Sunday, July 29, 2012

Squash

I like winter squash. I like eating it, and ever since I read The Resilient Gardener, I have devoted two entire garden beds to it.

I haven't always been successful at growing it, however. It took me a couple of years to learn that I shouldn't bother starting seeds early in the greenhouse because the seedlings don't like being relocated, so by the time they recovered from their transplant shock their direct-seeded siblings had caught up and even surpassed them.

And germination has sometimes been problematic. For those of you who haven't examined the anatomy of a squash plant, flowers come in two varieties: male...


...and female.


That bulb at the base of the female flower is the potential squash. If fertilization is successful it will grow and grow and turn into dinner, and if not it just turns yellow and falls off. For my first few years of gardening I thought I had a problem with dying baby squash, but it was really a problem with fertilization. I haven't really paid much attention to this in previous years, thinking the birds and bees would take care of pollination for me, but I also haven't been entirely happy with the resulting yield. So this year I decided to help Mother Nature along and do some pollinating by hand. It's quite simple: you pick a male blossom, strip off the petals, and dab the naked stamen in the centre of the female flower.

My big problem: my plants can't seem to synchronize their male and female parts. One day I go out to the garden and all I see are male flowers. The next day: all female flowers. I've read up on this and the experts say eventually the plant should start producing both at once, but I haven't got a lot of time to dawdle. This is Canada, after all, and winter squash takes a long time to mature.

This morning? Happy male flowers, like this quartet. I had to go hunting under every big green leaf to find a single female counterpart.


There's something else a bit odd going on in the squash department. I already mentioned I allocate two 4x12 foot beds to winter squash, and this year they were side by side. Initially I thought I would plant seeds of the same type in the same bed, but at the last minute I thought it might be fun to compare the progress of the plants in each bed. So I have a hill of butternut squash in one bed...


...and another hill in the other bed.


Notice any difference?! 

These hills were planted on the same day, and since they are side-by-side, they have roughly the same exposure to sun and weather.

And it's not just the butternut variety. Here's the lush bed...


...and here's the wimpy bed.


The only variety that's doing well is the zucchini, way at the back. So what's going on? 

Here's my theory: last year the wimpy bed held onions. Maybe squash don't like onions. And last year the lush bed was where I grew garbanzo beans, and like the conscientious gardener I am, I treated the seeds with an inoculant before I grew them. (This is supposed to help any legume plant fix the nitrogen in the soil, making it available to the next crop that comes along.) 

And here's a confession: I have faithfully used an inoculant every year except this one. This year I hadn't laid in the year's supply when the day came to plant the peas, and I was too darn lazy to hop in the car and go get some. Lazy and a bit skeptical, not really believing it did any good.

So Mother Nature took the opportunity to teach me a little lesson: inoculant works! 

You read it here, folks.

7 comments:

Alison said...

What?? What's this inoculant stuff?? Never heard of it. Here I thought the legumes could do all the nitrogen fixing themselves. Hmph. Well, my whole garden is wimpy this year, so I've got to make plans to add some compost and other goodness, including perhaps some inoculant.

Miriam said...

It's a dark green powder that you would find in the refrigerated section of a nursery. The kind I buy is good for beans and peas. You dust the seeds in a bit of the powder (a lot goes a long way) right before you plant them - I usually put the seeds in a mason jar, swish around some water and drain it off, then shake in a bit of the inoculant powder and shake it up to coat the seeds. I'm not quite sure what's IN inoculant, but whatever it is helps the legume plants fix the nitrogen in the soil even better than they normally do, which will benefit the crop that next gets planted in that location.

I honestly thought it was overkill, because you're correct that legumes do a good job of fixing the nitrogen all by themselves, but this year's results are making me reconsider!

jeanives said...

I'm having my usual problem getting squash pollinated. Tedious. Like you my males and females aren't in harmony; reminds me of some relationships. Not mine!

Janet said...

I have high hopes for getting my garden back on track next year. We have a local farm where I can get a whole pickup truck load of compost that I was thinking about doing in the spring. Though it might be more beneficial to plant a fall/winter cover crop to control weeds and use as green fertilizer. Mariam, have you ever tried this?

Miriam said...

Jean, maybe if your male/female schedule is the opposite of my male/female schedule, we could each drive male flowers over the Malahat to fertilize the other's female flowers! Goodness, that seems odd...Barring that, I read today that some people put male flowers in the fridge until female flowers are ready, which is probably a more practical solution.

Janet, I have never used a cover crop, but I think it's an excellent idea! What has held me back is that I never till my beds, I just loosen and aerate them by using a pitchfork without turning over the soil. Which makes dealing with the remains of a cover crop in the spring a puzzlement to me. I could mow down the tops with a weed whacker, but what the heck would I do with all those roots? I'm sure I'm not looking correctly at this, but I haven't mustered the energy to figure it out yet...

Natalie, the Chickenblogger said...

... I am taking notes, and smiling.

backyardfeast said...

Miriam, I'm going to try the green manure thing this year, but I'm hoping my early spring tiller-inners- of the rye will be the chickens...might be worth a try?
Toni

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