Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Butternut Squash (02 NOV 2011)

While halloween is still in the air (or in the shops at least), I thought it would be fitting to post about the mysterious premature deaths of my baby butternut squashes  ...

I didn't intend to grow squashes this year but when my neighbour offered two baby plants, I couldn't resist. I never say no to plants looking for a home and usually end up giving them more tlc than my own, feeling under pressure to give a good report in case their birth parents ask after them.

The leaves started turning yellow while the plants were in their pots, so I transplanted them into a bag of peat-free compost. Whenever I visited them, I noticed a strange whiff and couldn't figure out where it was coming from until I poked about in the damp compost one day and couldn't wash the smell off my finger. I happened to glance over the contents of the compost bag a few days later and noticed that one of the ingredients was bonemeal, to compensate for not containing peat I suppose. Yet another reason to wear gardening gloves at all times.

    

The bonemeal may have contributed to revitalising them; a couple of weeks after the squash plants settled in the compost, they burst into life. The leaves darkened and grew bigger day-by-day. It's possible to over-fertilise, concentrating the plant's energy on growing leaves rather than flowers, but with a bit of beginner's luck, the balance in the compost seemed just right.

Fertilisers usually contain varying amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Bonemeal has a high phosphorous content, a good all-round fertiliser required for root-growth and setting fruit, and an adequate amount of nitrogen which ensures robust leaf-growth without suppressing blooms.

 


  

Many flowers bloomed and some little squashes followed.

Even though the plants looked extremely healthy, the fruit would grow to about two inches long then just shrivel and drop off without any sign of infestation or fungal growth.  (Squashes can host phytophthorafungus or be attacked by squash vine borers, though pumpkins are more likely victims.)
I assumed that the problem was due to lack of fertiliser and accepted it, not wishing to add an artificial product; not because I was precious about being an organic gardener, I just want to understand what happens when nature is left to its own devices.

    

Only one fruit progressed to maturity (the second photo makes it look bigger than reality). It had a green tinge even after its growth plateaued for over a month. I gave up when the newspapers reported that unripe pumpkins were on sale for halloween due to an unusually wet summer.
 
    

While I was researching natural fertilisers, to make notes for my next attempt at squash farming, realising that a potassium-rich fertiliser might have enlarged my squash to supermarket-size, I discovered something that maybe most gardeners are aware of.      Am I really the last to know ? ...

Squashes have male and female flowers. You can tell the difference because the females have a bulge at the base where the fruit starts to form (like a pregnancy). A bee must transfer pollen from a male flower to a female flower in order for a squash to develop and become a seed container. Farmers maximise yields by hand-pollinating.

Guess I should be grateful to the bee which didn't get distracted by the marigolds and allowed me to enjoy one squash this autumn.

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To read about the history of squashes, from the Three Sisters farming technique developed by Native Americans to pumpkin beer brewed by the Pilgrims : http://www.allaboutpumpkins.com/history.html

Why grow butternut squashes instead of pumpkins? This web-page seems to make sense :

Why and how to hand-pollinate squashes : http://pumpkinnook.com/howto/pollen.htm
This website also has a comprehensive explanation on fertilisers in the How to Grow section.

Bonemeal contains a high percentage of phosphorous which is a good all-round fertiliser. Potassium (found in bananas) promotes fruit growth :
http://www.mygardeninjapan.com/2010/11/using-banana-peels-as-fertilizer-for.html

I baked and stuffed my butternut squash with blue cheese and walnuts and served it with a trickle of honey :
http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/nov/04/recipes.cheese


©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/butternut-squash-02-nov-2011.html

22 comments:

gardenwalkgardentalk.com said...

Baked a Butternut tonight.

Stacy said...

All of my cucurbits' leaves always end up looking like your "before" leaves--yellowing and sad, not the rich green of your post-bonemeal ones. I'll obviously have to look into nutrients too for next year. The pumpkin/butternut link was eye-opening. I had no idea butternut vines could (in theory!) produce so heavily. The pie recipe in that link and the recipe you posted both look delicious--at least you were able to give your prize butternut a satisfactory sendoff.

Malar said...

The baked butternut squash sound so tempting!
Your plant look so fresh!

One said...

LOL! I knew about male and female flower only after I grew pumpkins. It wasn't that long ago. Thanks goodness the pollinators didn't get distracted. I can hear one chanting, "Focus, focus, focus..."

PatioPatch said...

Squashed my tesco bought one in a beetroot soup but your recipe looks great. Thanks for making me laugh re the tlc and birth parents. You've learnt by observation about plants b-a-g which is often the best way.
Next year you'll be tickling flowers with a paintbrush and making bee runways lined with marigolds.

b-a-g said...

Hi Donna & Malar - Baking draws out and caramelises the natural sugars. I've also seen a recipe where the top is cut off, a slab of butter is put inside, then the top is replaced and the squash is microwaved. I would have tried that if I had grown another one.

Hi Stacy - You might be interested in trying the Three Sisters farming technique where squashes are grown beside peas or beans which deposit nitrogen into the soil.

Hi One - I think they did get distracted because a butternut squash plant has the potential to produce many fruits. All of my baby squashes shrivelled and died because they weren't pollinated properly, except for one.

Hi Laura - I love adopting plants. I get a bit annoyed when people kill the seedlings that I present to them.

Donna said...

My pumpkins were a bust this year because the bees were apparently distracted. They also were full of fungus I think because they did not have enough sun...squash I have found to be tricky...but I m game for growing them again next year.

Mark and Gaz said...

Glad to hear you managed to get at least one yield this year, hopefully you get a better crop next year :)

One little known fact is that butternut squash flowers are edible, they taste great boiled with lentils, pulses, and beans. It's one of favourite veggies actually. Although you won't get the fruits though if you harvest too many flowers.

Janet/Plantaliscious said...

It's been a bad year for pumpkins and squash. I have far fewer than I was hoping to have and am jealously guarding them! Not sure why, or from what... But you have reminded me that one of my favourite ways to eat squash is roasted with garlic and rosemary and then stuffed with blue cheese and walnuts. The other is roasted with cumin, chilli garlic and black pepper, but I live in a household of black pepper haters...

debsgarden said...

I enjoyed reading the story of your squash. I have had limited success with squash, though my son once brought a pumpkin plant home he had started as a school project. He planted it amongst the roses, and with minimal care it took over the whole area, swamping the roses and other plants. It produced many pumpkins, which my family and friends enjoyed. I later tried to get pumpkins to grow in the area designated for vegetables. No luck!

HolleyGarden said...

I do recall people having to hand pollinate their squash. We seem to have enough pollinators to do the job. But I am growing some winter squash now, so hopefully it won't get too cold for them to do their job! At least now you know, and next year you'll be an expert and have tons of squash!

b-a-g said...

Donna - Sorry to hear that you were even less fortunate than me. Wishing you better luck next year.

Thanks Mark, Gaz & Janet - I've heard of stuffed courgette flowers but I thought that they were just used as wrappers. I also like the idea of adding a hint of spice. Next time I have the chance I'll try your recipes.

Deb - What a treat for your son to watch his plant growing like that and bearing fruit.

Holley - I read that it's possible for butternuts to be cross-pollinated with courgettes. The fruit that year will be OK, but fruit grown from the seeds may have characteristics of both parents and lack flavour. I didn't add this to the post because I thought it might be too much information.

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

We had to hand pollinate all of our squash last year. We lost a number of fruits prior to that to lack of pollination. The hand pollinating helped, but timing is important, and it's time consuming. We solved the problem this year by adding bees! Four hives worth! This year we ended up with so many we didn't know what to do with them, thanks to the bees of course!

Christine @ the Gardening Blog said...

Ah, I can relate - I also always feel under some obligation to give extra TLC to gifted plants - just in case the giver asks, and they usually do :)

Masha said...

Thank you for such an informative post, and I hope you have better luck next year! It must be fun to hand pollinate, I have been meaning to try it too but haven't found the time...

Andrea said...

Hahaha, when you are narrating and come to a point that only one developed to fruit, i thought maybe you didn't pollinate it, and at the end i was right. We usually do that with our native squash which i taught my mother early on when i was still starting college and learned about pollination. She enjoyed pollinating but now she just left it to the insects.

Alistair said...

Hi b-a-g, not only have I never grown squash I have never even tasted it, how sad am I. Interesting and entertaining post as usual though. I was thinking that the bonemeal in the compost would not be to compensate for lack of peat as peat in itself contains absolutely zero nutrients. Fertilizer is added to all composts.

Shyrlene said...

Once again, another story that intimidates the heck out of me. Growing vegetables is not for the faint of heart... (Very cool that you included all the resource links at the end of your post!)

b-a-g said...

Christine - Glad I'm not the only one !

Clare, Andrea & Masha - You knew the secret! I wish my bees were as reliable as yours.

Thanks Alastair ... I didn't realise that all composts have added fertilisers ... I should pay more attention. I recommend growing squashes because they are delicious and they keep fresh for a long time because they have a hard skin.

Shyrlene - Don't be afraid, I grew a squash with zero knowledge, just a bag of compost and a bit of TLC.

linniew said...

I too just recently learned about the gender challenges of squash blooms. (No one mentioned it in health classes at school.) And you are so right about the terrible pressure of responsibility that accompanies plant adoptions.

b-a-g said...

Linnie - I remember being quite confused as a child when I realised that it wasn't just the birds & the bees, but the flowers too.

AlisonH said...

I found this after trying to find a picture anywhere of a butternut squash that looked like mine, which are currently light green with random white stripe-ishness. The seeds I had were the Pilgrim butternut variety, but I wondered if what had come up had been from the gourds the neighbors planted ten feet away in years past on their side of the fence. The squirrels planted me six different types of tomatoes this year besides my own so I know they're happy to participate.

So hopefully I really do have butternut squash, then. I'm so glad you posted this. Thank you!

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