… are some of the biggest babies in the vegetable seedling nursery.
These are crookneck squash, an heirloom variety that dates back to pre-European contact in North America and which can still be found in many grocery stores today. The plant is super tough and productive, very adapted to the climate I live in, and because the seeds are so large, I didn’t even need to plant them in a fine, seedling-friendly medium. They went right into the ground, four seeds into each rounded mound of russet earth, which I eventually thinned to one or two plants per hill.*
Even then, it turns out I may have planted them too closely. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I complained to Granddaddy that we hadn’t been the beneficiary of their legendary productivity this summer, and after a breakdown of what I’d done, his suggestion was to give them more root room next year.
I also asked what I could do to prevent the severe mildew that attacked with the heavy rains at season’s end, and he smiled his mischievous smile and asked me what precisely I intended to do about the weather. We both shared a laugh. Alas, some things are out of the gardener’s control, a fact he knows intimately after 50 years of farming. It’s probably a good idea to develop a sense of humor about it as soon as possible.
When I told my mother about planting these seeds back in May, her mouth sagged open as she looked at me in horror. Ten acres of her father’s farm were devoted to crookneck squash, which needed to be harvested every single day during peak season, and required that one wear long sleeves and gloves, even in the muggiest heat, because of their characteristic prickles. (Otherwise, you’d end up with a skin rash by evening. Although you could also end up with the so-called “prickly heat” rash just from sweating in your protective clothing, and you were always risking sun poisoning, which I had once as a preteen and can highly recommend avoiding.)
One of the first moments my mother remembers clearly thinking to herself, “I have to get off the farm, I have to get out of here,” is when standing amid the squash plants with her sister, and contemplating the seemingly endless expanse. Trust me, I can understand why it would be a little baffling to her that her city-bred daughter would want to return to that.
But she did enjoy the taste of the fresh squash we gave her this summer, and she was pleased when I explained we had just the four plants.
Moderation in everything, and the mother who grew up on the vast farm longing to escape to the city, and the daughter who longed for a little land to grow things while living in plain view of the skyscrapers can probably meet up in the middle somewhere.
*Some tips for growing great squash:
- Plant in hills. Make sure the interior of the hills is heavily amended with compost and organic fertilizer — but wait to plant any seed until the organic fertilizer has settled for at least two weeks.
- Give them room. These are huge plants.
- Water the hills deeply if there’s not enough rain. Drench the soil to about four inches outside the diameter of the plant, because squash roots are not terribly deep, but like to spread wide.
- Pick early in the day, and often. Baby squash are delicious, and the more the plant is picked, the more it will produce.
- Don’t forget you can eat the squash blossoms, a delicacy in some parts of the world, and long used for flavoring and as pot-covers when steaming squash by the region’s Native American tribes.