Winter squash are named for their keeping qualities — an important trait when the root cellar was your supermarket — but they are already a month or more off the vine as they wait out fall’s shift to winter proper.
What I once thought of as a rather dull fruit has, in its great variety, come to embody the richness of the garden and life in it.
Only a hog would find those cute decorative table squash yummy, but the gourds do a good job of feeding the heart. As a centerpiece, they form their own little commedia dell’arte of masked clowns, a theater in the rind. But there are other small fruited squash that are very much for eating and excellent in all the ways you can prepare squash meat for soups, pies, roasting and with pasta.
That old stalwart, the Waltham butternut, is still a great gourd, and when plucked from the garden it is palpably sweeter and nuttier than anything you can buy. A small, silky textured pumpkin named Winter Luxury Pie will give you a luxurious winter pie or, better yet, an autumn one.
I suspect many people think pumpkins and squash just appear with the fall colors, but the real beauty of these cucurbits is that growing them takes months of preparation and care. These strange, panoplied fruits get to the essence of what it means to be a gardener, requiring months of planning, method, vigilance and even construction skills.
One of the most appealing aspects of the small-fruited varieties is that they allow me to play out a need to grow vining veggies on trellises. This is a great way to reclaim space in a smaller garden and to create verdant walls that add interest and enclosure.
Over the years, I’ve grown many different plants vertically — tomatoes, various peas and beans, cucumbers, flowering vines and squash, to name a few. This is thrilling for the plants as well; they are cleaner and less diseased than when left to crawl along the ground. The upright approach also brings the phenomenon of the climbing chipmunk, but we won’t dwell on that.
Each gardener has a preferred trellising method. A friend harvests from a neighbor’s thicket of large-limbed bamboo to form a magnificent tepee for string beans. The bamboo poles age from green to brown as the beans move upward. Stored dry over the winter, they can be used for a second season before they break down.
Over many seasons, I have accumulated a collection of sturdy eight-foot stakes of inch-square oak. You need five to make a trellis: two at each end, tethered at the top into a triangle. One horizontal stake connects them at the top. I pound the posts about a foot into the ground vertically before bringing them together. One option is to take trellis netting, which is limp and formed from nylon twine, and stretch and staple it to both sides of the trellis. Another is to tie string from the cross rail to a waiting seedling directly below, leaving enough length to twist the vine on it as it grows.
In the much published garden of Rosalind Creasy, in Los Altos, Calif., the author of the book “Edible Landscaping” has devised her own trellis method that is both pretty and honest. Hint: Painting wood a dark, recessive green lends class to any garden structure.
She prefers to make her trellis as a free-standing mesh screen, essentially, by placing two 4-by-4 redwood posts eight feet apart and connecting them at the top with a 2-by-4. The posts, seven feet aboveground, are set in concrete. A wide panel of concrete reinforcing wire — hog wire — is attached to the structure to form a transparent wall for vines.
She also grows fruiting vines on an arbor and, best of all, up and over her chicken coop. “Doesn’t everybody?” she asked.
One consideration for the trellis gardener is the eventual size — and weight — of the maturing squash. For varieties of more than a pound, Creasy rigs a supporting mesh bag for each fruit, a practice redolent of the care and craft of the Victorian estate gardener.
I think you can push the weight limit more than that. This year, and without support, I grew Tromboncino, an impossibly long and bulbous gourd that functions first as a summer squash and then a winter one in its flavor and texture. Each one can easily get to four pounds or more, and they all seemed happy to develop without support. Creasy is more inventive, growing them atop her arbor and letting them hang down from the top. If I did that, I’d be constantly bashing my head on them.
On the same trellis as the Tromboncino, I grew a dwarf watermelon whose fruit also got to four pounds before I pulled it out in August; it was sickly and never recovered from the rains of June. I have also seen a fabulously beautiful and tasty squash named Red Kuri grown successfully on a picket fence, though the fruit, another four-pounder, was supported carefully with a length of string.
Creasy trellised her sweet pumpkin varieties with mesh bags. The variety that loafed atop the chicken house was Sweet Mama, a small- to medium-size variety. Each fruit — they’re a good six pounds apiece — was supported by the coop’s mesh roof without tying. The foliage offered the hens some cooling shade. And when the squash shed its blossoms, the chickens were waiting below to gobble them up. Ain’t life sweet?
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