Here we are in late August, and the growing season is coming to an end. We have prepared our soil, planted our seeds, nurtured our plants, and fought off many garden adversaries – and now is the time to bring in the fruits of our labor. Now is also a good time to look back and see what went right and what didn’t go quite according to plan. Gardening, like so many of life’s endeavors, is a learning experience – and every year, no matter how experienced you are – there are lessons to be learned and new adventures to share. Here are some recollections from this year’s garden, as well as a few memorable anecdotes from years past.
The Blue-Ribbon Squash
As mentioned in an earlier article, here in the Cohen household, we are big fans of winter squash. Yes, we enjoy the popular summer varieties also (zucchini and yellow straight-neck, mostly), but we are especially fond of those winter varieties that produce in abundance and last well into the winter months.
Over the years, we’ve grown butternut, buttercup, acorn, and spaghetti squash, but in recent years, we just concentrate on butternut, an occasional acorn, and especially on buttercup. If you’ve never tasted buttercup squash, you ought to try it – and even if you don’t grow it, you can often find it among the winter squash selections in the grocery store. The squash is a “cheese wheel” type, and often has the appearance of a large, green drum; however, the outside coloring is sometimes akin to watermelon, with a smattering of white and green stripes (depending on the variety). The ripe flesh is deep yellow, and the best squashes have a nutty, buttery taste with a grainy texture (after either baking in the oven or zapping in the microwave). The not-quite-ripe seeds taste like the centers of sunflower seeds. Taken altogether, these squashes are a culinary delight.
It’s usually a buttercup or butternut squash that we use for the simanim on Rosh Hashana (hoping that our enemies be “squashed”), and these squashes are important side dishes on our Shabbos and Yom Tov table well into the winter months.
A couple of years ago, the garden produced a super-large buttercup squash with a magnificent shape, weighing in at about 71⁄2 pounds! My young friend from down the street, Pesachia Neuman, also has an interest in gardening and in farming in general, and often we’ll collaborate on getting our gardens in tip-top shape as well as exchange seedlings and vegetables. When I showed him the splendid squash that had come out of the garden, he said I should exhibit it at the State Fair in Timonium, which was going on at that time.
“How am I going to do that?” I asked, “I don’t have a booth there, and I don’t want to sit around babysitting the squash while waiting for the judges to make their way around!” But Pesachiah stepped up to the plate, saying “Not to worry; I’m part of a 4H group that has an exhibit there, and we’ll be glad to show your squash as part of our booth.” (His booth also had sheep and other livestock!) And so, we put the squash on display and waited for the judges’ verdict.
As a result of this collaboration, I am happy to report that we became proud winners at the 2010 Maryland State Fair, being awarded a Blue Ribbon for our humongous buttercup squash. The citation on the Ribbon is for “Squash – Other.” Hmmm…I hope that, by now, the buttercup squash family – which gains popularity every year – will have edged its way closer to the agricultural mainstream and will no longer be considered an alien species!
“Exotic” Varieties from Jung
Well, Jung is not a place; rather, it is a seed catalogue, and this year (that is to say, last winter), I noticed that they were offering a large variety of unusual squash seeds – many from the buttercup family and many that I had never seen before.
Now, every year it is my garden policy to grow something absolutely new and unheard of. First of all, you never know what gems are out there that will produce some fantastic new vegetable that tastes great and may also be a prolific producer. Secondly, it’s always good to keep the “chiddush” (sense of newness) in your gardening concern, so that you can look forward to new seedlings sprouting forth, new plants growing strong, and new vegetables to grace your weekday and Shabbos table. By doing this, you can help ensure that the adventure and sense of wonder associated with planting and growing will always be with you.
That is not to say that we abandon tried and true winners. No, the varieties that you like the best and that display characteristics of hardiness, good production, and disease resistance should be kept on the garden roster sheet. But, it’s not a bad idea to add to that roster either. Perhaps your garden is not big enough to accommodate everything you like or want to add? In that case you either have to make some hard choices, or maybe it’s time to consider an expansion.
The “exotic” squash varieties that the Jung company sent my way had very interesting names: Mooregold, Speckled Hound, Burgess, and Marina de Chioggia (!). These were all variant buttercup varieties, and I planted a smattering of these plants (started from seeds in June) around the garden. Well, the vines on some of them were like a page out of Grimm, and they took off in all directions. (One of them climbed about 20 feet into a nearby tree, before I brought it back down to earth.) What excitement! Unfortunately, they totally overwhelmed my relatively small stringbean patch. (I know – I should have planned better.) And so, this year – for the first time in many – we will not have string beans from the garden.
All of the above varieties turned out to be “winners,” producing very unusual squashes of varying size, color, and texture. The Marina de Chioggia has been producing very large, turbanshaped squashes – weighing in at almost 10 pounds – and we are having fun astounding our friends and neighbors with these other-worldly fruits! Pesachia once again suggested that we show it at the State Fair, but, alas, no one has a booth there this year. It is my unbiased opinion that had we submitted this truly alien squash for judgment, we would have won a “Platinum” Ribbon. (I just don’t think a Blue one would have done it justice.) Two other new squash varieties did not do so well: Baby Blue Hubbard and Uchiki Red Kuri Hubbard. Both of these vines only produced one fruit each (very interesting fruit, but, still, only one fruit) and so I’m afraid they did not make the team and will not be invited back next season. Better luck next time, Hubbards!
As of this writing, we have an eclectic collection of 30 or so winter squashes occupying various containers in the dining room (I’ll move them to the cooler basement when the weather changes), including all the buttercup varieties, some butternuts, and just a few acorns (it wasn’t such a good year for them). These squashes range in color from light green to dark green, from yellow to pink to red, and even some in shades of gray-blue! And they also range in size, from a mere half pound to 10 pounds in weight! We’ve given some away to family (kids and mechutanim in town) and neighbors. Meanwhile, the vines are still in production mode, and will, iy”H, stay that way – just so long as I can keep the powdery mildew at bay and so long as the first freeze has not yet arrived.
I also planted a new butternut variety named Hugo, which is supposed to produce butternut squashes weighing up to 30 pounds! So far, nadda, but the gardening season is far from over, and the vines are still growing and gathering strength. If we do get a 30-pound squash, we are definitely not going to let it go to the State Fair, because we’re afraid it might eat up all the other squashes.
I decided to grow peanuts this year as a “fun” crop. What’s a fun crop? That’s a crop that you have no idea what you’re doing, but you think it would be fun to grow just to see what happens!
I got my seed order shipment in the mail, and yep, in the peanut packet there were – peanuts! Just like the peanuts that you would buy from the store, but this time they were sitting in a seed packet that came from the vegetable catalogue. I thought, “No way that these are going to grow – you’ve got to be nuts (ha, ha!) to try this!” But knowing deep down that gardeners must be unafraid to tread where others have not ventured to go before, I tilled up the outer space designated for them and, feeling silly, pushed the peanut “seeds” into the ground. There were only about 25 “seeds” in the packet, and I thought I’d be lucky if any of them came up.
But come up they did – not science fiction! There are now about 23 beautiful peanut plants growing in my garden in two rows, side-by-side. And every once in a while, a small, deep orange/yellow flower blooms, coming off the stem close to the ground. Huh – who woulda’ thought? And guess what else? No disease and no insects eating them up, bli ayin hara! Now, me an’ the Mrs. have been a’thinkin’ that thar’re no pernicious agen’s tryin’ t’git them thar’ plants, because them thar’ germs an’ bugs that like them peanuts know that thar’ ain’t no one who’s got their brains lined up rightly who’ll try growing them thar’ peanuts up here in these northern ter’tories! Shhhh – let’s keep it a secret!
But – “what about the peanuts?” you ask. So, I’ll tell you: I barely have a clue. I googled “peanut plants,” and mine look just like they’re supposed to. The experts online tell you to pull up a test plant in the fall and look for the peanut pods among the roots: If the pods are white, you pulled them up too early (darn!); if they’re brownish, you did good. I’m going to wait ’til after Yom Tov to pull up my first test plant (the pressure!). Then there’s some bit about letting them dry out and, of course, the option of roasting them. I’m not sure if I’ll do everything right – but, hey, this isn’t surgery, and I don’t think I’ll lose too much sleep over it. And really, it’s a lot of fun to explore unmapped territory; discovery – it’s a trip!
While on the topic of discovery: Last year, my wife had a sweet potato that had sent out purple roots from one end, and she cut off that section of the tuber and placed it in a jar of water. Pretty soon, the roots grew some more and leaves sprouted from the other end – it looked like it was turning into a healthy plant! This was in the beginning of the summer, and she asked if I could find a parking space for it in the garden. Sure, I said, and put it near one of the climbing supports. It was a good thing I did, because I soon found out that sweet potato plants are vines (with brilliant green leaves, tinged with purple) that wind around a string support. Well, in the jungle of vines in our garden, I forgot about the sweet potato until the fall, when so many of the vines were dying out. And then – oh, yeah, there’s that old sweet potato plant that I had planted in the early summer. I pulled it up, and – lo and behold! – there were five medium-sized sweet potatoes that had grown there beneath the ground! Without having planned a thing, another fun crop had seen the light of day.
Picks and Pans
B”H, in addition to the great success we’re having with winter squash this year (not to mention the peanuts!), the “standard” hot-weather crops are also doing well: That would include tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. However, even though we’re getting lots of cherrytype tomatoes (including round red, round orange, grape red, and grape orange, in various sizes), the large-type tomatoes don’t seem to be doing so well, and they are few and far between (although we’ve had a fair number of standard yellow Lemon Boys). Don’t know why.
While the nine eggplant plants are producing in abundance (last week I picked seven eggplants in one day), and the bell pepper plants are also doing well (they are late-summer producers, and have just started coming in on a regular basis), this year’s cucumber crop was terrible, getting only a precious few here and there. As soon as the vines would start to grow out and small cukes would appear on them, the plants would suddenly get sick and brown out and die. Thus, this year, when it came to the battle for cucumbers, the advantage went to the cucumber beetles, the squash borers, and the fungus that causes mildew. In the vegetable garden world, you’re never quite sure what will grow well and what will miss the mark – so be grateful for the successes, and chalk up the failures to experience and less than optimal mazal.
This year, I planted three zucchini and three straight-neck yellow squash vines. For the first time, I “staked” these plants, tying up the thick, slow-growing “bushy” vines as they grew out; this idea worked pretty well, saving on horizontal space. Each plant turned out to be quite an individual, producing different size fruits in various amounts. Three plants died a sudden death relatively early on (squash borers), while the hero of the bunch was a plant that produced over 30 beautiful yellow squash before finally succumbing to old age.
Back in the springtime, we had a lot of success with many cold-weather vegetables: These included some beautiful cabbages (both green and purple); lots of lettuce; lots of big chard leaves; a nice sugar-snap pea crop; many, many beets (with beet greens intact, with much of that crop staying fresh in the refrigerator); and too many kohlrabi (much of which went bad). However, the cauliflower variety which I had grown (Farmer’s Extra-Early from Henry Fields) was a total bust, producing only a few stringy stalks and no heads – sheesh! (I pulled up those deficient plants early and planted the peanuts in their place.) Also, the broccoli heads took too long to develop, and so the weather was hot by the time they got here: the heads were prone to disease and very buggy, and the crop had to be mostly thrown away. I’ve just planted both cauliflower (a different variety from a different company) and broccoli for a fall crop (as well as beets, peas, and radishes), and I hope they will all do better in the cool fall weather coming up; we’ll wait and see.
This year (as always) we have a wonderful crop of bees that populate th garden; sometimes I can count as many as 10 different varieties. We have small bumblebees, medium-size bumblebees, and even some B-52-size bumblebees. And there are little, tiny bees that congregate on the large centers of sunflowers, sometimes even making a minyan (do you think ...?). They fly about the garden, tumbling over one another inside the very large yellow squash flowers, or waiting their turn alongside the smaller tomato, pepper, or eggplant blooms. Sometimes you see them resting on a large leaf or on the ground, exhausted from the day’s work, needing a quick sugar fix. One time, I even gave one of these stalled fliers a sugary drink from my fingertip – and then, off he flew! When they are out in the garden busy with their business, these guys are oblivious to your existence.
I am chagrined to report that, once again, we have a boomer crop of mosquitoes – hundreds of Asian Tiger Mosquitoes that are unbelievably aggressive, active at all different times of the day, and oblivious to the heat or cold. Have you had experience with these small, black-and-grey striped pests that are on to you as soon as you come near their territory? Sometimes when I step out into the back yard, I think I can hear the dinner-bell ringing, accompanied by a chorus of small voices gleefully singing, “Here comes lunch!” First step prior to a gardening session: Use Off or Cutter repellant. For the kids swimming in the pool, an oscillating fan blows away these slow-fliers and offers welcome relief.
Being an illustrator and graphic designer, I love patterns and vibrant color. The front of the house is arrayed with patches of flowers showing a wide range of color, design, size, and texture. Some of the flowers are perennials, and they come up faithfully every year. Some are annuals, and I get to try out new varieties, which create fresh configurations and arrangements that are unique every year.
Since there was an unofficial ban on impatiens this year (due to a particularly virulent mildew infection), I instead planted 80 begonia plants in the front garden bed (which has a shady, northern exposure). We had a fantastic spread of these long-lasting white, pink and red flowers that wildly exceeded our expectations. Later on in the season, I planted four-o’clocks (that bloom late in the day with the flowers open only at night) behind the begonias, and a Money-Mix of deep-color sunflowers behind them – creating a multiple tier effect, one variety behind the other. They are beautiful and bring joy to the heart.
I bought a packet of seeds mysteriously labeled “Daisy Mix” and thought I’d give it a go. The small seedlings started on the porch, and the unique mix of small plants was transferred to small garden patches alongside the front walkway. While a few of the plants were noshows (leaves, yes - flowers, no), the other daisies produced surprise after surprise, creating a riot of flowers within their relatively small, designated areas.
In the backyard are over 50 zinnia plants, which consistently create 3” to 4” blooms on long stems. These beautiful multi-colored flowers can be used to beautify the Shabbos and Yom Tov table – and so, for several months we don’t buy flowers from the store. The zinnias attract all kinds of butterflies (even hummingbirds!) throughout the summer and fall, especially yellow and black swallowtails, that always stop by for quick refreshment on their annual migrant journey covering thousands of miles between Canada and Mexico. We’re glad to be a small part of this magnificent annual migration – just a small link in a grand chain.
The Festival of Ingathering
On Sukkos, we have the great simcha that comes from dwelling in a temporary abode, incorporating the underlying message that it is Hashem Who really protects us. We have an additional joy in seeing the wonderful, beautiful, amazing display of home-grown vegetables and flowers that adorn our Sukkos table and surround our home – bringing to mind imagery of the classic cornucopia and reminding us in a personal, immediate way that it is Hashem Who provides all our needs. May it be His will that we merit to see the building of the Bais Hamikdash speedily in our days and that we celebrate the Festival of the Ingathering all together in Yerushalayim, Ir Hakodesh.◆
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