Friday, March 27, 2009

More than You Wanted to Know about Squash

Every year, lots of people around here plant various kinds of squash in their gardens, and every year a lot of squash plants around here die an untimely death.

The usual cause is the squash vine borer, which, as an adult, is a moth that shows a striking bit of red-orange. These moths are pretty enough that I haven’t been able to convince my usual garden helper—my youngest son—to catch and squish them for me, so I have to do it myself (I have a little toy insect net that works just fine). Unlike many moths, these are active in the day, so a gardener can see when they start to be active in the garden. They lay eggs on the squash plants, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae that creep out bore into the squash stems where they start to eat away the inside of the plant.

Anyone who has watched a squash plant wilt a little more each day in the summer heat before finally collapsing into a limp heap of stem and leaf has, essentially, seen squash vine borers in action. Usually, a gardener in this area who doesn’t use pesticides gets a few zucchini off each zucchini plant in the summer before this collapse occurs.

Using pesticides will slow the borers down if the spraying begins early enough, but, besides the issue of having to deal with unfamiliar chemicals, which lots of people just don’t want to do, going the pesticide route means adding yet another chore to the gardening schedule. Those of us who are lazy, regardless of how we feel about pesticides, will look for another way around the problem.

One way is to just accept that the garden will provide a limited amount of squash. Another way is to look more closely at squashes in general, to see if nature has provided an alternative.

It turns out that there are four main species of squash that are grown for food: Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbita mixta, Cucurbita maxima, and Cucurbita moschata. Of these, the C. pepo group contains most of the squashes we like to grow and eat: zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and most pumpkins. Sadly, this group is highly susceptible to squash vine borers.

The C. mixta group contains mostly cushaw squashes, which are grown more as food for animals than for people, but this group is fairly resistant to the vine borers. I did read in the 2009 catalogue for Sand Hill Preservation Center that cushaw squash are good to eat when prepared correctly. Cooking instructions appear in the catalogue.

The C. maxima group includes banana squash, the Cinderalla pumpkin (Rouge V’if D’Etampes), buttercup squash, and hubbard squash. I’ve read conflicting information about the resistance of these squashes to vine borers, but I did try to grow buttercup squash one year, and it did not survive long enough to produce a mature fruit. On the other hand, I have a friend who grows the Cinderella pumpkin just about five miles away, and she has had no trouble with borers on them. It may be that this group is variably resistant to the borers, depending on the variety. Or, it may be that my yard is just fatal to some squashes.

The C. moschata group is most resistant to the borers. The most familiar representative of this group is the butternut squash, but this group also contains the cheese squashes, Seminole Pumpkin squash, and a variety of squash sometimes called Trombocino Rampicante (sometimes also called Zucchetta) that, when immature, is fairly similar to zucchini.

The substitution of Trombocino squash in the garden for zucchini makes having “zucchini” all summer long possible, without having to work out a pesticide schedule for the borers. One drawback to this variety is that it vines vigorously. In small gardens, some plan for how to handle the vines needs to be worked out, or they will sprawl all over the lawn. Also, it isn’t a perfect substitute; the taste is similar, but I think it is closer to zucchini-flavor when peeled. Also, it is firmer, and needs longer cooking. This can be an advantage, since sometimes zucchini falls apart when (accidentally!) left cooking too long. If immature fruits are left on the plant to mature, they become a bit like butternut squash, but less sweet.

Examination of specialty seed catalogues (like that for Sand Hill Preservation Center) shows that more C. moschata squashes exist. These squashes, which are mostly what we would call winter squashes, will in general be resistant to the vine borers, so anyone who really loves squash and has been getting frustrated over all the dead squash plants might benefit from sticking with this group. Anyone still up for a bit of experimentation might try the C. maxima or C. mixta group.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Return of the Rhubarb

Last year I ordered and planted two rhubarb plants. I knew this was a gamble. I live in zone 7b/8, and it gets hot here in the summer; rhubarb does not like extended periods of heat, and, in fact, one of the plants sank slowly into oblivion in early August. The other one was a bit sturdier from the start—with thicker, longer, more numerous stems—and it stayed above ground until September before dying back.

After I had planted my rhubarb, a friend told me that she had tried more than once to grow rhubarb here, and it had never survived the first summer. This was not good news.

I thought that the one little rhubarb cobbler I had made last Spring might be the most expensive dessert I’d ever made. It looks like I can halve its cost, though, because the sturdier rhubarb has returned. It might be a miracle.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring's Progress

Even though today is officially the first day of Spring, I’ve been watching it approach for a few weeks now. After the trout lilies bloomed in the backyard, it was the bloodroot, then the toothwort. The toad trillium have pushed up through the soil, with their no-neck flower buds still unopened. Mayapples have pushed through, and I notice that they have strayed into the path. The rue anemone are blooming, and the cinnamon fern is uncoiling—the tallest shoots are already close to 18 inches high, but it will be a week or more before the first frond opens to full size. The pointed tips of some of the hostas can be seen, too.

Along the wooded path at the side of the house, the fuzzy, silvery beginnings of leaves have appeared on the oak-leaf hydrangea, and the flower buds on the azaleas have begun to swell.

In the front yard, the plum trees are nearly done with blooming; the bush sour cherries are just beginning, and the blueberries are getting closer. The scallop-edged leaves of columbine are opening like flower-buds.

On the other side of the house, the bleeding-hearts are coming up, with flower stalks already visible.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Early Spring Chores

Yesterday, a small volcano was erupting under the mulch in one of the beds. When I went out to pull the mulch away to see what was up, it turned out to not be a very small column of magma; instead, it was the first fat asparagus spear of the season. That meant it was time to rake away, carefully, the mulch over the asparagus bed, and when I did, I found the tips of several more spears of asparagus.

We always really appreciate the asparagus, for a few reasons. The first is that I don’t have to replant it every year (less work!), and the second is that we just love asparagus. Another is that it is the first new vegetable of spring. We still have some carrots and parsnips out there, and plenty of parsley, but it will be a few weeks before the lettuce, spinach, and other spring greens will be ready.

I also noticed that the peas were coming up, so today I put out the climbing string for them. If I wait too long to put up the string, the peas don’t climb as well; it needs to be there right as they push into the air.

The greens under the cold frame look great. I thought about removing the plastic last weekend when it got so warm (low eighties!), but then I remembered the rabbit that loped across our front walk just the week before. That rabbit, or one a lot like it, is the reason I didn’t get any beets last fall; every time the leaves got more than a couple of inches tall, they were sheared off. I think the plastic covering over the spring greens might protect them long enough for me to eat them before the rabbit and its assorted relatives do.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Good Garden Soil

When we first moved here, and for years afterward, an older gentleman in Kennesaw grew roses, lots and lots of roses, out by the road on Cherokee Street in the older part of town. I stopped to talk with him once. He said that a friend brought him a truckload of oak leaves to use for mulch each year, but that his yard had naturally good soil. I remember thinking that that couldn't be possible. My yard's soil, just a few miles away, is naturally just a great glob of red clay.

I wondered whether the difference was that my neighborhood's topsoil might have been scraped off during "development," while his was what was originally in place. I will never know, but most people I talk to around here have soil like mine.

Walter Reeves (see link to his site on the right) certainly seems to have soil like mine, and offers some good advice about improving it so desirable plants will actually grow in it:

"I have lots of clay in my landscape soil. When I prepare a bed, I spade up the existing soil as deeply as I can with a round-point shovel. Onto my loosened pile I pour a two cubic foot bag of soil conditioner for every ten square feet of bed. On top goes two bags of gritty sand (Quikrete All-Purpose Sand, PaveStone Underlayment Sand, granite dust, etc) . I also scatter a pint of garden lime and a half-bag of hen manure on the site. My Mantis tiller makes short work of mixing it all together but, if the soil is moderately dry, a shovel is almost as fast.

I rake the bed smooth, stand back a minute to admire my handiwork and then drink some iced tea, secure in the knowledge that this PREPARED BED will be a happy home for anything I plant there."

I've never added quite this much sand, but my garden soil still hasn't reach that loamy perfection that veggies grow so well in. And really, even though I add organic matter every year, from compost, dug-in decomposed mulch, purchased soil conditioner, to the occasional cover-crop, clay is still the most obvious element of my garden's soil. However, the oldest sections of the garden are looser and more productive than newer sections, so I know that all the additions are making a difference.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Field Trip

Last Wednesday, I went with a carload of other gardeners up to the Ladd’s Farm Supply store in Cartersville. The parking is weird, but the store is great, well worth the half-hour drive, especially when going with a group. We had plenty of time to visit while on the road. Some of the group needed to purchase seeds; I’ve already bought most of my seeds for the year, but I didn’t have any seed potatoes yet, and I knew Ladd’s would have them.

Last year, I bought my seed potatoes, the varieties Red Pontiac and White Cobbler, at a little grocery store in Choctaw, Oklahoma, when I was there to visit Mom. They cost forty-nine cents a pound, and they produced well for me. I have grown other varieties that produced well in my yard— Caribe and Garnet Chili, for example—but seed potatoes for those and other less common varieties cost considerably more, between two and three dollars a pound, not including shipping (they aren’t generally available in stores around here).

Ladd’s offers the varieties Red Pontiac, Kennebec, and Yukon Gold, in five and ten pound bags. A five-pound bag of seed potatoes was $2.50. This is similar to what I paid last year, and much less than ordering seed potatoes through the mail.

One really great feature of farm supply stores is that garden seeds are available in large quantities. I have a small enough garden that I don’t really need large quantities, but seeds purchased by the eighth cup, quarter cup, half cup, or cup, are much less expensive, generally, than seeds purchased in individual packets. The good news is that most seeds remain viable for two-to-four years if stored in an air-(and moisture)-tight container in the refrigerator. This means that even small gardens like mine can benefit from buying bulk seeds at a farm supply store.

Even better, many of the varieties offered at Ladd’s are varieties recommended by the UGA Extension service for this area, like the bush bean Blue Lake 274. In addition to the UGA recommended varieties, Ladd's sells varieties that have traditionally been grown in this area. One of those is the Rattlesnake Pole bean, which is grown at the historic Root House in Marietta.

If I had a better memory, or had been clever enough to write it all down, this report would be more detailed, but the bins held many varieties of corn, many of different kinds of beans, at least three kinds of lettuces, an okra (burgundy?) that I’ve never tried, rutabega, Detroit Dark Red beets, Kale, Georgia Collards, Rocky Ford melon, a couple of different watermelons, Bloomsdale spinach, crookneck squash, and lots more.

Near the seed bins, a rack held smaller packets of Burpee seed, for gardeners who wanted different varieties or smaller quantities. Near that rack, on a low shelf, we found little bags of crowder peas.

In addition, there were bags of onion sets, for white, yellow, and red onions. The one-pound bags were $1.50. Even though I have already planted 100+ yellow onions, in addition to the multiplier onions that were planted in October, I bought a bag of red onion sets; I’ve not grown them before and am curious. Luckily, a friend had space in her garden for some of them, so I won’t have to find space in my yard for the whole bag. One pound is a lot of little onions.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

When the Trout Lilies Bloom

On Thursday after getting home from work, I went out back to check on the trout lilies; they had begun to bloom. So, the rest of Thursday went toward planting peas and transplanting out the baby lettuces, spinach, chicory, etc that I had started under lights indoors.

It will be a week or more before I see the peas pushing up through the dirt, but the little plants are safely (I hope!) tucked into the new cold frame. They had a couple of days of relative warmth and amazing rain--we've had 3 inches in the last 48 hours--to get settled in before some colder weather returned.

Right now, the temperature is dropping. It is still above freezing, just barely, and big wet flakes of snow are falling.
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