Two Ways to Grow Squash for Seed Saving Even in a Small Garden

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There are a few varieties of squash my family cannot do without. We require spaghetti squash with sage and browned butter in the summer, pumpkin for pies in the fall and if there was no butternut squash with bacon crumble for Thanksgiving, there would be a riot at the dinner table. And don’t forget Grandma’s zucchini bread. So, how do I save seeds without the squash crossing until they are all one inedible warty squash mutant?

Lazy Gardener Methods

Kakai PumpkinIt’s easier than you might think even though the fat, black Carpenter bees in my garden love squash flowers and will happily mix pollen from one flower into another all day long. There are four main species of edible squash. The ‘Rugosa’ Butternut squash I favor is from the species Cucurbita moschata. To keep it from crossing all I need to do is keep it away from other squash I want to grow that are in the same species. For us that means the ‘Tromboncino’ that we often use in place of a true zucchini needs to be as far away as possible from the “Rugosa’ patch.

I can grow the spaghetti squash that we like right next to the “Rugosa’ because the spaghetti squash is a Cucurbita pepo. But it can’t be near the pie pumpkins because they are also C. pepo. As long as you know which species of squash you are growing, you can separate them enough to prevent most cross-pollination. I do this by growing one variety of each species in front of the house and one behind. You could plant on either side of a hedge or other windbreak and do a pretty good job of keeping your variety breeding true. Or you can separate the plants with time. If I put in my spaghetti squash very early from transplants, or under a row cover, or both, and I don’t plant out my pumpkins until the spaghetti squash have each set a few fruits, then I can grow the pumpkins right beside my developing squash and pinch off any extra flowers that try to develop on the spaghetti squash plants once the pumpkins start to flower.

Precision Gardener Methods

Hubbard Squash

A Mother of a Hubbard

If you are determined to maintain a squash variety with maximum purity, you have several options. You could alternate years of growing for varieties that are in the same species. Year One I would grow ‘Rugosa’ squash and then can or freeze what we would need during Year Two when I would be growing the ‘Tromboncino.’ But even then, a bee from a neighbors garden could stop by and ruin things inadvertently. You could alternate days, or even weeks, when you “cage” one of the varieties or the other. Large sheets of row cover are best for this with squash and you would have to be sure you tucked in the edges and laid a board or something heavy over them to make sure they didn’t blow off exposing both varieties to insects at the same time.

Or you could hand-pollinate, which sounds fussier than it actually is. You have to keep an eye on your squash blossoms as they develop and know which are male and which are female. And you will need to tape the female flowers that you want to hand-pollinate shut to prevent them from opening on their own, ideally the night before they would have opened. You pollinate that flower with pollen you know came from a male flower of that same variety and then you tape that flower shut again and tag the baby squash behind it so you can save the seeds only from the tagged squash. If I’m making this sound complicated, check the videos or instructions available on the Internet. This is the best method if you are preserving a rare variety, a family heirloom, an unusual squash where you won’t be able to easily get more seeds, or if you are saving seeds for trading and sharing.

If you have favorite seeds saving methods for squash, we would love to hear them. Please share in the Comments.

5 Ways to Get Your Food Garden Through the Drought

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As farmers in California fallow more and more acreage, and water restrictions come to us in the cities, there are a lot of things that can be done to keep urban gardens going.

#1. Compost Everything. The best thing you can do to help your soil hold moisture is to mix it with composted organic matter. So no more tossing potato peels into the disposal. (Like you’ve got water to waste running the disposal anyway.) It is time to compost everything you can get your hands on. Food scraps, newspaper, junk mail, dryer lint, coffee grounds, egg cartons–the works. If it’s organic matter and it will break down, there’s a spot for it in the pile. And that pile needs to be in a shaded and/or covered spot where the sun and wind will steal as little of the moisture that goes into the pile as possible. Toss the dirtier grey water you should be saving from inside the house over it when you can but avoid adding soaps to the compost pile as they can inhibit the bacteria working their magic inside the pile. Build one pile and then start a second one while the first pile ‘cooks.’ As soon as it is ready, work it into the top layer of soil, just under your mulch layer.

Chipping Delivery#2. Mulch Everything. And I mean everything. Paths, empty patches where nothing is growing, all of it. Use a light-colored material if possible to keep the soil cooler. I started with a couple of truckloads of fruit tree chippings. Tree companies will dump them for you for the asking as it saves them paying to put them somewhere else. My entire yard is covered in a thick layer of this mulch that has been breaking down for a few years now. In the growing areas, I cover as much as I can with rice straw. It’s light-colored and it’s light-weight material that doesn’t compact the soil underneath and air still circulates well. And if it starts to break down too much, or if there is leftover straw that doesn’t get used, it goes right into the compost pile.

Ollas in the garden#3. Water Through the Soil–Not Through the Air. I use a combination of ollas and Plant Nanny wine bottle-style terracotta watering stakes to put moisture straight into the ground without spraying it through the air. This allows the soil to draw the water that it needs through the unglazed terracotta, so it’s never wasted. You can fill the ollas and wine bottles with grey water from the house and the clay will even provide a bit of filtering. And, if the top inch or even two of soil dries out, plant roots can still get water from the moist soil at the bottom of the ollas or Plant Nanny. I use brightly colored clay birds to top my ollas so that I can find them in the mulch to fill them again.

Rice straw mulch in the vegetable garden#4. Lower Raised Beds. If raised beds increase drainage and allow the soil to warm more quickly, well, that is exactly what we don’t want this year. In several spots in my garden I am growing in-between what would normally have been my beds. I took up the mulch from the paths between the raised beds, added compost and some of the nice fluffy soil from the taller beds, and planted in the low spots that used to be my paths creating ‘sunken beds.’ It is my theory that these will reduce drainage and slow the drying of the soil. I laid wide stones on the raised bed section so that I can walk on them with minimal compaction and go back to growing in them for the Rainy Season, should we get to have one this year.

Tomato Seedlings#5. Start All Your Seeds Inside and Transplant. I know beans and squash and melons don’t care for being transplanted, but it is so much more efficient to water a small flat or a tray of seed starts than it is to water a whole bed with only a dozen or so plants coming up in it. And the even temperature and protection from wind inside the house will also help. I move peas and beans outside as soon as they have true leaves because their roots quickly extend through the bottom of even my deepest redwood flats. Once you have seedlings outside and are watering anyway, you could seed some companion lettuce or other greens nearby to germinate in the moisture available from around the seedlings.

What are your plans for food gardening this year? Please share your drought-survival tips with us all in the Comments.

Starting the Drying Tomatoes

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Starting the Drying Tomatoes

On Christmas Day, as per family tradition, I started a few seeds of the drying tomatoes I like to grow early in the year, along with two indeterminate varieties that I wanted to get give a head start. I planted six seeds of each variety and kept them well moistened and on a heat mat under lights. Ten days in, here are the germination results:

‘Principe Borghese’ from Victory Seed Company, packed for 2009 = 100% germination
‘Principe Borghese’ from Pinetree Garden Seeds, packed for 2011 = 4 of 6
‘Principe Borghese’ from Franchi Sementi, packed for 2012/2013 = 3 of 6
‘Principe Borghese’ seed I saved in 2012 = 4 of 6
‘Oregon Spring’ from Territorial Seed Company, packed for 2009 = 4 of 6
‘Pruden’s Purple’ from Sustainable Seed Co., packed for 2011 = 5 of 6

Not the world’s strongest scientific evidence, but one thing I can tell you is those P. Borghese seeds from Victory Seed Company still rock!

Fertile Luffas

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Fertile Luffas

In just a day or two the baby Luffa have definitely grown so now I am feeling confident that the flowers were fertilized and full-size luffa will hopefully, eventually, form. There are at least three forming on this single vine and the teepee holds perhaps a dozen vines emerging from 3-5 seeds originally planted there.

We are expecting day temps in the low 80’s with night time lows staying around 60. That should be just warm enough to keep the plants happy. Now I have to research the nuances of proper Luffa fertilizers. I’m making some compost tea for the squash. Perhaps they can be convinced to share.

Got a secret for growing great Luffa? Please leave hints and tips in the comments.

Squashing the Whitefly Invasion

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It must be August, because my squash leaves are starting to look pretty sad in places. I noticed the beginnings of a whitefly problem a few nights ago and tested a new do-it-yourself spray on a group of leaves. Two days later, the test leaves looked great, but the rest of the squash patch was starting to show more serious signs of infestation. Today I sprayed the top and bottom surface of every leaf I could find with evidence of whiteflies and then some. I’ll track the results in a few more days and update things here.

The varieties of squash in the patch are:

‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ (C. pepo)
‘Candy Roaster Melon’ squash (C. maxima)
‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ (C. moschata)
and ‘Jim’s Butternut’ (C. moschata)

This last one was saved from ‘Waltham Butternut’ many years ago and kept going by a neighbor. It grew 25 foot vines with 10 fruit on a single vine in 2012. If some of that productivity crosses into my ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ seeds for next year, maybe it will be a good thing!

The ‘Spaghetti’ squash is suffering the most from the whiteflies, though I first noticed it on the ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ leaves. Maybe I didn’t notice it on the ‘Spaghetti’ squash because it’s harder to get to their part of the patch? The ‘Candy Roaster Melon’ is clearly the least affected. It’s much slower growing than the other varieties and is just now, in August, starting to flower. I have yet to find any research on differing vulnerability to whitefly across squash species, so the differences I see may have other causes. It is certainly too early to say that C. pepo is more likely to suffer whitefly infestation and C. maxim is more likely to fend it off—but that’s a theory that might turn out to be worth testing.

Homemade Whitefly SprayThe spray that I made started with 1 Tsp of Dawn Advanced Power liquid dishwashing soap mixed into 1 cup of vegetable oil. This makes a concentrate that you then mix with water in your sprayer. Add 1 1/2 tsp of the concentrate for each cup of water you add into the sprayer. I mixed 3 cups worth at a time in my regular household spray bottle. Next time I will seriously consider a backpack sprayer. In order to control whitefly everything I have read emphasizes the need to spray both the tops and the underside of the leaves. This can quickly become a tedious and finger-numbing project with your average spray bottle.

Next year I will plan ahead. The U.C. Davis Integrated Pest Management site says, “Several wasps, including species in the Encarsia and Eretmocerus genera, parasitize whiteflies. Whitefly nymphs are also preyed upon by bigeyed bugs, lacewing larvae, and lady beetles.” Buglogical has additional suggestions to try. If I manage to establish populations of these good bugs in my garden before August next year, maybe we won’t see the whiteflies at all.

Do you have a whitefly cure that works well in your garden? Please share it in the comments. And if you have tried something that didn’t work, I’d like to hear about that as well.

Updated August 31, 2013

The spray has had mixed results. The plants are still going, and new fruit is even being set, but there is noticeable damage from this pest on a number of leaves. Below is an example from the ‘Butternut’ patch.

Butternut Squash Leaves

Butternut Squash leaves treated with homemade whitefly deterrent.

The growing tips look healthy and you can see at least one young squash has been set during the Whitefly/Mildew invasion. But a number of leaves may have been too damaged to recover. And the nastiness is clearly spreading again.

Spaghetti Squash Leaves with Whitefly or Mildew

Both sets of leaves you see here are from the same Spaghetti Squash, one clearly much more affected than the other.

Only the few five-fingered leaves you see here are not from this plant. Seeing these leaves so close together, clearly growing in the same conditions, makes me wonder about the variability for disease resistance in these squash.

Heat Wave Gardening

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The most important thing we’re trying to do in the summer garden is recover from the nine-day heat wave that has stressed or killed our project plants this year. It was an unusually dry winter here in Northern California, so soil moisture was already low moving into a dry and warmer than average spring. Shifting to an evening watering schedule has given the plants more time to recover before the heat of the day dries the soil.

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We are covering all the growing areas with straw mulch, even seed beds, and increasing the mulch until it’s several inches thick after plants are growing well. We are also testing out these Terra Cotta Aquacone Watering Devices from gardeners.com. I bury the terra cotta in the soil with only the top lip showing and upend bottles into them to help keep soil moisture where it is needed. Seems to be working well for these young Luffa starts.

Sweet Potato Vines

If you can tell which variety these are by the leaf shapes–please share!

One crop that seems perfectly happy with the weather is the sweet potatoes. Finally! The experts at Sand Hill Preservation Center say, “It takes about 1,200 heat units for our early varieties to reach a decent crop of usable sized roots…The question you must then ask yourself is, ‘How is 1,200 heat units determined?’ To get heat units you take the day’s high temperature (maximum) and the day’s low temperature (minimum) and add them together. Then divide by two and subtract 55 from that. That gives you the day’s heat units.” So, if our daily averages during the Heat Wave were at least 90 during the day and probably warmer than 60 at night, that gives us easily 20 heat units a day. Two months of that and we have a nice crop of delicious sweet potato pies! Of course, the heat wave did eventually break, but even so, if we stay at historical average temperatures for the rest of the summer, that still gives me plenty of time to enjoy sweet potatoes by fall.

Borlotto Beans

Another wonder of the heat is that we had beans drying down by the 4th of July. If I am very nice to the runner and Borlotto bean vines, we have time for a full second cropping of beans this year. I was so excited by this prospect that I started another dozen perennial bean vines just the other day. They should have plenty of time to get established by fall and then start cropping early next spring.

What helps your garden survive the heat? Share your ideas with us in the comments.

Hot Pepper Have-to-Haves

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The first of this year’s pepper seedlings has sprouted! It’s a Pizza pepper from several year-old Territorial Seeds meant for planting in 2009. After my recent trials with onions seeds, I was glad to see that these held their viability.

On February 15th, I planted six seeds each of  Pizza, Fish, Joe’s Long, Matchbox, and Chervena Chujski peppers. In a few weeks I’ll compare the germination rates and seedlings of the varieties.

Pizza peppers from this same pack of seeds did well for us in 2010, growing late into the fall and producing lots of thick-walled peppers with a little zip to them, but none of the sting some of our hotter peppers bring. I love these for fresh eating in dips, in salsa and in summer pasta dishes.

The Fish peppers grow on beautiful multi-colored plants and carry an irresistible  bit of heirloom history. William Woys Weaver, author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, says, “the Fish Pepper…was an African-American heirloom that began as a sport or mutation of a common serrano pepper sometime during the 1870’s…raised almost exclusively in the black community for use in oyster and crab houses…It was one of those “secret” ingredients favored by cooks and caterers to spike a recipe with invisible heat, for the Fish Pepper was used primarily when it was white, and it could be dried to retain that color. This feature was a culinary plus in the days when cream sauces reigned supreme.”

Fish peppers were prolific on very small plants through our unusually cool summer last year. The six seeds I have started came from Mike the Gardener, and I also plan to start a few more plants from saved seed to compare the fruits at harvest. I like these dried and ground into pepper flakes or powder and added to stews, chili, or barbecue sauces. I may even sneak one or two into the homemade ketchup recipe this year.

Another heirloom, Joe’s Long peppers, are listed as having came over from Italy with the Sestito family. My husband’s family is Italian and that gives me an excuse for lots of wonderful varieties I grow, including this one. Plus they look so darn cool. Check them out on the Bountiful Gardens website where I ordered my seeds. I’m looking forward to trying these fresh and also experimenting with them dried.

I’m planning to grow peppers in containers on the patio this year, a warm and protected spot they should like, and the Matchbox peppers are often recommended as a container variety. I received seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library in an Edible Garden gift basket during the holidays. I’m looking forward to the “sugary-hot” spiciness of these guys. I enjoy adding hints of sweetness to stir-fries, braises and sauces and plan to try these in chili as well. And I hope the plants will complement the colors of the Fish peppers I plan to have growing nearby.

The last pepper in this early batch is a sweet pepper, the Chervena Chujski from Landreth. I was tempted by this variety because it is supposed to be good for both fresh eating and roasting, which we love. Last year I could have used a whole lot more peppers that were good for roasting. I plan to try the Chervena Chujski grilled, hand-roasted over a gas burner, and smoked. If they are productive, I will also pickle some of them.

Which peppers will get space in your garden this year? I’d love to hear what you are growing and what you turn them into once they get to the kitchen!