Squash All Thoughts, Except of Squashes



'Serpent of Sicily', with bitter melon mixed in

I spend a lot of time musing about cucurbits. 

I know, I know, you have bigger things on your mind.  Maybe you are considering why Jon Huntsman appears to be the only Republican presidential candidate who believes in evolution. (Although, watching Rick Perry during the Republican debate this week, I was beginning to have some doubts myself. )  Maybe you are merely reeling because you spied Jeff Immelt in the audience for the President's "jobs" speech last night. Immelt is the CEO of GE, which, unlike you, earns BILLIONS in profit and, unlike you, pays ZERO in taxes. A real patriot.  And you might be wondering, when President Obama used the word "unwavering" this week to assure the EPA of his support while unraveling its work on ozone, was he being sarcastic?

I could be stewing about the state of my nation or launching a seed business or moving to Sicily or embarking on an affair.  But instead, I'm stupidly mesmerized by the big, big vines I see from my office window.  Mainly, I am wondering why there is such a range among a group that is basically characterized by its candy-ass sensitivity to cold.

Yes, all cucurbits are impossible in spring.  They'd rather meet their maker than put up with a rainy early June.  But some of them move on from such fragility to attempt world domination.  And some of them never outgrow their neurasthenic tendencies.

The biggest drama queens in the group are, of course, the watermelons.  I've been gardening for 20 years and have yet to succeed with one.  I was sure this was the year, because I've moved my garden from frigid Zone 4 in the country to balmy 5b in the city, but still no luck. Cutworms.

In any case, I was DETERMINED, after several rainy and cantaloupe-free seasons to have cantaloupes, so I hedged my bets by ordering an early variety named 'Halona.'  Yes, it produced early, but from my yard at least, was relatively mushy and flavorless.  I'd rather plant 'Charentais' melons and only succeed once out of every five years.

Now, we move on to the real heartbreak: cucumbers.  My kids love them.  I love pickles.  Yet they are always dicey for me.  They originated in India and frequently die of shock when expected to grow in upstate New York.  I've actually had good luck with the yellow Indian varieties, which seem healthier and more profilic than the little cornichon-types I dream of pickling.  But this year, I lost all my plants to cucumber wilt.  Wikipedia tells me that cucumbers were known in Great Britain in the 14th century, but then died out and didn't reappear for another 200 years.  Is anyone surprised?  One rainy summer, and they quit England en masse.

I experiment with other Asian gourds, too: bitter melon, fuzzy melon, wax melon.  So far no luck, though this year my bitter melon survived and produced pretty, tiny flowers.  I'm on the look-out for fruit.

Summer squashes?  The plants might get mildew, but they are reliable for me.  This year, once again, I've planted a Seeds of Italy variety called 'Serpent of Sicily.'  I love this plant: It has beautiful white flowers in a pentagon shape, beautiful leaves, and long skinny chartreuse gourds.  Its firm skin means that it keeps a nice toothsome texture in a curry.  I love the plant also because a few seeds stuck into the ground have yielded vines that are crawling 90 degrees along my fence and threatening to grow into Ballston Spa, once they've conquered Saratoga Springs.

Then we have the natives: the pumpkins and winter squashes.  I pressed seeds of those into my neglected country garden when I was there in early July.  Out there last weekend for the first time since, I checked on them.  Everything is a-okay, with Butternuts, 'Jarrahdales', and 'Dill's Atlantic Giants' threatening to cover all 15 acres.

If only the economy was behaving like 'Jarrahdale' and 'Serpent of Sicily'–a little sulky and slow to get going, but now unstoppably robust…


  1. Such irony. Cucurbits are one of the rare families I have success with (living in parched-ass Texas, not much of a surprise), but I can’t manage a lick of lettuce, spinach, or most greens.

  2. I can’t grow any curcurbit to save my life. I’m not even going to try next year. The vines look gorgeous for about 3 weeks, and then something (different every time) kills them. Borers, bugs, virus. Blech.

  3. I first read “bleach” in Katie E-P’s post. We’re alkaline in Colorado, but not that alkaline.

    With 2.87 inches of rain in July and 0.3 for all of August, only the irrigated’s survive. Despite the dry weather, somehow there’s mildew all over the squashes and cukes, even those watered by drip, even those raised up on fencing.

  4. I love this post! I too would rather think about your cucurbits (new vocab for me) than the economy. I am supposed to working now but keep wandering outside to examine my flowering clematis. I know it’s wrong, but it feels so, so right!

  5. I read two articles at the NPR site yesterday about the GOP candidates’ (and I’m not making assumptions about the GOP members in general) attitudes/beliefs about climate change and about evolution. Michelle Bachman was quoted (and I did see the video of this, and they aren’t cut/pasting anything):
    “Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas; it is a harmless gas … And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in the Earth.”
    — House floor speech, April 22, 2009

    One wonders what she’d say were she in a room with no gas but CO2.

    Yes, to an individual, they all denied evolution. What Perry wants to do to the Constitution is not appropriate to discuss here, but it scares me spitless.

    Back to gardening and evolution: I experience cognitive dissonance any time I hear of a plant or animal breeder who is a creationist. Walter Lammerts, who bred so many beautiful (if scentless) roses was one. BTW, the first rose bush I had, given me by my father, was his Mirandy. I do favor deeply dark red roses to this day.

    I have zones 8b-9b in my yard. Roses thrive for me if they’re planted right. Wisteria I can control through ruthless pruning and vigilance against shoots. I have to struggle with mint–*I* can kill the stuff. I also struggle with wintersweet, which I adore, but the daphne odora, which blooms fragrantly at the same time–gangbusters. My lavenders and rosemaries, and some of my thymes are the no-brainer no-effort plants. In the banana belt of Santa Cruz, indeterminate tomatoes put out lots of leaves and a moderate amount of fruit, but here in Campbell, even less fruit, and I have to fight squirrels, birds, and roof rats (the neighborhood has scads of all of them). I have yet to eat any of the figs off my trees because they get them first! One year in Santa Cruz, one of the two Montmorency cherries gave us a couple of pints, but the next year, nada.

    Speaking of which, this cherry takes its name from the Montmorency Valley in France where it was developed sometime before the seventeenth century, while the Montmorency family was still in power. While wandering through the Wikipedia to find the info on the cherry, I finally found out why the Marechale of France, who served under THREE Kings of France, was named Anne–after his godmother, Anne of Brittany, but why not his family thought giving him a woman’s name was a good idea. A Renaissance Boy named Sue?

    Now if I can only get the sprinkler near those red roses to stop watering them, and thus producing powdery mildew, I will be happy.

  6. Ditto on serpente di Sicilia aka cucuzzi – I planted it this year on a cattle panel arbor and it’s taken over another trellis and all surrounding areas, producing gourds up to 50 inches in length. Hurricane Irene brought down the arbor, but we got it up again: http://groweat.blogspot.com/2011/08/ooh-she-really-did.html

    Also, have had great luck with bitter melons; if only any of us actually liked them.

    Zucchetta rampicante/tromboncino squash is another rambler that’s resistant to vine borers and great fun. Pretty leaves, too.

    My favorite cucurbit is Mexican sour gherkin or mouse melon – like a tiny cucumber. No pest problems to speak of, but it does want heat.

  7. Fantastically enjoyable read !
    I too might just have to question the science of evolution after watching + listening to Rick Perry. … but then again he couldn’t derive from Intelligent Design either.
    Lets hope he’s not evolved from the cucurbit family. I’d hate to see him become unstoppably robust.

  8. My garden – dismal as its produce has been this year – is still more conforting to me than thoughts of politics & the economy.

    @ MHSDFred : As a California gardener, I can tell you that mildew has little to do with rainfall. It’s a rare year that we see a drop of rain from June to at least early September, yet one of the biggest garden issues is mildew & fungus on plants. It’s a bigger problem here than it ever was in my native (super-humid) Alabama.

    Re : Candidates – It scares me that someone with so little knowledge of anything but pandering & politicking – particularly someone who denies the scientific discoveries of the past decades – actually has a shot at leading this country.

  9. What I would give for a full flavored cantaloupe or watermelon from the garden. In my entire life I have never grown one that taste as good as the best ones in the grocery store – and I come from a state where they hold a watermelon festival because they grow extra sweet there (just not in MY yard).

    Bittermelons are worth it just to see them turn orange and burst open like some sort of alien life form. They do taste like kerosene but I can usually chomp a few bites before my mouth revolts. I often just nibble them still on the vine and let them heal over to be chomped again in a week.

    Trombone Squash (I think its really a gourd) is the best. Pick it young and eat it like a cuke, pick it older and eat it like zuke. The only draw back is that the vines want to be 75 feet long.

  10. 78 pounds of cucumbers in my northeast garden this summer (10 plants) and still going. The tomatoes on the other hand are doing really crappy!

  11. “When the world wearies and ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.” I don’t know who originally said it, but I like it.
    Just a little bit of politics and financial news quickly send me to day-dreaming about beans and tomatoes.
    I love the picture of you curcubits. It’s nice to see a garden that isn’t crispy.

  12. I’ve had great luck with the cornichons this year here in NC, using an old Parisian pickling cucumber variety–the problem has been getting to ’em fast enough to get them off the vine when they’re a tasty pickling size before they turn into a bitter yellow baguette. The vines are psycho, but that’s par for the course. Definitely a variety I’ll plant again.

    “Painted Serpent” has proved disappointing for me. They’re pretty, but really low production numbers, particularly compared to the rioting Parisians. I’d wonder about my squash bee population, but the cornichons are kicking so much ass that clearly there are pollinators out there.

    Next year I’m gonna try summer squash…

  13. Try cuke-nuts: Melothria scabra. A pretty vine rather like a bitter melon’s, produces dozens of 1″ lemony-cucumber flavored fruit, and even re-seeds here in zone 4 Minnesota.

  14. I love cucumbers too and always have some success until the cucumber beetles move in and give them mosaic virus. My favorite is ‘Suyo’. It’s a Japanese variety that I’ve grown in South Carolina and Michigan. It produces the best tasting crispy fruit I’ve ever eaten.

    Melons are always iffy, even when I start them inside weeks before the last frost. If we don’t have a HOT summer, they don’t get ripe in time for frost. This year I actually got one Ali Baba watermelon and a few Petit Gris de Rennes cantaloupes. Both tasted absolutely heavenly!

    No musk melon compares to a real cantaloupe. If you’re so desperate you’ll try a musk melon, go with Minnesota Midget. They were developed for zone 4 and have small vines and tiny, 2 serving fruit.

  15. Several of the Republican candidates, I highly suspect, are the result of secret laboratory work. The eerie middle-aged Ken and Barbie/Stepford Candidate looks being the #1 tip-off. This would also support why they have such bizarre notions on climate change and biological evolution.

  16. Still wishing I could “like” comments on this blog! So many interesting ones. Next year I will grow veggies too. Can’t wait to try some of the varieties mentioned here and in other postings.

  17. What do you do with bitter melons?
    Our Chinese friends brought the dish for a potluck. It was funny to observe people taking a bite and when mumble “Well… It’s… bitter….”

    If I would like to plant an unusual cucurbit a squirting cucumber will do the trick!

  18. The ability to relish Bitter gourds is an acquired one, with some very traditional Indian dishes. I struggled to grow them for over two years and this year I have harvested over 40 lbs in a month. Try Snake Gourds and Ridge Gourds…they are good choices

  19. How early in their life must I cover my squashes to keep out the borers? And how long should I keep them covered?

    I have read that the culprit moth is nocturnal. If I cover the plants and only uncover them in the daytime once they start blooming, will that help?

    Zucchetta rampicante/tromboncino was indeed resistant but is huge in a small-garden and fruited only very late in the summer. (September here in Philadelphia

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