Sunday, June 22, 2014

fun with squash

pretty much everything about gardening is fun for me (i wouldn't do it if it wasn't) but it's especially fun trying new things in the garden---new varieties of vegetables, new ways of growing or watering or harvesting, playing with timing and getting a feel for the connections and dynamic relationships among the plants, animals, and weather patterns. 
this year i have a nice planting of squash growing which has presented me with a great opportunity for a lot of experimenting.  there is always a chance to learn in the garden---about gardening and hopefully about oneself.  for years i've felt that the gardens i grow are just a big experiment and that they cultivate something in me as much as i do them.
squashes are fun to grow and the plants are beautiful.  there's an undeniable magnificence in their form.  everything about them has a boldness about it---huge, brilliant green leaves, strong vines and tendrils that radiate purpose and tenacity as they run all over the garden, paying no heed to boundaries or walkways, massive fruits of all colors, shapes and sizes, and those great big, golden blossoms, irresistible beacons to every humble bumble and honey bee in the garden.  
i've been wanting to experiment more with seed saving and plant breeding---the large blossoms of squash plants are a great place to start learning the skills necessary for doing hand pollinations---all the flower parts are very easy to see and work with.  i decided to start mainly with just doing pollinations to get true breeding seed so that i can continue growing the same varieties without having to keep buying seed.   the only selecting i'm really doing is trying to use the healthiest looking plants as parents.  i do have some hybrid varieties out there and the seed saved from them will not give me the same variety as the parents but i plan to use it in future breeding projects---there are techniques for dehybridizing hybrids that sound like something fun and challenging to try.  eventually what i want is to develop strains of all of my favorite varieties that are adapted to the growing conditions of my garden and to my cultivation practices.

so here's what i've been doing---every evening i go out to the squash patch and look for blossoms that are still closed but will be open the next morning and i tape the tips of the petals so that they can't open until i get to them (this keeps pollinating insects out of the flowers).

squash have separate male and female flowers.  the female flowers have an immature fruit at their base which is very easy to see.  

two young female flowers of an acorn squash

it's important to find the flowers at the right stage of development.  the flowers shown above will take several more days (depending on the weather) of growth before they will mature and be ready for pollination. 
the picture below shows a female flower of an acorn squash in the evening prior to the morning that it will open.  the petals are still tightly closed at the tips but starting to expand and color up.  

it's dry enough during the night that i can just use masking tape to seal flowers and not worry about it opening from dew or other moisture saturating the tape and breaking the seal before i get to it in the morning.

female flower of an acorn squash taped closed for the night

to the right of the female flower pictured above is a male flower that will also open the following morning---the petals are slightly expanded and starting to show color.

one spent male flower and another primed for a morning opening

in the morning i go out to the squash patch to do the pollinations.  the male flowers will start shedding pollen when it's warm enough and dry enough out---bees working the open blossoms is a good indicator that things are ready to go.

i remove the male blossom i'm going to use and strip the petals off to expose the anther and have good access to its pollen.

male flower with petals stripped off

once i've got the male flower prepared i tear the tape off the tip of the female flower and daub the male's pollen onto the female stigma---which should be mature enough to be sticky so that it holds the pollen well.

transferring pollen to the female

i often have to work fairly quickly and carefully---there have been a few times when i've had bees try to dive right into a flower as soon as i've gotten the tape off.  after i've got the stigma well coated with pollen i tape the flower closed again so that there won't be any contributions made by the bees that might cross up the pollination i've done.

i tag the stems of each fruit i've pollinated so that i will be able to recognize it at harvest.

tagged acorn squash a few days after pollination

nice feeling when a hand pollination takes and the fruit starts growing.

i love winter squash and i'm looking forward to tasting all the different varieties i'm growing, especially the kabocha types.  they have a very flavorful and dry meat.  i prefer the drier-fleshed winter squashes---they have a texture almost like sweet potato and all the ones i've eaten have flavor that's far superior to winter squashes with high-moisture flesh.

'cha-cha', a kabocha-type winter squash

while we wait for the winter squash we've been enjoying the summer squashes.  so far the plants are producing quite well---especially the crookneck.  
i harvested the first of the fruits at the baby stage---excited to get that first taste of summer.

mixed baby summer squashes

since then i've been harvesting later but early enough that the fruits are still quite tender.

guess what we're having for breakfast!

i'm growing pretty standard varieties of summer squash---a yellow crookneck, cocozelle zucchini, and a patty pan type called 'benning's green tint' that i like a lot.  i'm also growing a squash called, tromboncino, that has a fairly dense flesh and excellent flavor---the best of any summer squash i've had.  it's been a bit slower to get going because it's a vining plant rather than a bush.  it's a squash that was traditionally used as a winter squash but turns out to have better eating quality when picked immature at the summer squash stage.


we've mostly been having the squash cooked into our regular skillet meals with meat and other veggies but staal grilled some zucchini the other night and it was quite delicious---maybe my favorite way to have it.

grilled chicken thighs and zucchini---just add butter

the summer squash production was starting to outpace our summer squash consumption a little so i decided to experiment with dehydrating it.  i cut up a bunch of squash and spread it onto the flats i use to start seedlings in.  i dried apricots this way last year and it worked out just fine.

 i cut up some store-bought butternut squash too just to see what it will do.

then i stuck all the flats up on the roof with a flat inverted over each of them and a layer of newspaper on top to keep out the worst of the bugs.

i'll probably invest some time this summer looking for interesting ways to preserve and prepare squash. 
this is a pretty good start...

oh yeah.