Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pride Has Its Downfall: The Demise of the Buttercup Squash

For the second year in a row, my squash vines have died. The first year, it was the squash bugs that killed them—those hard-shelled creatures that smelled sourly of spoiled cantaloupe when they were smashed. When I examined the corpses, squash bug eggs were everywhere on the undersides of the brittle, gray-brown leaves.

With squash bugs, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s very easy to find them in every stage of their lives. The adults are big, usually at least three-quarters of an inch long, with dull brown coloration. Their backs are shaped like flattened footballs, and their snouts come to a small point, the better to pierce the stems of unsuspecting squash plants and their near relatives, the cucumbers and melons. They try to keep a low profile, and will move to the opposite side of a stem or leaf if they see you looking for them. Often, they may be found at the base of the plant. Sometimes, an adult squash bug or two will emerge after a heavy watering, perhaps because they don’t like being soaked.

The nymphs can be as small as a pinhead, with milky, gray-green bodies and long, thin, spidery legs. Like the adults, they move quickly to the other side of a leaf if they know they’ve been spotted. They tend to cluster on the undersides of leaves, and they’re very easy to squish when young—the mere touch of a finger will do the trick. The eggs are laid in orderly clusters on the undersides of leaves—usually squash leaves, as the nymphs survive best on a squash plant, but sometimes they appear on the leaves of other cucurbit family plants. One squash bug in my garden must have been disoriented, because I recently found a clutch of squash bug eggs on a bean leaf. When ripe, the eggs are an easy-to-spot leathery red-brown; when freshly laid, they are gray. I used to remove an entire leaf if I found squash bug eggs on it, but I later found it just as easy to pinch off the eggs and flush them down an indoor drain.

This year, the squash bugs were fewer in number, and I managed to hunt down all their eggs and nymphs before they could cause much damage to the plants. But there was another enemy I hadn’t reckoned on: the dreaded squash vine borer. The moth that metamorphoses from this horrible larva is said to be an interesting-looking creature, very much like an orange-and-black wasp in appearance, although I have never seen its adult form except in photographs. One moth may lay many eggs, and because the eggs are laid singly, all over the plant, they are much harder to find than squash bug eggs, although they are only slightly smaller and have the same red-brown color.

I crushed many of these eggs between my fingers before I found out what they were; I merely assumed they were bad because they looked like bug eggs and they were on my plants. They appeared on the undersides of leaves, along the vines, on flowers, in the curves of tendrils—anywhere a tiny object could possibly be stuck. When I saw a wet, yellow powder dripping from the underside of a vine, I thought I might be in for some trouble, but I ignored the problem, not wanting to know the truth. In fact, that yellow powder was the frass that emerged from the larva, which is an entomologist’s fancy way of saying that it was caterpillar poop.

One thing I already knew from my reading was that the cure for squash vine borers sounds worse than the disease: you have to slit the vine open lengthwise with a sharp knife and pull the creature out. While I dallied, the larvae ate away at the plants’ vascular systems, destroying their ability to transport water and nutrients to their leaves. Soon, their presence was evident everywhere, as entire vines suddenly wilted, turning a wall of gorgeous, green leaves into a graveyard in a single afternoon. I went at the vines with the knife and pulled out the pulpy, soft-bodied, maggot-like culprits one by one, but it was too late. In the end, I found at least 40 of the creatures inside the vines, some of them almost an inch long and as fat as the vine itself. The vines, already weakened by the pests, could not recover from my hacking, so in the end, I had to take out two more plants by the root (in addition to the one that an early arrival among the larvae had killed more than a month ago) and throw them in the trash.

My biggest squash vine had time to put out one fair-sized fruit and two smaller ones. They are lying on my countertop now. If I’m lucky, the larger squash may prove edible when I cut it open. There is one survivor among the squash vines. It, too, hosted its share of vine borers, but so far, it has not suffered much from being cut open at the base. I haven’t much hope for getting anything out of that vine, however: all the fruits it has produced have been afflicted with blossom-end rot. The Man with the Perfect Lawn informs me that the garden center sells a product that I can spray on the leaves that will cure the problem by providing an instant calcium supplement, but I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble. After lying on my back and cutting out those horrible creatures one by one from the vines, I’m weary of the whole enterprise. Next year, if I decide to try again with this plant, I might have to use an insecticide. For me, that’s a serious acknowledgment of defeat.

The only bright spot in this affair may be that the squash has attracted these pests away from the cucumbers and melons, which have been quite happy (except for rabbit damage, in the case of the cantaloupe). Perhaps I should change the way I view the buttercup squash and use them as decoys instead of crop-bearing plants, much as I used the radishes that I sowed among the lettuce rows. The trouble is, I have a great liking for this type of winter squash, which gives me the greater motivation to try to keep it alive and producing. One day, I must learn how to evade the legions of pests that assail these lush vines, for when the weather turns cold, there are few foods as comforting as a lovely squash. When boiled, its deep-orange flesh turns soft and smooth; when battered and deep-fried, the slivers of squash melt delightfully as you chew them, reminding you with each sunny, sweet bite of the warmth of the summer that was.

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Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cucumber Coterie

When I saw the season’s first cucumber forming beneath a thick mass of leaves and vines (which I haven’t succeeded in attaching to a trellis), I thought it would take a long time for that finger-sized object to get big enough to pick. In just a few days, however, the cucumber grew to blimp-like proportions. When I cut it in half, its seeds were almost the size of cantaloupe seeds, slick and fat. No matter—I enjoyed eating it anyway. I sheared off the thickening skin, scooped out the seeds, and sliced the flesh lengthwise. I inserted the slices in a roast beef sandwich and took a big bite. The cucumber flesh, still warm from the garden, was as tender and rich as butter, and had a creamy, rich sensation wholly unexpected in a vegetable.

Since that day, some two weeks ago, I’ve harvested perhaps fifteen more cucumbers. They are all lovely, but I’ve begun to wonder if I should learn how to pickle. Not that these are pickling cucumbers, exactly; they’re the burpless variety, which means they’re valued for their thin, chewable, not-so-bitter flesh and their supposedly smaller-than-average seeds (and for their supposed digestive properties, including the quality of producing less burping in the burp-susceptible eater), rather than for their keeping properties. Conventional wisdom holds that “slicing” varieties of cucumbers, unlike traditional pickle cucumber like Gherkins, are liable to lose their crispness in the pickling process. So the best thing to do is to enjoy them as much as possible, and to spread the wealth by giving away what remains.

The good thing is that cucumbers, with their mild flavor and soft flesh, are among the most versatile of fresh veggies. I’ve used them in salads and sandwiches, sliced in rounds, squares, and slivers. A few nights ago, I made a cucumber salsa with diced cucumber, some hot peppers (the Aurora variety, from my garden), garlic, cilantro, salt, and lemon juice. I’ve also had them on their own, either with a homemade vinaigrette dressing or as fresh pickles, softened with salt.

My mother used to make fresh pickles by slicing the cucumbers as thin as potato chips, salting them down, mixing them with pieces of lemon rind, and placing the mixture in a big bowl. She then covered the whole with a small plate weighed down by a pitcher full of ice. I used to enjoy the citrusy, salty, slightly crisp slices that emerged from this process, several hours later, but I haven’t had the patience to try making them myself.

This has been my first experience, as an independent gardener (that is, in managing my own garden rather than helping out with the family’s plot), of taking a bountiful cucumber crop. Last year’s cucumbers were rather disappointing: stunted by the lack of nutrients in the soil, the few fruits that appeared were small and thick-skinned. Two of them were ball-shaped—rather pretty and comical to look at, but also sad reminders of the general failure to produce. I wonder when the cucumbers will stop producing as much. My great hope is that the cucumbers will continue to yield for a good while after the tomatoes start turning red. A garden cucumber alone is magnificent, but a home-grown cucumber with a real, honest-to-goodness, juicy, fresh tomato is a slice of paradise.

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