What’s Growing in my Garden: All about the Cucurbits!

Curcurbits, or squashes, are a regular feature in my garden. And with their large dark green leaves, sprawling and vining branches, and showy orange flowers, they command attention. My prolific summer squashes keep us with steady supply of fresh produce throughout the late spring and summer, and the colorful winter squash will provide savory meals throughout fall and winter.

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Squashes originated in Central and South America over 8,000 years ago. Along with beans and corn, squash was a staple food of ancient America. These plants nourished Native peoples for thousands of years and provided a food base for Maya, Inca and Aztec civilizations. European settlers were quick to add squash into their diets and became a mainstay in homestead gardens.

Squash can be classified as “summer”, the lesser known “autumn”, or “winter” squash, with all growing over the spring/summer season. Winter squash are grown until they are mature and ripen on the vine. the fruit has a hard skin and will store for several months. Autumn squashes, like the winter squash, are eaten after they mature, but do not store well for more than a few months. Summer squash are picked and eaten when the fruit is immature, and have thin, soft skin. They grow quickly and do not store well. While usually eaten cooked, summer squash can also be eaten raw.

The flowers are also edible, and delicious stuffed with cheese, then breaded and fried. If you find yourself getting to many zucchinis than you need, pick some of the female flowers to curb production, and also have delicious treat! The flowers are easy to tell apart.

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Squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, along with gourds, cucumbers and melons. There are three different species of Curcubita: C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo., and then there are countless varieties found in each species. Curcubitas are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. They are pollinated by insects, and a  favorite of my bees. They are exceptionally easy to cross pollinate, so unless you take great care to isolate the flowers, saving seeds for future plantings will likely result in strange fruit. Any varieties of the same species will cross with each other, and C. pepo and C. maxima will also cross with C. moschata. However, C. pepo will NOT cross with C. maxima. 

In my garden, I have a variety of all types of squash growing. Because I don’t keep isolation distances or take the time to isolate flowers, I don’t save my own squash seeds (yet) and instead plant heirloom varieties from Baker Creek. Summer squash are spaced about 4 feet apart, interplanted in a raised bed with eggplants, basil and sunflowers. Winter squashes are growing 2 feet apart in mounded rows, spaced 6 feet apart, interplanted with nasturtiums and sunflowers, or tucked into corners wherever there is space. There are hundreds of different vatieties of squash, some well known and some that sounds like they are aliens. Choosing which type to grow can be overwhelming, as there are 14 pages of squash in my seed catalog! This year, because we are still in garden development and don’t have space to dedicate to experiments quite yet, we mostly went with standards that we are familiar with.

Summer squash are C. pepo species, and I have one yellow Early Prolific Straightneck, 2 Black Beauty zucchinis, and 1 Costata Romanesco zucchini plant planted.

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Early Prolific Straightneck

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Costata Romanesco

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Black Beauty

Winter squash can be further categorized in the texture and how dry their flesh is, dictating what their best use is in the kitchen. I like to have different types so that I can use squash in many ways. When thinking about what type of squashes to plant, think about what you like to eat. I eat lots of squash soup, curries, and just cubed and roasted- so I look for types that are good for that. I don’t like stuffed squash or plain mashes as much, so I don’t grow as many that are best suited for those purposes. My family is also small, so I have no need for a 20-pound squash. I also avoid squash that have really lumpy skins, to make peeling easier, or ones that are so hard you need a hatched to break open. I like varieties that will store, so I have delicious squash thought the winter.

In the C. maxima group, I have Red Kuri and Rouge Vif D’Etampes growing. Red Kuri is a Japanese squash, and similar to the more well known Kabocha. Its flesh is smooth and dry. It is great for curries, soups, and stir-fries. I made a pretty delicious Red Kuri ice cream one Christmas. Rouge Vif D’Etampes is a very old French Heirloom, and is flattened, with a gorgeous deep orange color. With its medium-dry flesh, and is good for pies, curries and stews.

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Red Kuri

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Rouge Vif d’Etampes

Squash that I have growing in the C. pepo group could be considered the autumn squashes, as they do not store well. These will be the first to eat, leaving the pumpkins for when the nights turn long and (hopefully) the rain falls. I have several Delicata plants, and just one lonely bush White Acorn. Delicata have moist, fine sweet flesh and are best steamed, sautéed or baked. The skins are edible, so they are a great squash to use when you are short of prep time, just cut lengthwise and clean out the seeds! Acorn squash has coarse, moist flesh and is best for baking and stuffing.

delicata.jpg

Delicata

White Acorn

White Acorn

Waltham Butternut is the squash growing that falls in the C. moschata species. Butternut squash is my favorite of the squash, and I find to be the best all-purpose of the squashes. With its medium grained texture and medium-dry moisture content, its great for soup, purees, pies, roasted and steamed.

butternut.jpg

Waltham Butternut

Another squash that we have growing is a C. maxima, called Red Warty Thing. Baker Creek’s description claims its “a big glowing, oblong globe with glowing, brilliant orange-red and covered with fantastic bumps”. I have no idea what this one tastes like, and planted solely because this is what happens when your husband is told to pick out a squash. So far, it just looks like a lumpy pumpkin.

Red Warty Thing

Red Warty Thing

I have two varieties of pumpkins growing for decoration, Howden Carving Pumpkin (C. pepo) and Wyatt’s Giant Wonder (C. maxima). These seeds were from Renee’s Garden, that I picked up for free at a seed swap. Pumpkins grown for decoration are edible, but not very tasty, as selective breeding has focused on looks rather than taste. The flesh is to stringy to be used for pies, but they are fun to grow for Halloween!

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Howden Carving Pumpkin

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Wyatt’s Giant Wonder

Winter squashes need a long growing season, between 90- 120 days to ripen, so I’ve been surprised to see mine turning orange so early. They are ready to harvest when the skin resists an indent made from your nail, and the stems are dry. I’ve already had one Delicata fall off the vine when I nudged it with my food while watering. Perhaps its because the early heat? Anyone else in California notice this?

What about you, what’s your favorite squash to grow or cook with?

Now Harvesting- Apricots!

Our house and land came with 4 very old fruit trees, a fig, a persimmon, a pear and an apricot. I can only assume they were planted when the house was built, in 1945, or shortly after. My next door neighbor has lived there for over 50 years, and she said she always remembered the apricot being there. So these trees are old, I’m guessing at least 65+ years. At some point, I’m sure there was more, forming a grand orchard.  On old homesteads, its common to find apples and pears, as they are long lasting and keep standing when the others have died away, but stone fruits like apricots and peaches are not as long lived. Normally only surviving for maybe 25-40 years, I consider myself blessed to have my antique apricot!

Blenheim apricot

My tree is seriously lopsided, there are visible rot and canker spots, and I can’t reach the highest branches, but she still produces.

Blenheim apricot

This variety is a Blenheim, which I only know because the aforementioned neighbor told me. When we planted our bare root trees this winter, we made sure to include a Blenheim as one of our varieties. This rosy-blushed fruit with a honey-like flavor is great fresh, dried or canned.

Blenheim apricot

Originally grown in Europe nearly 200 years ago, they arrived in California in the 1880s. Grown mainly in Sacramento and the Santa Clara valleys, the 1960’s began a slow decline in production, with Blenheims losing out in sales to more transportable varieties and cheaper imported fruit from Turkey. Today, Blenheims account for less than 2 percent of overall production, and the number is expected to dwindle further as more trees get uprooted. Because these fruits have a historic value and frankly, they are just good, they have been championed by Slow Foods and are listed on their Ark of Taste list.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, our growing climate wasn’t favorable to stone fruits, so we didn’t have any apricots from our own garden. But my uncle’s house, over the hill in Santa Clara, had an huge apricot tree. He would bring us bags and bags of the rosy orange fruit, and my mom would make jam. I’m guessing the variety of those were Blenheim as well.

Blenheim apricot

When the fruit starts falling to the ground, I know they are ready. A few times a day, I check all the fallen fruit and pick up the ones that are still usable. Ones that are badly bruised, or bug or bird eaten go to the chickens. There are only a few days between being ripe and when they fall to the ground, and most seem to be ripe at the same time. Over this past weekend, I’ve harvested all that ones that I could reach from my super wobbly ladder. Matt came though with the fruit picker and got as many as he could from the higher branches. Any that weren’t quite ripe sat on a plate for a day to ripen. Ones on the very top remain for the birds. Blenheim apricot, fallen fruit

My favorite thing to do with my apricots is to quarter them and dry in my dehydrator. I’m also really enjoying them sliced thin over goat cheese and crackers. I make sure to also share some with my neighbors, as they have enjoyed fruit from this tree long before I came along!

Blenheim apricot, drying apricots,

What about you, do you have an apricot tree or other ancient fruit trees in your garden? How do you like to use apricots?

cat in tree

Bacon helps with harvest

If you want to grow Blenheim, they require 400 chilling hours, so this is a good choice for milder climates. They should be spaced about 15 feet apart or from structures, and does best in well-draining soil. As an early bloomer, they are difficult to grow in areas with late frosts.

Tour de Pallet Palace, aka Turkey Shanty Town, aka Why you Never Throw Anything Useful Away

About a month ago, we rather impulsively got baby turkeys. For the first week or so, they lived in a dog crate in the middle of our office. They were then upgraded to one of those giant boxes you see outside the market with watermelons in it. But last weekend, the turkeys were re-located outside to the enclosure they will reside in until the fall. From there, they will be relocated into the freezer or my belly.

Thus, introducing, The Pallet Palace, also known as Turkey Shanty Town.

turkey pen from pallets

This shanty structure embodies the pure definition of janky, one of my favorite words to describe the quality of many things.

pallet turkey pen

This is also an excellent example of why you should never throw something away. Built mainly from shipping pallets , we were able to extend the pen a bit farther by also including lattice (that we took from a friends trash pile almost a year ago, because I knew one day we would have a use for them!), and screened framed sections (originally pulled out of a dumpster, that we used to make a chicken pen at the apartment, and subsequently the disassembled and moved with us). Most of the slats on the pallets were spaced to far apart for these now-pigeion sized turkey chicks, so we stapled sheets of cardboard on the inside. The shade roof is comprised of scrap 2x4s (saved when we demoed the shed) which supports very thin sheets of ply-wood (which we pulled up from our kitchen floor in prep to lay hardwood), another piece of lattice, and a roll of that wired bamboo/strawlike fencing that easily falls apart (which appeared in the garage one day, I’m assuming from when Matt helped his mom move). The remainder of the open space is covered by pieced together sections of bird netting.

how to build with pallets

On the inside, they have a more enclosed space, created by throwing up a piece of scrap plywood saved from building the hen house. In this little nook, we have a heat lamp that we turn on at night, because I’m not sure if they are large enough quite yet to go without, and also to give them a refuse from the sun or possible wind.

inside

One awesome feature of this pen is one of the screen panels that we pulled from our old chicken coop still had hinges on it, so it got attached to a pallet, added an eye & hook as a latch, and now we have a door! I’m very thankful we saved this piece in particular, because figuring out HOW to get into the pen was our biggest concern. We can’t stand up in the pen, but we certainly have easy access to fill the water and food.

door

If your concerned that our shanty town means our birds are living in squalor, fear not! They have constant access to water and food. They have green grass to eat, a place to dirt bath, and both a spot to sit in the sun or in the shade. I’ve tried tossing them greens from the garden and fallen apricots, but so far they are not impressed.

feeding turkeyThe location of this pen was intentional, aligned with our raised beds to the North end of the garden. I’m hoping their pecking and scratching will help eradicate some of the weeds while their poo fertilizes the ground, as this spot is the future raspberry patch. After this turkey adventure, if we decide that we can put up with their stupidity and want to continue raising them, we will build a more attractive, and much less janky structure. Until then, I’m going to assume it won’t rain until butchering time, and my turkeys will be as happy!

turkey, month old

Broad Breasted Bronze turkey, about one month old

 

Summer Solstice

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Here in the Northern Hemisphere, today is Summer Solstice.  Also known as Midsummer, today is when the sun peaks to its highest point in the sky. It is the longest day and shortest night. From here, daylight will begin to shorten and we begin the journey to autumn and winter.

sunflowers, sun

The word Solstice originates from Latin, meaning “sun standing still”. It is believe that Stonehenge was built to help establish when the summer solstice occurred, as the sun rises on Solstice at a particular point on the horizon that can be viewed from the center of the stone circle. If you stand outside at midday, the sun is directly overhead and there is barely a shadow cast. Since living creatures cast shadows, and only spirits have none, this day was traditionally seen as a day where people were closest to resembling spirits in our mortal reality. The Druids believed this day represented the marriage of Heaven and Earth.  As with Halloween, it is seen as a time when the veil between the physical and non-physical worlds is thin, allowing easier communication between the two worlds. In Celtic tradition, the Summer Solstice is a time to celebrate nature, fertility, the Earth and her ever-changing seasons as part of the ‘wheel of the year’.  People thought the world have celebrated Solstice to honor the sun, and to mark time. As with other ancient cultures and traditions, it is also a reminder of the journey of life, an acknowledgement of the cycles of time – birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death.

bachelor button, bee

This post also marks a milestone of my writing, as this is the 100th post of this blog. For 3 years, I have been sharing my adventures in urban homesteading. When I started writing, I wanted to chronicle my journey on trying to live a more simple life, focused on self-sufficiency in a modern day world. Reaching this 100th milestone makes me pause and think about why I continue to write, while there are thousands of other blogs doing the same thing I’m doing, but quite a bit better. In terms of the blogging world, this is not a successful blog, as I’m not earning money nor do I have tons of followers. But for the few that do read this (thank you!), or perhaps someone in the future that stumbles across this, I still write because I hope to serve as an inspiration. I hope that by me sharing my experiences of growing my own food, cooking from scratch, and generally living a type of life that I value, I might inspire you to take a chance to try one of these things. I am not from an argarian society, my grandma did not teach me to knit, I am not prepping for dooms-day. I’m just a regular person, learning these things as I go, because I like to learn and it makes me feel closer to the Earth. To those who leave comments, or those who silently read these words, thank you for joining me. I hope that my desire to inspire you is in fact, shining though.

sunflower

Today marks the day of both endings, rebirth, and is the day that the “sun will stand still.” I encourage you to go outside and to absorb the brightness of the midsummer sun.  Let us ask for the sun to shine upon anyone who is feeling a lack of light, and giving thanks for the sun which sustains us.

bachelor button and sun

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful
 
than the way the sun, 
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats towards the horizon
 
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone-
and how it slides again
 
out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a read flower
 
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance-
and have you ever felt for anything
 
such wild love-
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
 
that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you
 
as you stand there, 
empty-handed-
or have you too
turned from this world-
 
or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?
 

Mary Oliver, “The Sun”

 
 

Making Flowers an Important Part of your Garden

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My gardening experiences do not include lots of flower growing. Before this year, I can think of two instances where I deliberately grew flowers: in high school I planted a bed of bachelor buttons in my mom’s garden, and two years ago when I grew my wedding flowers at both friends houses and the apartment garden.

I didn’t avoid planting flowers, it just wasn’t a priority. In the apartment, space was a premium and I didn’t see the reasoning on growing a flower when instead I could grow something to eat. We had a handful of perennials like lavender and salvias, and I always allowed my herbs to flower, so I figured that was enough to keep the bees happy. In summer, there was inevitably a sunflower or two that sprouted under the bird feeder.

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harvesting cosmos and zinnias the day before my wedding

But this year, I had a change of heart, and included lots of flowers in my garden plan. Perhaps it is a combination of having more space and the ability to grow zinnias without sacrificing a food crop, or that we don’t have many flowering perennials put in yet and I wanted the bees to have something, but really I think my new dedication to the colorful blooms is because I’ve learned how important they are. What I previously saw as frivolous and a “waste of space”, I’ve learned flowers are crucial to not only bees, but other beneficial bugs as well. They create more biodiversity in the garden, plus, they make me happy!

growing flowers, beneficial bugs

this year, space was made for flowers

On one of my regular library adventures, I came across a great book, Great Gardening Companions, by Sally Cunningham, which discussed companion plantings. Unlike my other companion planting book that I had, Carrots Love Tomatoes, by Louise Riotte, Sally’s book focused more on pairing veggies with flowering plants. The concept of companion planting is pretty simple: its a method of planting that keeps the garden healthy and thriving, naturally. A mix of gardening fact and folklore, it advocates growing certain plants together for their mutual benefit. Both books are great for learning about planting arrangements, but if you are interested in pairings with flowers to both assist in plant growth and attracting beneficial bugs, Sally’s book is great.

If you are wanting to add more flowers to your garden, the first thing to think about is having season-long blooming. Having something in flower all months keeps the beneficials happy, and color in the garden year round. I hope to keep bees soon, and this is crucial to make sure that there is food available for them. The first things to bloom in my yard are the herbs like sage and thyme, and the winter veggies that have gone to seed, like arugula and broccoli. In late spring and summer, the garden is awash in color with both veggies flowering and the summer flowers like zinnias. In the fall, hopefully the later planted sunflowers will be in bloom, as well as my cosmos and zinnias that bloom for a long time. Make sure to also keep flowers in different plant families, starting with the Asters. This family draws the widest range of beneficial bugs and keeps many different ones happy.

In my garden, the mass of my flower planting is located at the base of my fruit trees. When we planted the trees as bare root in winter, we placed the trees on mounds to keep above flood level. In spring, we expanded the mounds with layers of dead sticks, horse manure, and compost. In that, I scattered flower seeds and planted a handful of perennials that are commonly found in permaculture fruit tree guilds.  In my veggie beds, I have flowers planted on the corners or within the veggie rows.

fruit tree mound

One of the most colorful plant blooming right now is the nasturtiums. These brightly colored vining plants can deter white flies, squash bugs, and cabbage moths. Because of their rambling growth style, they act as a living mulch, which helps keep weeds at bay and moister in the ground. They also can act as a trap crop for aphids, meaning that the aphids are attached to it instead of your food crops. I have nasturtiums planted under my fruit trees, in my squash rows, and pretty much every corner of my beds. As an annual, they easily re-seeds, so once you get them going, you will have them for a long time. However, they are easy to pull out if they appear in a spot you don’t want. The flowers are edible, as are the seeds.

natstursiums

Cosmos are another great companion flower. Easy to grow, these blooms are in the Asteraceae family. Plants in this family attract beneficial bugs like honeybees, but also the bugs with small mouthparts that may not be able to feed on other plants, such as parasitic wasps. This is one of the single best families of flowers to plant in your garden. I have cosmos planted under the fruit trees, amongst the peppers and eggplants, and in the asparagus bed.

cosmoladybug in cosmo

The zinnias under the fruit trees have just started to bloom, and I have them mixed with the cosmos in the other beds. These brightly colored blooms are long lasting and come in a variety of colors and heights. Also in the Aster family, they attract ladybugs, parasitic wasps, parasitic flies and honey bees. The white sweet alyssum, from the Brassicaceae family, carpets any bare spots of the fruit tree mounds, where it acts as a ground cover and attracts and shelters ground beetles and spiders.

zinnia

Borage is one of my favorite plants, and technically considered an herb. The star shaped purple flowers are edible, and the bees absolutely love them. Mine are planted under the fruit trees, but they also do great among strawberries. These plants easily re-seed, so once they are planted, you’ll always have them- somewhere in the yard! Thankfully they are not hard to pull, so if they decide the middle of the walkway is the best place to grow, removing the plant is not a challenge.

borage.jpg

Like all the other flowers in my garden, calendula are easy to grow. If planted in the fall, these are one of the first to bloom, and also easily reseed. They grow anywhere and everywhere, and not at all fussy. I have most of my calendulas growing in my salad bed- mixed in with the peas, lettuce and carrots but they are also nice companion for those plants in the cabbage family. Calendula flowers are edible, and add a fun splash to salads. They are a powerful herb, and can be used both topically and internally. Calendula promotes cell repair in wounds, is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and helps keep infections at bay. In the garden, these yellow and orange blooms attract a wide range of beneficial bugs, but I find itty bitty native bees, covered in pollen, in most of mine.

calendula

peas and calendula

Sunflowers are the shinning star of summer flowers! These pollen covered disks that pivot their heads to follow the sun make me happy! As taller plants, these are good paired with larger veggies, like corn or beans. I have them planted among the squash rows, where their stems can acts a pole for the pumpkin’s tendrils to climb up. Also in the Aster family, I find sunflowers to bloom all season long, and the bees love them. Hoverflies, lacewings, parasitic wasps and machined flies are also attracted to these flowers. I find that they also act as a trap crop for aphids.

sunflower

Also growing in my fruit tree mounds are a variety of poppies. These native flowers are drought tolerant, and add great early color to the yard. I just love these ones with a reddish shade!

poppies

Marigolds may be the poster flower-child for companion planting. Long touted as a prevention of nematodes (a microscopic worm-like organism- most are good, but some are parasitic), they seem to be recommended as a companion plant for almost all crops. However, I once read an article that debunked this, claiming that so many marigolds would have to be planted to be effective, there simply wouldn’t be a space for the crop. A better way to use marigolds to treat nematode issues is to plant them as a cover crop and till under. Regardless, they are a bright sunny spot to tuck in the garden beds, so I have them scattered throughout the veggie beds, primarily in the melon row, and the tomato and basil bed. They attract overflies and parasitic wasps, and are thought to repel bean beetles.

marigolds.jpg

Most of the flowers in my garden right now are annuals. Some, like the calendula, sweet alyssum and borage, will easily reseed and I’ll have them again next year. Most will get pulled out when they are done flowering. Hopefully by next year, I’ll have more perennial plants in place, so I can have regular flowers and the benefits with little effort. Right now, one of the perennials that has a place in my yard is lavender. I love lavender, as do the bees. I want to have lavender on the corner of all my beds, but I’m not quite set up yet for it. So I didn’t plan on putting any in this year, but when women on Freecycle was doing a re-landscaping project and giving away huge bushes of Provence lavender, I dug up as many as would fit in my car, 4 bushes, and transplanted them back into my garden. Only 2 of them made it, but I’m enjoying the blooms that started to come in this week.

lavendar.jpg

Another perennial in full bloom is the cat mint. Not to be confused with cat nip, cat mint is a low growing bush that gets lavender colored flowers on it. The bees love it as well.

catmint

Another flower that I have planted but haven’t started to bloom yet are bachelor buttons, which attract many different beneficials. I should see more nasturtiums, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and sunflowers bloom throughout the summer.

But my favorite flower in the yard right now? Sweet peas. By plant standards, they are pretty useless as they are not edible and the bees don’t seem to like them. But they smell great! I’ve been bringing in bouquets for the table for the past few weeks. Its important to garden for the bees and the bugs, but also for yourself!

sweetpeas

And another important companion plant for the garden- catnip! Every garden should include a happy cat! Gaia and Bacon don’t seem to care, but Gale is a catnip fiend! I grow mine under a wire basket, this one from the bottom tier of a hanging fruit basket, so her enthusiastic rubbing doesn’t uproot the plant (trial and error and many newly planted starts taught me that…)

catnip addict

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