This week’s share: Carrots, Escarole, Garlic, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Onions, Parsley, Peppers, Hot peppers, Potatoes, Radishes, Tomatoes, Autumn Frost winter squash
Every year we seed about 35 trays of winter squash and pumpkins. Depending on germination rates and rat incursions, we end up with somewhere between 2500 and 2000 seedlings. A few in each try will be too fragile to plant, a few might get damaged during transplanting, and a few will succumb almost immediately to transplant shock, be pulled up by a curious raven, trampled by a passing deer or eaten by a rabbit hoping it’s something tastier. We will end up with roughly a couple of thousand plants in the patch. That’s enough in a good year to produce six or seven thousand fruit. Of those, some will be damaged in the field by deer and groundhogs, be unusably blemished, be over or under ripe at harvest time, or be random off-types. While curing in the greenhouse, some will go bad and some be destroyed by rats, who will go to almost any lengths to get in and feast on squash seeds. And then there will be more loss to rot in storage.
Even with all that attrition, we could still end up with three times as much squash as we need. In a good year. In a bad year, the rats dig up multiple trays of seeds, the storms bring mildew and blight early, and the squash bugs spread them through the whole patch, the weeds prosper and hog the nutrients and sunlight, and a groundhog takes up residence in the middle of the patch and destroys all the fruit in an ever expanding circle around its den. Entire varieties might die off before fruiting, and the yield on the remaining ones could be cut in half, with a depressing percent of the ones we manage to harvest too small to use or too damaged to last. In a bad year, we might end up with fewer than we need.
Given that we cannot predict what kind of a winter squash year we will have at seeding time, we plant enough to get us through all but the worst years. Winter squash are not a particularly demanding crop to grow and we have the space, so we are willing to risk ending up with way too many, rather than risk ending up with too few.
It would be lovely if we could achieve some consistency from year to year. And maybe if I were more systematic about farming and had the energy of a thirty-year-old we would. Not that we are winging it. We have reliable varieties and reliable seeding and transplant dates. We move the patch to a different field each year. We make raised beds and plant into mulch. But we could more finely control temperature and watering in the seedling house, do more soil testing and tune the pH and nutrients specifically to the squash’s needs, spray fungicide every ten days, put in an irrigation system, put out row covers, wash all the squash, build a heavily armored curing facility, and maintain precisely the right temperature and humidity in the storeroom. And if we truly wanted consistency we could build one of those modern indoor farming facilities that seem to operate on the theory that growing food is pretty much the same as making sneakers.
Given that I lack the inclination, energy, cash or incentive to do all that, I prefer just to plant what in a good year will turn out to be far too large a squash patch. It might seem like a waste for me to leave all those unneeded squash in the field. Except they aren’t unneeded and they don’t stay in the field. We have, sadly, plenty of people around here in need of squash, and, happily, plenty of people willing to come and pick all those extra squash so Comfort Food can get them to the people who need them. Our winter squash patch was the most prolific I have ever grown, and so after we took all we could possibly need, a horde of gleaners (including a few CSA members) came on Tuesday and picked a couple of tons for Comfort Food. That’s the kind of farming system I like.
Vegetable notes: I have never grown Autumn Frost before. In fact, I had not heard of it until I saw it in a catalog this winter. I do not remember exactly what caused me to decide to get some seeds. I suspect it was the promised combination of strong disease resistance and good eating quality. Given how little disease there was this year and that I have not eaten one of these yet, I cannot actually vouch for either attribute. But they look good. Oddly, though, they do not look like Butternuts, which is what they are. Given that, they should have a thin, edible flesh, so you could roast slices of them. Or you could roast the squash whole and make a soup with onion and hot pepper and some Indian spices. Or you could dice the flesh finely, roast it with a little maple syrup and hot pepper, and sprinkle in on an escarole salad along with some goat cheese and a little pickled red onion.