed contains an embryonic plant in an inactive condition, and germination is the resumption of growth." Right there is a bit of a surprise. A resumption of growth. Because the growth started while the seed was forming in the fertilized ovary - part of the original flower.

"The young plant, protected by varying layers of living and dead tissue, has reserves for metabolism. In some seeds development takes place as soon as water is absorbed, but in others germination does not take place until additional requirements are met." Squash seeds are large, so they have lots of reserves for metabolism. They are the type of seeds that start to develop as soon as water is absorbed. They don't require scarification or cold treatment, for example.

"Three distinct stages are evident in germinating seeds, namely (a) imbibition of water, (b) cell elongation, and (c) increase in cell number. In a physiological sense, the start of germination depends on a coupling of respiration to growth. The established seedling results from resumption of development and its continuation through growth." So my seeds have been taking up water, increasing the size of their dried up cells, and multiplying their cells.

That's as far as I could read the article without a subscription to Annual Review of Plant Physiology.

A bulletin from Washington State University explains a little more: "The first sign of germination is the absorption of water -- lots of water. This activates an enzyme, respiration increases and plant cells are duplicated. Soon the embryo becomes too large, the seed coat bursts open and the growing plant emerges. The tip of the root is the first thing to emerge and it's first for good reason. It will anchor the seed in place, and allow the embryo to absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding soil."

So, tomorrow we'll give them some more water, and the rest of the seedlings should be up in a few days, respiring, photosynthesizing, and multiplying their cells into a young seedling.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


In China, ducks are introduced into rice paddies as a form of insect control. They forage around the rice plants, and leave good fertilizer behind in the process. Then, after the rice harvest, the ducks are harvested as well. At least that's what I've heard.

When a pickup pulled into our driveway yesterday afternoon with a large box of pink flamigos, I knew that there was no escape. We were being flocked, apparently along with three other households in the neighborhood. It's the Kirkpatrick Memorial Community Church's fundraiser to benefit the Community House Renovation and Maintenance Project. Flocks of pink flamingos have been showing up all over Parma and the surrounding countryside to spend the night grazing on lawns. Donation options are as follows:

Minimum fee for flock removal is $25.

Designation fee of $25 will send the flock (or up to 4 flocks of 24 birds @ $25 per flock) to a friend.

Grazing fee of $25 per day per flock is assessed should you wish your flock to stay a few days.

Insurance for the prevention of large pink birds = $50.

It's a coercive form of fund raising, but I must admit that it's kind of fun to drive around town and see where the flock of pink flamingos is roosting. Plus, it's a good cause. My noon time yoga class meets in the Community House, I often vote there, and lots of other events take place there.

I happened to be home when the birds arrived, so I had the opportunity to decide where they were going to graze. Our lawn is mostly hidden from the neighborhood, but there is a large mowed patch of our South garden where I recently finished harvesting spinach. It is visible throughout our little Leigh-Z-Acre subdivision. I asked to have the flock placed there.

They look like they belong. I keep hoping that they are bending those long necks when I'm not looking, and pecking at the earwigs that are the bane of my garden. Or leaving a little dung fertilizer.

So, we are letting them graze here at Pollinator Paradise for an extra day. While here they took a shower under the sprinklers. Being a tropical bird, I hope they appreciated the extra humidity.

Thanks for visiting my garden, Pink birds! And thanks to Sue and Shelly who must be exhausted from hauling these birds around from one grazing site to another.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Planting the seeds

Getting seeds into the ground is a critical moment, and I always breath a sigh of relief once I've accomplished that task. No matter how well prepared the ground is, until the seeds go in, there is no potential for a crop. Once the seeds are planted, my garden is all potential.

Monday morning I finished preparation of my squash patch by firing up our trusty Troy-Bilt Pony tiller and tilling in the compost. Generally I let John handle the tilling, but this time I did it myself. Well, actually John got the tiller started for me, but I took over from there. I'm proud of myself, since playing with machinery is not my favorite part of gardening. The Pony is a relatively lightweight easy to manage rear-tine tiller,and I was able to turn without too much struggle, although my arms have been aching ever since.

Once tilled, I spent a couple of hours raking the garden smooth in preparation for planting. Then I marked the ground where squash would be planted in hills 3 - 4 feet apart.

By the time I finished, it was hot enough that I had to retreat indoors, but that's ok because the final task before planting was to sort through my squash seeds. Too late to plant the winter squash this year. I'll save those seeds for next year. Still, I had 13 different varieties of summer squash to plant. Some of the packets are as old as 2004, and they may not germinate, others were purchased new last year and should still be viable. The packets varied in the numbers of seeds left. I spent an hour or so Monday evening creating a map of the squash patch to expedite planting.

Last year I had a small USDA Farmer Rancher Grant to study the effect of harvest frequency and fruit size on yield of the plants. I had 40 hills of 4 different varieties for that experiment, with the varieties randomized throughout the garden. This year I hope to repeat part of that experiment, with one yellow and two green zucchini varieties. This time I will have fewer repititions of the experiment - not enough to allow for statistical analysis, but should give me a idea of what is happening. The varieties involved in the experiment will be Butterstick (Territorial Seed), a yellow zucchini, and two similar green varieites: Cashflow (Johnnys Seed) and Revenue (Territorial Seed). I don't have enough of either green variety to use just one, so I planted 3 hills of each. I plan 3 harvest treatments. One hill will be harvested as mini squash, one as regular ~7 inch fruits. A third hill will have a mixed harvest strategy: leave one fruit at a time to grow to 7 inch, and harvest the remaining as mini squash.

I mixed the rest of the varieties throughtout the patch surrounding the experimental hills. Last year my experiment included two patty pan varieties: yellow "Sunburst" (Territorial Seed) and green "Starship" (Territorial Seed). What I learned was that the patty pan varieties sell well as mini squash, but don't sell well when allowed to grow as large as 4 inches across. This year I'll pick them all as mini squash and not bother with the experiment. Several other varieties will be harvested exclusively as mini squash, including round zucchinis "Eight Ball" (green, Johnny's Seed) and Floridor (yellow, Johnnys), Papaya Pear (Territorial Seed). I'd like to plant Flying Saucer, but I'm out of seed this year.

I also have seeds of a couple of interesting zucchini types, including "Magda" , "Costata Romanesco", and "Zephyr "(all from Johnny's), and a few "Raven" (Shepherd's Seeds - these are old and may not germinate).

The pivotal moment for my squash garden came yesterday (Tuesday) morning. Took my map into the garden and placed 3 - 4 seeds at each of the spots that I had marked the night before. After covering the seeds with about two inches of soil, I drew a circle around the spot to mark the hill. All together, I planted 58 hills. I left three spots empty in case I manage to find seeds of "Flying Saucer" or some other interesting variety in the next week or so. At the west edge of the garden I added a row of cucumbers.

And then - we watered! Turned the irrigation water on for about 3 hours before our neighbor claimed the water for his lawn. It was enough to get the seeds started germinating. The seed packets indicate that the young cotyledons should poke their way out of the soil in 5 - 10 days. It will be 40 to 60 days before the plants produce fruits. 50 days from today most of my plants should have fruits ready to harvest. With any luck I'll have squash for market on September 8.

Meanwhile, I hold my breath and cross my fingers that the miracle of germination goes smoothly.

Time spent on the squash patch:
~2.5 man hrs tilling and raking
~2.5 man hrs. planting seed
Total so far: ~9.5 man hours

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Preparing the Squash Patch

Here it is mid July, three weeks after the summer solstice, and I'm just getting around to planting my squash patch. As a market gardener who sells squash at the Nampa, Idaho Farmers' Market, that's quite late. Squash can be planted as early as mid-May here, certainly by the beginning of June; by now I would have squash fruit for sale at market like some of the other produce vendors. But I'm routinely a late squash planter. Last year, like this, I spent much of May and June in Pasadena helping my Mom recover from surgery. Bad timing for a gardener, but mom's recovery is a priority.
There is an advantage to planting late. I miss the first generation of squash bugs. In years when I have planted squash in June, by mid to late July I am battling these hard to control pests with jars of soapy water and dustings of diatomaceous earth, and if I'm not vigilant, the bugs will get the best of my squash plants. But if I plant in mid July, the first generation squash bugs have gone elsewhere and their offspring don't get far enough to bother my late plantings. It's a good tradeoff for missing a few markets early in the season.

This week we got the garden prepared, and next week I'll do the planting. Husband John was in charge of tilling the plot to turn under what remains from last fall's cover crop of alfalfa and the accumulated weeds from spring. Then we were faced with the daunting task of spreading composted manure. Until this year we've relied on our trusty wheelbarrow for this task, but in the July heat, that task is exhausting and timely.

Fortunately our new neighbor, Frank, came to the rescue this year with his new toy: a tractor with a front end loader. It took him a couple of hours Tuesday evening, and no straining muscles, to reduce our compost heaps to the ground, and leave piles around the garden. John raked the piles smooth.

Our composted manure pile comes from a local feedlot, Mann Farms, only a couple of miles west of us. They were the Idaho Family Farm of the year in 2006. I have to acknowledge that they are not organic, hence my produce doesn't qualify for organic certification. But, I prefer to get my manure locally to save the cost of transportation (a substantial cost these days) and to help the local CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) dispose of their wastes in a sustainable and ecologically sound manner. This stuff is great. My garden soil is low in nitrogen, but add a couple of inches of composted manure, and my crops look great. You'll see.

With the manure spread, it was time to water. John is in charge of irrigation, so he has set up several gear-driven popup sprinkler heads along the edge of the garden. We gave everything a thorough soaking yesterday, Wednesday. That will get the weed seeds on the surface germinating over the next few days.
On Sunday or Monday we'll get out the tiller one more time, and till in the compost as well as the sprouting weeds. Then, it will be time to put the seeds in the soil. Watch for more next week!
Time spent on squash patch:
Moving compost to patch: ~2 man hrs.
Raking compost: ~2.5 man hrs.
Total time spent on squash patch: ~4.5 hrs.