Part 1: A farewell to squash
I pulled up my summer squash plants yesterday morning. These plants held up well and produced a reasonable yield, but their time had come. And so I called an end to summer squash season.
The members of my family took the bad news remarkably well. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think they were tired of eating summer squash.
In any case, yields had fallen to next-to-nothing. At some point, that garden space could be put to better use.
I would continue to try to grow some if I could preserve it well. But as far as I can tell, available methods for preserving fresh summer squash are largely unappealing. Canning fresh squash safely is difficult-to-impossible to do at home. (And supposedly safe recipes include more than half an hour in a pressure canner, so I’m not sure the end product would be worth it.) Freezing them degrades the texture, and the slicing/blanching/cooling/freezing process seems both labor- and energy-intensive. That said, I’m going to try freezing my last remaining squash to see how that turns out. I’m not desperate enough to try drying them other than as a novelty. (Squash chips, anyone?) Pickling (lacto-fermentation) is always on my list, and I’ve already put up couple of half-gallons (per the simple instructions in Post #G23). That’s obviously not fresh squash when you are done, and you have to refrigerate the end product unless you can (preserve) them afterward. Standard (vinegar) pickles/relish/bread-and-butter pickles, ditto.
The final factor was the effort involved. In hindsight, those summer squash plants required a lot of space and maintenance for relatively modest yield of edible calories. To recap this growing season, keeping these plants alive required dealing with:
- A fungal disease of unknown origin, never fully identified (Post #G21-036).
- Squash vine borer (Post #G27 and see the afterword below). This year I lost several plants despite repeatedly spraying the stems with spinosad.
- Cucumber beetles, which showed up early this year (Post #G21-027) and have been present ever since. Despite what the academic sources say, there is no distinct “season” for them here. I never did find any systematic way to get rid of them (Post #G21-032). My sole method of control is to squish them on sight, which is satisfying but ineffective.
- Birds that ate all the male squash blossoms. I ended up using metal and/or netting cages to protect individual male blossoms. That worked (Post #G21-042), but meant that I had to hand-pollinate the new female blossoms every morning, in addition to managing the protections for the male blossoms.
- Squash bugs. Keeping these in check was made somewhat easier by use of a lint roller and an inspection mirror (Post #G21-034). But that still meant eyeballing all the leaves in the entire squash patch on an almost-daily basis.
- Powdery mildew. I guess this was the last straw. I fought this to a standstill last year, having found a formula that would knock it back pretty well once it was established (Post #G20 shows the results). I wasn’t willing to do battle at that intensity again this year. Instead, I’ve been cutting off any infected leaves, but that has turned out to be just a holding action. The mildew can grow faster than the new leaves can.
Not to mention staking, pruning, watering (they wilt so easily in the heat), fertilizing, and so on.
And so, I’m throwing in the towel on summer squash for the year. In theory, in this climate zone, I could re-plant for a fall crop. I’m not going to bother. FWIW, my favorite variety remains early prolific straightneck. That variety accounted for maybe a third of my plants and 90% of my yield. Zucchini and patty pan were failures by comparison.
As if to celebrate my squash liberation, I spotted a squash vine borer (SVB) yesterday afternoon. And I didn’t have to care. It was loitering around my winter squash, but those with solid stems are (in theory) resistant to borer damage. The upshot is that hollow-stemmed summer squash are still not yet safe from the SVB.
I found a lot of conflicting evidence on the SVB when I first did my research. For the record, the 2021 SVB season here has run from June 16 (Post #G21-033) to (at least) August 8 (yesterday).
That’s just over seven weeks, which is a good match for the duration of last year’s season (Post #G27). Based on these two years, that seems to be the pattern for SVB season here in Zone 7 Northern Virginia. The SVB arrives like clockwork at around 1000 growing degree-days. We then have three weeks of multiple sightings per day, followed by four weeks of sporadic visits.
Part 2: That’s one hot tomato.
It has been hot and dry of late in Northern Virginia (Zone 7). My nearest weather station shows that we’ve had about two inches of rain in the past four weeks. That, coupled with temperatures consistently in the 80’s and 90’s F means low soil moisture anywhere that isn’t irrigated.
I don’t need to look at the weather data to know it’s been dry. My rain barrels are just about empty again. While that’s not unusual (see post #G21-043 for a model using historical weather data), it is an indication of a consistent shortfall of rain.
Now we’re projected to a have a week of days with highs in the 90’s F.
This is unfortunate, in that I have a lot of tomato plants that are bearing fruit. Not only does the high heat keep the fruit from ripening (see Post #G11), it stresses the plants, and may result in fruit drop.
This year I decided to follow the approach laid out by Gary Pilarchik (“The Rusted Garden Homestead”). First, I put up a sun shade for my tomatoes by clamping a piece of floating row cover to my tomato stakes. Second, I picked every pickable tomato, at the “breakers” stage or beyond. In other words, any tomato showing any red or pink coloring came off the plants, to ripen in a paper bag in the kitchen. Finally, I’m giving my tomato plants about an inch of water every other day. With dry soil and highs in the 90’s, I don’t think there’s any conceivable way I could over-water them.
Here they are, chilling out yesterday afternoon. Shaded, watered, and picked. That’s about the best I can do for them.
Part 3: Embracing my inner rutabaga.
After two years of growing fussy above-ground vegetables, I’m beginning to think that maybe I’m a root crop kind of a guy.
This year I haven’t said a word about my value-destroying experiment in no-dig potatoes (Post #1173). That’s because a) no pests bothered them, b) the deer didn’t eat them, c) the weeds didn’t grow over them, and d) I got a so-so yield of potatoes.
I might have watered them once during the season. In short, it worked as advertised.
That was gardening as it exists in children’s books. I planted a crop. The sun shone, the rains fell. The crop went about the business of producing food. I harvested it when it was done. And it will keep all winter, no preservation needed.
Likewise, I have been silent about my sweet potatoes. That’s because they worked. I started with three moldy sweet potatoes, and I now have maybe a hundred square feet of sweet potatoes growing. What’s not to like? They are easily propagated, grow like crazy, and need no attention other than occasionally directing a stray tendril back into the patch. And they have pretty flowers, to boot.
Maybe I’ve learned my lesson. I replaced my summer squash with beets, turnips, and rutabagas. None of the glamor of a nice, showy zucchini. But none of the drama, either.
And certainly none of the work. This morning, for the first time in months, I got up and didn’t go to work in the garden. I admired my sunflowers for a bit, then made a cup of tea and put my feet up.
Nothing wrong with that. I’ll almost certainly get more calories per square foot out of those crops than I would from summer squash.
And yet, it’s unsettling. It’s akin to what I felt with my first pension payment. It just seemed wrong, somehow, not to have to work for it. But I think I can get used to it. With time, I will eventually come to embrace my inner rutabaga.