Not as enthralling as Autumnwatch and it won’t give you nightmares like Crimewatch, Squashwatch is now under way on my plot. I love squash, apart from looking great and storing well, they are particularly versatile, tasting great in soups, casseroles and even in salads. This spring I decided to give some a go. They do take up lots of space though so I chose one of the smaller varieties, Uchiki kuri, also known as red onion squash, and decided to grow a few plants up a teepee made from some sturdy coppiced hazel poles. Back in March my levels of excitement, enthusiasm and hope for the growing season ahead were at their peak. Of course, as this ‘summer’ has progressed the rain has literally put a damper on this.
It looked like this year was going to be a disaster in terms of my squashes. I ended up with three plants after two were eaten by slugs but that was fine, three plants would be plenty in my first year. They were good-sized plants, nurtured on my kitchen window sill and in a cold frame before I planted them out. But June, July and August were so wet and cool and dull that I swear they didn’t grow at all for a good two months. At the start of August, I was convinced that nothing would come of them. They were the scrawniest, weediest looking things, embarrassingly so. A couple of flowers appeared, there were even the beginnings of a tiny fruit but it rotted and fell off. One day a lady came to interview me about my plot and take some photos for her PhD. I had considered pulling them out, they looked so dreadful but I didn’t get round to it. Luckily, because by early August they suddenly started to grow, sending out long stems and tendrils. They finally seemed happy clambering over the wooden structure I’d provided for them.
Then one day I discovered a fruit. It was slightly bigger than a golf ball and I was over the moon, although I did wonder whether it would have enough time to swell further and ripen before any frosts. And then, on a visit to Noel Kingsbury’s garden as part of the NGS, I spotted his squashes. Envy is not an attractive feeling but there I was staring at his multitudinous fruits, all of course much bigger than mine, wondering where I’d gone wrong.
Being a newbie to squash growing, I didn’t realise though just how quickly they can grow once they get going. I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised, being a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, they are related to courgettes and we all know how quickly they can go from being a small and tasty courgette to a watery, flavourless monster of a marrow.
There are two other fruits but these are much smaller so my hopes lie with ‘No.1 Fruit’, as it has become known. It’s now about the size of a baby’s head, the size of squashes I’ve bought from the supermarket before. Apparently, I now need to wait for the skin to go from being shiny to dull and the colour should change from the yellow it currently is to a beautiful orange. I’ve also read that if you pinch out the growing tip this makes the plant concentrate on swelling the fruit rather than continuing to grow. Maybe if I do this, No.2 and No.3 fruits will reach a decent size, too.
For the fruit to ripen they need to get as much sun as possible so when I’m next at the plot I’ll remove any leaves that are covering the fruits. Fortunately, because I’m growing them up a teepee, No.1 fruit, in particular, is dangling away in the sun all day.
If you have lots of squashes and want to store them over winter it’s important for the skins to harden, to provide a protective coat for the flesh inside. The best way to do this is remove them from the plant in October, as the nights get cooler but you need to leave quite a bit of the stalk as this will protect the top of the squash and stop it rotting in storage. Then place them somewhere, like a sunny window sill or greenhouse, for a week or so for the skin to ‘cure’. Bearing in mind I’m not exactly going to be inundated with squashes, this curing process is less important to me this year. I’m pretty sure once the squashes are ready they won’t last long once they reach the kitchen.
So, I’ll be checking my squashes every day, giving them a seaweed feed and watering in any dry spells. Now there’s a phrase I haven’t used much this year. I never thought I could get so excited by a baby pumpkin.