I’m truly delighted to bring you a guest post from Beryl Randall, the brains and energy behind the wonderful Grow Your Own blog, Mud & Gluts, in which she admits her passion for squashes of all shapes and sizes. Squashes, pumpkins and courgettes are all easy to grow crops – having said which, I managed to nurture several without any of them setting fruit last year! The key is to ensure a good, rich soil (I hadn’t manured the patch in question for a season), and a generous supply of water, importantly not to miss a hot day once the plants have flowered. Enough of my waffle, though – let’s hear from a real expert.
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Every gardener has a favourite or two. Something that, left ungrown, would render the season incomplete. Given I have limited space, mine should have been chillies; compact, pretty plants bearing bright, spicy jewels. Or tomatoes – you can shove an alarming number of those in a greenhouse. and the taste of a warm, sun-ripened tomato is hard to beat. But no, for me it’s squash. More precisely winter squash with their huge, unruly, sprawling vines and stunningly beautiful fruit. I’m not the tidiest of souls, so perhaps that’s it. A call of like to like.
Autumn harvest photos got me interested to begin with, but what got me properly hooked were the rave reviews of different flavours. A crop that isn’t just beautiful but whose varieties range in flavour from chestnut to sweet potato is pretty extraordinary. I read everything I could find on squashes. Families, varieties, soil preparation, watering, whether to stop the vines or not to get better fruit, climbers vs sprawlers and how to save seeds. I even tracked down a copy of Amy Goldman’s Compleat Squash, which has glossy pictures of 150 open-pollinated varieties – it’s not a gardening book so much as a wishlist.
Although it’s getting better, squashes are still a crop we don't really ‘do’, other than the ubiquitous butternut. And it's such a shame because, for a nation obsessed with cooking programmes, we’re really missing out. When I was starting out on a quest for more information (and varieties), the US sites had the most information and their seed merchants still have the widest ranges of squashes. Through Linda Ly’s Garden Betty website I found Baker Creek, which Leslie Mann Land charmingly describes as ‘ground central of “my obscure heirloom is more obscure than yours”’. They carry a staggering 119 open-pollinated varieties (I counted) with more added each year. Their seed packs err on the generous side. And they ship to the UK. Real Seeds are also a great resource if you want to try unusual varieties from within the UK.
Not every variety is great to eat, which I found out quite quickly. Kakai has large naked seeds, which are very tasty but the squashes themselves are pretty horrible to eat. I’m not a fan of Musquee de Provence either, which I found stringy and fairly flavourless. Small Sugar was bland and has been booted from my seed tin. Rouge vif d'Etampes and Turks Turban though stunning to look at, were again, something of a disappointment.
On the other hand, some varieties really excel flavour-wise, as well as being lookers. If butternuts are your main squash crop I would really urge you to give some of these a try. Potimarron/Uchiki Kuri (I’m still not sure if they are actually the same thing or slightly different strains of red kuri), Black Futsu, Thelma Sanders, Flat White Boer and North Georgia Candy Roaster are all on my ‘must grow’ list and are now easily available in the UK, though Flat White Boer is marketed here under an alternate name: Old Boer White. Sucrette is a wonderful small squash, but only available to Heritage Seed Library members.
Of my favourites in the larger squashes Tonda Padana has fabulous, silvery pale ribs against a mottled green background - the ribs turn orange as the fruit ripens in store.
Last season it was genuinely heartbreaking when my local slugs suddenly developed a taste for baby squash. To add insult to injury, it was my first year growing squashes for the Heritage Seed Library as part of their seed guardian scheme. From nine plants only one hand-pollinated fruit survived. My seed return to HSL was, quite frankly, an embarrassment.
This year I am the most prepared I have ever been. I am ambitiously setting out to grow around 15 varieties of squash and a giant pumpkin – my first stab at growing anything to a silly size. Inadequate soil prep has been an issue on my plot most years, what with April and May generally melding into a whirlwind of seed tray juggling and frenzied digging as the clay finally warms up. But now I volunteer at a local Riding for the Disabled I have hit the jackpot in terms of rotted horse manure. Several (many) pits will be dug and copious amounts of black gold will be mixed into the soil. Oh yes, they will. I am armed with beer traps and 50 net bags (the kind wedding favours are put in) to thwart flower-munching slugs and snails. An extra bonus will hopefully be the astounding choice of hand-pollinated squashes I'll have both to save seeds from and to donate to well-deserving family and friends.
All I need now is a decent summer and for my watering arm not to buckle under the strain!
With thanks to Beryl for another entertaining read, and some great varieties to add to the shopping list – still time to buy squash seed to sow this year! Why not let me know what you’ll be growing in the comments section below, or on twitter.