Friday, September 25, 2015

In Praise of Mature Squash

  Question: (asked by me of a tiny 85 year-old woman who had just purchased a huge Hubbard squash)  "Do you need a hand to cut that into smaller pieces?"

  Answer:  "Oh my dear, no thank-you. I live on the eighth floor!"

We have grown and harvested hundreds of tonnes of squash over the past few decades including:

  Butternut Squash: The Alfa Romeo of squash that appears as though God was handed a french curve set. With its small seed cavity, it is easy to process. Terrific for baking or steaming.  Sublime in soup.

  Acorn or Pepper Squash: The Toyota Camry of squash that doesn't look anything like an acorn. Reliable and pleasant, although it can be stringy if unripe. Best baked with a dash of brown sugar. Early maturing.

  Hubbard Squash: The Hummer of squash with a hard shell that can be a challenge to cut open. Has a small core of devoted fans. Excellent for pies (similar to pumpkin.)

 In all we grow about a dozen different varieties, but of that dozen, I admit to having a huge bias towards one variety in particular:

  Buttercup Squash. The Dodge Caravan of squash that does look like an acorn.  A Dodge Caravan with a lumpy, warty exterior and flat green paint job.

  But the inside is pure, unalloyed squash soul. When mature, the Buttercup has a somewhat dry, nutty, sweet flavor that just begs for a little butter to carry you home to the promised land of squash perfection. It needs no brown sugar; it will be chock full of  sweetness from all those days spent on the vine soaking up sunlight.

  "Mature" is the operative word for squash. Like that small print on the 8th page of that divorce settlement; the devil is in the details. Allow me to digress for just a moment...

  Squash, which was grown by the native people long before the appearance of any white man on this continent, has always enjoyed a place of honor at Thanksgiving.

  Every year North Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in either October or November. The original idea was to celebrate the blessings of a bountiful harvest.

  Squash requires every frost-free day it can find in our latitudes to mature. It and many other crops are simply not ready for harvest until late September in most years, which is the reason why we don't celebrate Thanksgiving on Labor Day or earlier in the year.

  However, the chain stores and other merchants insist on stocking and selling squash right after Labor Day. I have even seen local squash for sale in late August. Some local farmers are more than happy to fill this niche; the wholesale price for squash in early September is much higher than it will be later in the month.

  Why? Because after a winter of high priced American imports, squash lovers are looking for more reasonably priced local product. We are besieged by requests starting in August every year.

  Part of the problem is the squash fruit itself. Although it has reached full size in the field by mid August and certainly looks mature, it requires several more weeks on the vine in the field to fully develop the natural sugars and full complement of Vitamins C, A and B6.

  Ditto thiamine, magnesium, iron and calcium; all will be present, but in diminished amounts.

  It will never mature off the plant if it is picked green in this way, and it will never taste remotely like the delicious vegetable that it can and should be.

   Look for a dark yellow to orange ground spot to determine the maturity. If it's light green or pale white, choose another one or wait until you can buy mature squash.

  Due to the cool wet summer of 2014, we had to wait until the second week of October to harvest our squash; our latest harvest ever. It was a major source of frustration for us and our customers.

  But, it was (finally!) mature and it was so worth the wait.....

  We have just picked our squash for this year and will have them available for the next several weeks.




Friday, September 18, 2015

Season of Mists

  " Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"
            John Keats  "Ode to Autumn"  September 1819

  " It's wet tractor seat season!" 
               John Deere flyer      September 1999

  What's not to love about September?  Typically, September is the love child of  August and October, although it has been uncharacteristically July-like for much of the first half of the 2015 version.

  Our fields in September are bursting with the bounty of the harvest. It catches me by surprise every year; those spindly transplants that we have been coddling over the past few months are suddenly robust and fulsome.

  We go from wondering how to fill our market up in August to wondering where we can put all that fresh produce. Our market tables are groaning under the bounty of this year's harvest for a few short, hectic weeks.

  John Keats might not have had the chops to make it as a John Deere copywriter, but both quotes make the same point: September is a month of heavy dews and morning mists.

  When a warm, clear day is followed by a cloudless, cool night (typical September weather), dew is formed. Because the cooler night air cannot hold as much humidity as the warmer daytime air, it condenses on the plant leaves.

  This fact can be both a blessing and a curse to farmers:

  A series of heavy dews with light daytime winds creates a situation where a plant's leaves are wet for most of the day. This creates an ideal environment for the growth and spread of certain fungal diseases.

  We try to pick tomatoes, beans and melons when the foliage is dry to help limit any diseases that may be present. All these crops are highly sensitive to foliar diseases.

  The silver lining to dew is the fact that it can compensate for a lack of rain. It is not uncommon to receive an inch or slightly more of precipitation in  the form of dew per week, which can help bring a crop to maturity in a dry fall.

  If you look at the base of a corn plant after a heavy dew, you will see an area of wet soil around the base of the plant. Corn, and many other plants, have a unique leaf design that allows the collected dew to be channeled to the stalk of the plant and then down to the roots through gravity.

  This wonderful time of year is all too brief. Why not come on out to the farm and help us enjoy all the blessings of a bountiful harvest?




Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Watermelon thumping

When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat.
                                                                    Mark Twain

  Watermelon are the perfect late summer treat, deliciously sweet and crunchy underneath their garish striped rinds. To me, they evoke memories of checkered table cloths laid out on the lawn, brimming with all the fixings for a summer picnic. No watermelon; no picnic. Simple as that.

 Although they are 92% water, they do contain significant amounts of Vitamin A, B6 and C in addition to lycopene, antioxidants, amino acids and a modest amount of potassium.

  I love growing them. We harvest thousands every year, to rave reviews. I prefer cultivating seeded varieties; they are more reliably sweet in our increasingly unreliable Southern Ontario summers.

  The appearance of watermelons in our market marks the beginning of a ritual that has become so predictable to us as to be almost comical: the watermelon thump. We have several weeks ahead during which our market will reverberate with the sound of watermelon thumping.

  It doesn't seem to matter where in the world our customers come from. Everyone seems to know this ritual, or has inherited it from a parent or grandparent.

  The idea of rapping a melon with your knuckles is, of course, to determine whether it is ripe or not. There is a modicum of science to the practice, the fact that a ripe melon has a more hollow sound than an unripe one. It takes a skilled practitioner and the sound does vary between melon varieties.

 My advice to die-hard thumpers: the sound that you make rapping on your head denotes an unripe melon; the sound that you make by thumping on your chest approximates that of a ripe melon.

   Okay, it's an inexact science, but it does enhance the comic effect.

  Realistically, thumping a watermelon to determine ripeness is about as effective as kicking the tires on a car to determine if it is mechanically fit.

  A more effective method, and the one we use in the field, is to roll the melon until you find where it lay while growing and ripening in the field (the "ground spot" or "belly spot".) This spot should be creamy white or yellow. If it is light green or you can see stripes running through the belly spot, then the melon is immature.

  Watermelons will not mature any further after they are picked! We are extremely careful when harvesting our melons to try and avoid immature fruit for this reason.

  Mature melons also have a faded appearance on the top that you will easily recognize.

  Believe it or not, there is a new Melon Meter app for your smartphone to determine whether it is ripe or not:

  Call me a Luddite, but we have resisted that one so far. It is clearly not as much fun as thumping.

  Come and get them while you can; it's a short and sweet season!




Friday, September 4, 2015

Bug Busting

  "Alright you two; break it up!"
  Geoff Farintosh, Age 8, squishing two mating potato beetles.

  Anyone who grows potatoes or eggplant already knows way more than they care to about Colorado Potato Beatles.

 Beneath their handsome striped shells lurks a stone cold killer with the ability to strip the leaves off a potato crop almost overnight.They create millions of dollars in damage every year.

  What makes them so singularly successful is their legendary ability to develop resistance to any insecticide thrown at them. Starting with DDT in 1952, there is a long list of failed chemicals that are no longer effective.

  Chemical control typically involves several applications of insecticide every growing season.

  Their kryptonite, however, is what they call "mechanical control", or in layman's terms, hand-picking-and -squishing-them. It is 100% guaranteed and there is absolutely no chance of their developing resistance.

  It is slow and tedious work. Not only do the adult beetles have to be squashed, there is also the matter of larvae and egg masses to deal with.

 Given that an adult beetle can lay up to 800 eggs, times a couple of generations per year, that's a lot of sons and daughters of anarchy wreaking havoc on your crop.

  We only grow about one acre of eggplants, so it is within our means to practice mechanical control, which we do when the plants are small, typically within the first couple of weeks after transplanting, when they are most vulnerable to insect damage.

  This is when my son wishes he was 8 again, rather than  6'5".

  Our other ace in the hole is the use of predatory beneficial insects, or biological control. This is sheer serendipity, but about the time that the second generation of potato beetles is laying eggs, lady beetles (lady bugs ) appear in great numbers, usually attracted by aphids on other crops.

  Potato beetle eggs are chocolate truffles to lady beetles, who typically destroy about 60% of the egg masses.

  By then, the host eggplant is usually big enough to fend for itself without any chemical intervention from us.

  We grow a dozen or so different kinds of eggplant, all using the same system. They are picked every morning at the height of their creamy goodness. Sicilian, Asian and the more usual purple varieties are all on offer.

  So look up your favorite recipe and stop by the farm. We will have them ready for Pick Your Own later on in September.