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: .