Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unsquished Squash

We managed a few pictures of some of our winter squash this season.  While it was not our best winter squash year, we managed to get a reasonable crop.  Earlier in the year, we had a much higher population of cucumber beetles than we've seen in the past.  As a result, a significant percentage of the seedlings perished as the beetles girdled the plants.  If that isn't bad enough, these insects are a vector for bacterial wilt.  So, if the plants survived being munched on, others died from disease.

Hayrack with 2011 Winter Squash
An average year on the farm has us pulling in approximately 2000 winter squash of a range of varieties.  This year, we were happy to land around 900 squash.  Like many of our crops this season, it is enough to give our CSA members some decent squash, but it does not give us the excess we plan on in order to make additional sales.  It is hard to complain.  Last year we lost our entire field of winter squash in standing water (July 2010). 

A nice mix of winter squash
Experiments in 2011
We tried a few new approaches this year (some of which were tried last year, but heavy rains 'washed' them out).

1. Starting seedlings and transplanting
We've resisted this process for a few reasons.  The extra cost is actually the least of our worries here.  It has more to do with space and time.  If you direct seed, you plant once.  If you transplant, you plant twice.  If these are in trays, you have to water daily.  But, we found the transplants did significantly better because the plants were out in the field after the stage that cucumber beetles normally girdle the plant.  (Girdling essentially happens when a critter gnaws around the stem of the plant, cutting off the vascular system)  The result?  We'll be transplanting many more of the squash, with some exceptions.  Acorn and spaghetti squash are already shorter season and seem to make it through things well enough without the extra help.

2. Squash and flower spacing
We're working on optimizing our squash and flower spacing.  We have found that nasturtiums are great to repel vine borers and it seems like our vine crops do much better with zinnias, borage, bee's friend and marigolds nearby.  We are also trying out Four O'clocks as a companion.  No solid conclusions yet, but the ideas to fine tune are coming.

New experiments for 2012
1. Mulch trials
We have ideas about weeding in between rows.  And we know where we made mistakes on that this year.  However, keeping things weeded IN ROW can be pretty difficult.  The weed pressure is way up after our last few years of difficult weather.  We will be trying paper mulch to keep weeds down for the first several weeks of growing.

Similarly, we will be trying a green mulch (cover crop between rows).  Essentially, a green mulch is where we select our weed and cultivate it like another crop.  It is critical to select a cover crop that is a good companion for the cash crop.

And, of course, the old stand-by for mulching is straw.  But, the issue here is sourcing the straw.  We don't have land to grow our own.

2. Row Cover Trial?
This one makes our list every year and it never does get high enough on the priority list to get done.  The biggest issue?  Wind.  

3. Variety Simplification with a Twist
We like having a wide variety within a crop and winter squash is not an exception.  However, our diversity is causing issues with crop and time management.  Simply put, we can't do it all.  We'll still have diverse crops, but we'll stop working with a few varieties we might like to grow, but have not shown the resilience we need.  We're sure we *can* grow them.  But, we're going to drop them until we have an improved system that works for us.  Then, we'll consider reintroducing.  

So, what's the twist?  A couple of these seem to really attract those cucumber beetles.  We might consider using them as a catch crop.  The idea of "sacrificial plants" is not new.  But, you have to ask whether the catch crop draws more critters to the area *OR* if it attracts the critters that are already there.

In our next installment, we talk about some of our winter squash varieties.

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