Sunday, October 3, 2010

Squash Surprise

The early morning sun is already warm and bright. I yawn, and try to blink myself awake as I push an overflowing wheelbarrow out to the ever-growing manure pile.
In an effort to speed up the composting process, half the pile is covered by a green tarp anchored by moldy bales of straw. The other half of the pile is taller, open to the elements, and ready to receive my wheelbarrow's offerings.

Wearing my bright pink rainboots and some faded navy shorts, I clumsily run the last few steps toward the pile in hopes of propelling the wheelbarrow to the top. From my unsteady perch, I lift the handles and tip the barrow's contents until they spill down the side of the mini-manure-mountain.

Zombie-like, I turn to head back to the barn to re-fill the wheelbarrow. But as I do, I catch a glimpse of a giant leaf out of the corner of my eye. I turn and look over my shoulder. I'm still groggy, but I recognize that leaf. Only, it's the largest leaf of its kind that I've ever seen. I put down the wheelbarrow and tentatively step over warm manure to reach the back, left-hand corner of the pile. Sure enough, that leaf is attached to a long, long vine, and there are many more similar, lush-looking leaves attached--- many of them 12-14 inches across.

It's a squash plant. A squash-plant that's growing and thriving in my manure pile, which also happens to be where we dump our non-dairy, non-meat kitchen compost. At some point, some squash seeds must have made their way into the pile, and taken root. I'm guessing it's buttercup squash, because that's what I usually buy, but at this point I can't say for sure.

As I look-over the plant, I'm baffled that this is the first time I've noticed it. Afterall, its vines are already more than 12 feet long, and orange flowers are beginning to blossom. It seems early for squash blossoms, but what do I know, my previous attempts to grow squash have yielded mouldy leaves and one or two golf-ball size pieces of fruit.

When I get over my surprise at seeing this very successful, completely accidental plant, I trek to the other side of the property to check on the squash I lovingly planted and nurtured this spring. The vines are only a couple of feet long, and the leaves are yellowish, and only as wide as the palm of my hand. Typical.

I check the manure-pile squash plant everyday. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In one direction its vines stretch their clutching tentacles deep into the empty pasture, gripping at tall stalks of lush grass, forcing them to bow down in front of it. In the opposite direction, one vine bravely sets out runners into the mowed path I use to cool out the horses.

The orange flowers have turned into green, fleshy bulbs (which look like baby buttercup squash). The fruit is growing so quickly that I'm convinced I can see it pulsing as each squash expands right in front of my eyes.

There are several large squash on the plant. Some of them are larger than dinner plates, probably 9 or 10 inches across. They look like buttercup squash, only they're flatter-- perhaps they're Kabocha squash? In any case, I know it's early, but they're huge, so I decide it's time to start the harvest. I tear Dave away from his work in the barn, and drag both him and a sharp knife out to the manure pile. He ceremoniously cuts the first squash from the vine.

A few days later, I saw through the thick, dark-green flesh and into the pale orange pulp. I remove the skin and guts and boil great hunks of squash the way my mom always used to-- with a few spoonfuls of brown sugar mixed in. I'm mildly disappointed. It's not the dark, dry squash that's my favourite. No, the flavour is mild and the texture is softer and a bit stringy. Not bad though....definitely good enough to share, and I do, giving several squash away to good friends. Within a few days, I roast the other ready-to-harvest squashes, and freeze them for use in mid-winter soups.

Throughout August and September, I harvest twelve squash from my accidental plant. The vines take a beating during hurricane Earl in early September. The wind tears the leaves and leaves the vines in the centre of the plant yellowed and shrivelled. I noticed two small squash, not much bigger than golf balls, still on the vine. I don't expect them to mature, but I leave them just in case.

I empty another wheelbarrow onto the manure pile. I look over at the squash plant and notice that parts of it seem to have recoverred from the hurricane damage. Sure, some of the leaves on the older part of plant are shrivelled and brown, but the younger runners are a vibrant green again. I lean closer to see whether the two small squash made any progress. They did. They're two healthy-looking, average sized squash now. I look to see if there are any others, but much of the plant is shrouded by chest-high, greenish-brown pasture grass.

It's a misty, humid, grey day, but I've got a few minutes to spare, so I allow myself to indulge my curiosity. I don't expect to find much on the plant, but I follow the vines, pushing aside the grass as I go. I can't believe what I see. I count 12 more squash, all big enough to eat, and several more smaller ones. The largest squash are the biggest yet; they look like slightly flattened basketballs (actually, they look a bit like UFO's).

I once again bring the wheelbarrow to the pile, only this time I wheel it here empty, and bring it back filled with squash. I try to weigh the largest squash, but my kitchen scale can only handle six and a half pounds, and this one definitely weighs more than that. I'm thinking maybe eight or ten pounds. I'll never have to buy squash again.

For comparisons' sake, and because there's a chance of frost tonight, I head out to my "purposely" planted garden. I don't bother with the wheelbarrow, but I do bring a bucket. There are five or six squash plants growing (or perhaps more acurately "dying") in mounds at the back of the garden. Some even have fruit. I twist the baseball sized buttercup squash from the vines and bring them inside, but they're awful sorry-looking beside my earlier harvest. I guess next year I'll have to accidentally drop some more squash seeds into the manure pile if I want a fruit worth eating.

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