Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 Squash Patch

It's been a while since I've written anything about my squash patch, but there are some topics that I want to cover this season. I've cut back on my market gardening efforts this year, but I did plant a significant squash patch on June 26. That's about my usual time for planting squash. I wait to see squash bugs before planting. When the bugs don't find any squash growing in my garden they leave and go elsewhere. The late-growing squash are generally not bothered by squash bugs.

This season may be different. Cold and rainy weather delayed growth and development of both crops and pests by about 3 weeks, maybe more. I didn't want to wait for the bugs for much beyond end of June, or there will not be time for fruit to develop. We'll see if planting late means avoiding bugs this year.
So, here's my squash patch as it looked on June 27, looking south toward our house and small young orchard. There are 60 squash hills, each with about 3 seeds planted. As in previous years, there are lots of squash varieties, including three types of patty pan shapes , three round zucchini, two middle-eastern varieties, and about 6 regular zucchini varieties, all in dark green, light green and yellow varieties. In addition, I have seed from the F1 generation of a mutant plant that grew in 2008. I saved the seed, and planted some in 2009 and more in 20010. I had some interesting shapes that I called minaret, green papaya pear, and avocado. This year I planted some of the 2009 seed again (I did not get any fruit in 2010). So I want to document my simple efforts at plant breeding and seed saving this season. New shapes will be a nice addition to the squash that I sell.

Temperatures had warmed enough by early July for quick seedlings emergence. Here's one of the first hills to have cotyledons emerging, on July 4.

This photo shows the seedlings for one of the more advanced hills as of July 15, the day after an irrigation. There are three or four leaves beyond the cotyledons at this point for many of the hills. The seeds are slower to germinate in some hills. A few hills had to be replanted.

Here's the squash patch on July 15. Look close and you'll see the young squash seedlings. There are also quite a few weeds. The tallest "weeds" are alfalfa plants. I'm going to try to keep them in the garden so that when the season is over, the alfalfa will still be around to serve as a cover crop next year.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Bush and Vine Squash

The garden is covered with snow, but with a pile of seed catalogs in hand, I'm starting to think about next season's garden. I pretty much used up all of my squash seeds last year, so this year I need to buy more, including most of the varieties that I grew last year (see my post from September 18, 2007). There were two varieties that I didn't plant last year because I was out of seed. Flying saucer is one of my favorites. It's a patty pan type that is green in the center and pale yellow on the pointed tips. It looks like something from outer space, and the name appeals to kids. I also like geode, a round zucchini, lighter green than eight-ball and a nice match to it. Geode seems moister and more flavorful than eight-ball to me. I'm watching for other varieties that would be good in my mix of baby squash.

Seed catalogs often note that some varieties are bush types, and others are vining. I took some photos last season to illustrate this.

This is zephyr, from Johnny's Seeds. It looks a little like a yellow crookneck squash, except it has smooth skin and the blossom end is green. It's a good example of a vining type. The base of the plant, where the roots go into the ground, is at the left. The growing tip of the vine is on the right where you can see an open flower and tomorrow's flower bud, both with developing ovaries. These ovaries are a little thin for mini squash. I would probably wait a day or two before harvesting them.

Behind the pistilate (female) flowers with their developing ovaries are a series of nodes, each with a stem (pedicel) leading to a broad umbrella-like leaf. Those are the photosynthesis factories that make carbohydrates to fuel further growth of the plant and fruits. One of the nodes In the middle of the stem has branched off to produce more leaves and pistillate flowers. Toward the base of the stem are several wilting flowers, and some buds, all staminate (male) flowers. The plant produces male flowers on older parts of the stem, and female flowers on new growth.

If I were leaving fruits to develop seeds, I would want the bees to visit the staminate flowers and get themselves drenched in pollen, then move over to the pistillate flowers to deposit pollen on the stigma, so the fruit could set seed. Of course, the bee wouldn't care if it was transporting pollen to the stigmas; it would just want to get nectar from the base of the flowers. Both pistillate and staminate flowers produce nectar.

The pistillate flowers produce the squash fruit, but the staminate flowers are another commodity. They can be harvested as squash blossoms, a seasonal favorite at gourmet resaurants, where they make squash blossom soup or wonderful stuffed appetizers. They are a rare commodity because the blossom only lasts one morning. You have to harvest at dawn when the flower is just opening, store them in cold water, and use them by evening. Maybe you can keep them for a day or two in the refrigerator, but that's it.

But back to the vines. As long as I am harvesting baby squash, the photosynthate from those leaves won't be going into any rapidly enlarging fruits. Instead the plant will use the carbohydrates to add another node or a new side branch, produce more pistillate flowers, and more baby squash. It's a nice positive feedback from my perspective. The more I harvest, the more I should have to harvest. My research suggests that I can harvest 1.5 to three times more individual squash if I harvest them small than if I leave them on the vine to grow to a respectable mid-size squash.

If I were growing the squash for seed, I'd wait until the squash grew huge and the seeds matured. While the squash was growing, much of the photosynthate from those leaves would be going to enlarge the fruit. The plant would grow slowly, adding few new nodes. The largest fruit, if well pollinated, would inhibit the growth of smaller fruits developing behind it, possibly even causing them to abort. New flower development also would slow. Plant physiologists call it "first fruit dominance".

I've recently learned that researchers in plant ecology at Penn State University have shown that it's not just a head start in time that gives the first fruit it's dominance. Good pollination is also important. Fruits that are developing many seeds dominate over those that are developing few seeds, even when the fruit with few seeds is older. The researchers have also shown that levels of the plant hormone ethylene are lowest at the tip of the growing plant when there is a dominant fruit developing on the vine. Apparently, ethylene stimulates development of new flowers and fruit; when ethylene is lacking, flowers and fruit are supressed. (Stevenson 1992, Krupnick et al., 1999; see bottom of this entry)

This eight-ball plant is a bush-type squash. They take up less space in the garden, and some bush types are small enough for container growing.
You can see why they are bushy rather than viney: they don't have much stem between the nodes. All of the flowers and fruit are scrunched up in the center of the plant. As they add new leaves, they remind me of multilegged clusters of green octopi.

With the stems so close, it's sometimes hard to see frut developing at the base of the plant, particularly green varieties like eight-ball. I wonder if bees have a hard time getting to flowers at the bottom?

When I pick baby squash, the plant doesn't bother to grow much more stem, just more leaves and flowers on top of each other. These bushy varieties seem to produce flowers and fruit faster than viney varieties, as long as they are well fertilized.

Flying saucer, as I recall is a bushy plant, but very slow growing in comparison to other bushy varieties. I'm not sure why. I'll have to watch it more carefully this season.

Stephenson, A.G. 1992. The regulation of maternal investment in plants. In C. Marshall and J. Grace, eds., "Fruit and Seed Production: Aspects of development, environmental physiology and ecology", Cambridge University Press. pp. 151 - 171.

Krupnick G. A., K. M. Brown, and A. G. Stephenson. 1999. The influence of fruit on the regulation of internal ethylene concentrations and sex expression in Cucurbita texana. Int. J. Plant Sci. 160(2): 321

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Waiting in the Wings

To harvest, or not to harvest?

There is an art to harvesting mini squash. You have to learn to anticipate how fast the fruit are growing to know when to harvest, and when to leave the fruit to get a little bigger.

There’s always more incipient fruit waiting in the wings. The younger buds and their ovaries (mini squash) grow very slowly while the plant puts most of its resources into growth of the oldest, largest fruit on the vine. Once that largest fruit is picked, or once it has put on most of its growth and starts to mature seeds, the next largest fruit will grow that much faster.

Plant physiologist refer to the fruit as a “sink” for resources such as nutrients transported from the roots, and sugars created by photosynthesis in the leaves. The larger the fruit, the more resources are diverted to that sink. The larger and healthier the plant, the more resources there are to invest in the fruit sinks. When fruits are allowed to grow until the seeds are mature, as in winter squash or melons, then less of the resources go into making stems and leaves. If the fruits are harvested small, and are not allowed to mature, the plant has excess resources for making more flowers and more mini squash, but also more stems and leaves that can, in turn, make even more flowers and mini squash.

I always have this in the back of my mind when I harvest. I have a target size for harvesting the fruit. For zucchini types, mini squash are best at about 4 inches long. Patty pan types are best about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. If a fruit is marginal in size when I’m harvesting, I have to decide whether or not to harvest. It’s a game of skill and chance.

I’m looking at the largest fruit, the one that bloomed yesterday or the day before, but also the second largest to see how close it is to harvestable size. Sometimes there are two fruits close together that are almost identical in size. I have to take into account that the plant is probably putting equal resources in each of those fruits, so the two are growing a little slower than one dominant fruit would grow.

If it’s the last squash harvest of the day on Friday, I'll harvest a marginal sized fruit no matter what, because I can bring it to market the next day. Plus, I may not get back to harvest until Sunday morning. On warm days, the squash could be too big by then. Instead, I let the next largest squash become the sink so it will be ready to harvest next time.

If there is time on Fridays I harvest twice; once first thing in the morning, and once at the end of the day. In the morning I’ll leave marginal squash on the vine, in hopes that they will be the perfect size by the end of the day. But if the second largest squash looks like it might be harvestable by the end of the day, I’ll take the largest squash in hopes of harvesting two squash from one plant that day.

Similarly, if it’s a week day, I am inclined to leave a marginal squash on the vine for another day in hopes that it will be perfect the next day. If it’s a warm day, or if I am late harvesting, it may get a little too large. If it’s a cold day, the marginal squash could take several days to reach harvestable size. Then I tend to harvest mini squash at a smaller size.

Sometimes the fruit grows past mini squash size, and I decide to leave it until it’s a “midi” or “maxi” fruit size. Then I aim for a fruit about 7 inches long for zucchini types. That may take several days of growth.

I may notice squash slow pokes. A squash that should be the dominant sink on a plant may not grow as fast as expected. I’ll suspect a stronger sink hidden somewhere at the base of the plant. I often find one – the huge squash that suddenly becomes visible when it reaches baseball bat size.

I have to know my squash plants intimately to play this source-sink harvest game. I remember each fruit configuration from day to day, noting how much has changed since the previous day, watching the sky, the soil, the weather forecast to predict how fast change will occur in the future. Change is constant in my squash patch, and often dramatic, until it is abruptly halted by a heavy frost.

My squash patch is a metaphor for my life. I watch the young seedlings burst forth into the world and grow day by day with the exuberance and uncertainty of children. It takes maturity and experience to recognize and appreciate the rate at which they grow, and to prepare for change. Just when I think I am good at it, the weather changes, the temperature drops. Growth and change occur at a different pace. I have to learn and adapt all over, hoping to continue to be productive until the final frost.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

First Frost

Ok, so I'm writing this long after the pictures were taken. The last few weeks of fall were hectic. But I have some loose ends to tie up from the squash patch, one of them being the frost.

These photos were taken on Thursday, October 18. When I looked out first thing in the morning the patch looked fine. Midday we had a knock on our door, and there were two women who introduced themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses. I politely indicated that I wasn't really interested in talking with them. They smiled, kindly, and one of the women commented about how nice my garden looked. I thanked her for the compliment. "You haven't been hit by frost yet!" she noted with surprise. Lots of places already had their first frost by then, but I was pleased that frost had thus far missed us.

Perhaps I should have said that I was grateful to God for the garden. Perhaps the damage that I noticed when I went out in the afternoon to harvest was His revenge for my being too smug about my good fortune. But there apparently had been frost damage after all, wilting the outer leaves on my plants, and killing the cucumbers (far left in the top photo) outright. The squash plants were still alive under the dead leaves, but in the cold they were producing very slowly. I spent about 40 minutes that afternoon harvesting 90 small patty pan squash and 40 zucchini squash, a total of about 7.8 lbs. On Friday I did a "salvage" harvest of squashes that are tiny, but still edible. Took another hour, and yielded another 6.9 lbs. Most of it came to the Nampa Farmers' Market with me on Saturday, Oct. 20.

I put the smallest squashes into pint baskets and sold each basket for $1. I sold 9 baskets, plus another $11 worth of larger squash, a total of $19. There was about $9 worth of squash left unsold. No matter, it was just enough for another few meals for us.

There was still a bit of growth left on the plant the following week. On Friday, Oct. 26 I harvested for the last time, about 7.5 lbs. It made up 12 pint baskets of tiny squash, each about 11 oz. (including basket). They sold out. It was our last market of the season.

Soon I hope to post the total yield and income from my 2007 squash patch. This year, 2008, perhaps I'll be able to start earlier and do better. Meanwhile, I've posted the results of my 2006 squash project for SARE on my website. I'll be doing a poster and presentation about it in March at the National SARE conference. Plus, I hope to add some information to this blog about some of the squash research that Ive been reading, and what it tells me about the dynamics of squash growth.

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 App├ętit.

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.