Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Ode to a (lot of) cucurbit

Let's do a little quiz. What food is highly nutritious, productive, easy to grow, stores for months at room temperature, and tastes fantastic? And what food is highly underrated, wasted in copious amounts during the holiday season, and often reduced to its decorative qualities? I guess this really isn't much of a challenge for most of you... It's the winter squash of course!

Before I go any further, I should probably declare my bias and confess to a rather serious obsession with growing winter squash. In fact, this blog might equally well have been titled 'the cucurbita gardener'. Winter squash is one of the first vegetables I started growing and I consistently dedicate a quarter of my allotment to it. Last year I had the ambition to grow one squash for every week of the year and very nearly made it. Needless to say I was in over my ears with squash and as the winter progressed my skin was taking on an orange hue from all the beta-carotene I was consuming (a harmless condition known as carotenosis - I can recommend it as a healthy alternative to sunbeds, for the few of you concerned with your winter tan). Why this overt squash fetishism, you might wonder? Because it's such a fantastic food of course! A great winter squash is a rich, sweet and filling food that makes a very satisfying dish all on its own, as well as being an excellent addition to stews, stir-fries and a basis for all kinds of odd baking experiments. Furthermore, I aim to eat out of my garden as much as possible and in that respect squash is one of the more grateful crops to grow. It is fairly pest and disease-free here in Europe (apart from powdery mildew, which tends to occur only towards the end of the seasons and therefore does not really hamper fruit production), it's a storage champion, it's easy to save seed from, and it's a fascinating and beautiful plant to hang around with in the garden. What's not to like? It's a real mystery to me why winter squash is not utilized more. I suppose one reason is that a lot of the varieties out there are really not worth eating. I've had my share of bland, watery, and stringy squash, and it's easy to see how such experience could make anyone into a lifelong squash-skeptic. But there's really no comparison between the latter and a great winter squash at optimal ripeness, so please don't dismiss the whole squash family on the basis of a few of its inferior offspring! I guess you get the point, as far as I'm concerned, the neglect of the winter squash as a staple vegetable is a culinary tragedy waiting to be corrected.

The squash patch. It's seriously overcrowded, which I think is harming my yield.
Lessons learned for next year.
Any-way.. This year I'm deepening my winter squash commitment and I'm choosing quality over quantity. I've been reading up on so-called 'landrace gardening' in the past months and I've become convinced that this is the way I want to go, first and foremost for the winter squash, and then, hopefully, for a lot of the other vegetables I'm growing as well. If the concept is as new to you as it was to me, let me attempt a very basic summary... Most people (including myself) tend to buy their vegetable seeds from seed companies or, if they do save their own seed, aim to preserve existing varieties. If you do this, then essentially this means that you are working with the plant characteristics that others have selected for you. This in turn means that the seeds you buy and/or save are from plants that might be adapted to growing conditions very different from your own, including different soils and soil fertility, different (micro-)climates, different disease and pest pressures, etc. This is a perfectly good way to garden, but if you think about it a bit, it could probably be improved upon. Species evolve and environments change (not in the least, unfortunately, the climate...), so it actually makes perfect sense to try and work with these evolutionary pressures rather than against them. This is what landrace gardening (in the scientific literature it seems to be called 'evolutionary plant breeding') tries to do. The idea is that you grow out as many different varieties as possible (to maximize genetic diversity), let all of these varieties cross freely, grow out large amounts of the resulting seed, and then continuously select for the most vigourous plants that fit your personal preferences. The result, after many generations, should be your very own locally-adapted (and evolving) variety with high genetic diversity, and in possession of any of the traits that you have chosen to prioritize. Sounds great, right? I thought so too, so I'm set on testing this out on my winter squash.

I'm growing two species this year, cucurbita moschata (6 plants) and cucurbita maxima (21 plants). There are also some reputedly good winter squash among the cucurbita pepo's (I'm yet to be convinced of this..) but I tend to prefer the maximas and anyway, a lot of my neighbours are growing summer squash (which generally is also c. pepo) and this would make open pollination a bit difficult. There's a chance that the moschatas too crossed with my summer squash (damn you promiscuous squash!), so that leaves me with the maximas to save seed from (c. maxima doesn't normally cross with c. pepo or c. moschata... in theory). I started off with 7 varieties and plan on adding more genetic diversity over the next generations. For this year I've got:

C. Maxima - Sweet Mama
Sweet Mama: a hybrid that I grew last year and that I found to taste fantastic. It's nutty, rich, sweet, medium dry, and yields pretty well. This is also a semi-bush type plant so it's quite economical space-wise. Fruits are about 1-2 kg and mature early.

Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead: I haven't grown this one before, but the reviews I read were uniformly positive so I had to include it. Bred by Carol Deppe for reliability and production, It's supposed to be a great 'homesteading' squash with thick, very dry, and very sweet flesh. They can weigh up to 10 kg. I found it to be a bit slow-going compared to the others, and it seems to have characteristically rough leaves.

C. Maxima - Marina di Chioggia
Marina di Chioggia: An Italian heirloom that I grew last year and that I loved for its taste, which again is deliciously nutty and rich. It's a very vigourous plant that will take over your garden if you let it. It yields one to two large squash (up to 10 kg) with a characteristic dark green, bumpy skin, almost like a savoy cabbage.

Burgess Buttercup: An old American classic, reputed for its taste. I grew a buttercup variety before and frankly wasn't that impressed with the taste, so I'm hoping this one is quite different. The squash are fairly small and somewhat cubical, weighing around 1 kg.

Green Hokkaido: Supposed to be the same as Blue Kuri. This is my first year growing this as well. Actually my initial plan was to just use a select few tried and tested varieties for the start of my landrace project but the lure of new and exciting squash was too much to resist... This seems to be your average kabocha-type squash (which is just to say that it has Japanese origins), which are probably my favourites so far. It's green, sweet, and supposedly fairly dry. Medium sized fruits, 1 tot 2 kg.

C. Maxima - Galeux d'Eysines
Galeux d'Eysines: First year attempt at this one as well. It grows big (up to 5 kg) orange squash with a high beta-carotene content that form peanut-like warts on the skin upon maturing. From what I can tell it's really quite a fascinating sight. I'm mostly growing it for its supposedly excellent eating quality though.

Blue Ballet: This is a smaller version of the Blue Hubbard squash. I've been growing Blue Hubbard the past two years just because it's such an intriguing squash, but I've abandonned it since they never really stored that well for me (somehow, despite its armoured appearance, the Blue Hubbard was always the first to show signs of spoilage). They also seem to deterioriate in eating quality quite quickly, plus the seed cavity on these is positively enormous, making for a fairly poor flesh to overall fruit ratio. I grew Blue Ballet last year and found it to be superious in nearly every aspect: it keeps longer, it tastes better, plus the skin is actually edible, which in my book is a big plus. It's a vigourous grower that is fairly early and weighs about 2-4 kg.

Sweet Mama with Buttercup on top
So where am I going with all this fantastic genome? As stated, I've let the bees do their happy buzzing and am eagerly awaiting the approaching harvest. Upon which I will be storing the squash for a month or so (this maximizes their sugar content) and then dutifully embark on the (very pleasant) task of tasting my way through the squash stash to find the chosen few that I will save seed from for next year. What I'm selecting for is a medium-sized squash that is as dry, nutty and richly sweet as possible, that is highly reliable under my growing conditions (this should pretty much select itself), has an edible skin and a small seed cavity, and that stores well into spring. Next year's progeny will then probably be a mixed bunch, some of which will undoubtebly be fairly bad eating, but some of which should bring together the best qualities of the above varieties and provide the basis for a true Malmö winter squash landrace. Exciting!