Harvesting and Storing Butternut Squash

In 2013 we selected a hybrid seed called Dick’s Pick Hybrid Butternut Squash (from Jung Seed) this year for butternut squash.  We planted it in late May when the soil was warm.  This variety required 100 days to maturity.  Pictured here is one of the plants almost ready for harvest.  (Please disregard the powdery mildew on the leaves and the slug on one or more of the leaves.)  When to harvest?  First, look for the color to transition from a creamy yellow to tan.  When it is ready the outer shell should resist your finger.  If you can leave a dent in the skin or scratch it with your fingernail, it is still not ready for harvest.  If you are planning to store the squash for several months, you want it to be mature before harvest.  You can eat them now if you use them within one or two weeks.  Since the squash won’t ripen further after harvest, wait as long as possible (but not till frost!).
How to harvest?  Choose a sunny dry day when the squash are dry before the first freeze  In Barrington, our average first frost date is October 15th.  This is the time of day to be watching the weather to be sure you harvest everything before the freeze.  (in spite of the fact we are predicted to have temperatures in the 70s and 80s during the day this week).   It is very important to include a two to four inch piece of the stem when harvesting the squash.  This will reduce the chances of bacteria or mold contaminating the fruit. Wipe clean with a damp cloth. Store in a cool dry area with temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees.
 To reduce chances of spoiling, do not allow the squash to touch each other and do not store near apples. In ideal conditions, butternut squash can be stored for 4-5 months.

A Gardener’s Treat for a Very Hot Day-Buttermilk Sherbet

This recipe comes from my great-grandmother-Annie Laura Whitney Hornsby- who lived in Natchez, Mississippi from 1880 till 1947. Those were the days of many layers of clothing. Mercy! It must have gotten warm. Since we are now entering hot and muggy days ourselves, I am going to make this sherbet. It is easy and delicious and although nothing comes from the garden it’s a hard-working gardener’s treat. The flavor is citrusy, not too sweet, and the color is peachy with the red specks of the chopped cherries.

The juice of 1 and 1/2 oranges
The juice of 1 and 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup of chopped maraschino cherries
1 cup buttermilk
1 small can crushed pineapple

Add pineapple and cherries to the juices. Mix well and add the buttermilk. Freeze until mushy. Whip one egg white or gelatin then fold in. Freeze till frozen. Break it up with a fork again and put back in the freezer to get hard again. Enjoy!

It is good in a meringue shell, if you’d like to dress it up for guests.

Fruit Memories-Figs

Ripening fig on tree

Fig leaf

Continuing the food memory thoughts into the summer–today’s post is about figs.  Figs were important to my mother–one of the things she asked me to do before she went into a major surgery several years ago was to “be sure to pick the ripe figs and preserve them!”   Mama and Daddy had a huge spreading fig tree while they lived in the Dallas.   A mature tree will be 10-12′ tall and at least as wide.  Theirs would threaten to cover the driveway so it received a heavy pruning every year and it bore a lot of fruit for years.

Since I am in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, I have been reluctant to try growing a fig tree.  I knew from an old episode of PBS’ The Victory Garden that gardeners further north than me successfully grew fig trees–one gardener in Canada would dig a trench to bury his tree every year for the winter!   This year I  decided to go for it.   The research I’ve done says that the Brown Turkey Fig (Ficus carica) should be ok if pruned as a shrub and covered in the winter or grown in a container and brought inside during the winter.  I bought one (these photos are from my tree) and am going to try it in the garden.   We won’t bury ours, but we will cover it for the winter.  (and, of course, build a fence to protect it from deer nibbles.)

I love the leaves almost better than the fruit. They are large and almost leathery (no wonder they were used as modesty covers for statues) and durable. I have used the yellow leaves in the fall at dinner parties as menu cards.

My mother’s fig preserve recipe is so easy, even I can do it.   Here ’tis:

Start with clean, ripe figs. For every measure of figs, use half that same measure of sugar. We picked ripe figs every few days, so she might preserve figs once a week during the height of the season.  For example, for two cups of figs, use one cup of sugar. Add a few slices of lemon. Start cooking figs and sugar in a small saucepan over a low flame. You can use a little water to get the mixture started.  Cooking time will depend on the amount of figs.  Allow the mixture to get to a low boil, then turn it down and cook for 30 minutes or so until very thick.  Allow to cool, and place in sterilized jars. Mama would seal her jars so they could be kept in the pantry, but I just put it in the refrigerator to keep.  I grew up eating fig preserves on toast.  They are also delicious served with ice cream or with pork chops.

Vegetable Memories-Mirliton or Vegetable Pear or Chayote Squash

Mirliton with vines emerging

When my father (89 in 2013) was here for Christmas, we talked about food memories from his New Orleans’ childhood.  One of many we discussed was stuffed mirlitons. He says that every year at the end of the growing season someone would put aside several mature squash in a closet.  In February, the squash would begin sending out a vine (like mine illustrated here) as it waited to be planted.  The seeds actually germinate inside the fruit. In January, one of my Louisiana cousins sent me a care package, including a few mirliton. Since they are tropical, we will be planting them at the end of May here in Chicagoland.  They require 120-150 days of warm weather (between hard frosts) so we should have just enough days to harvest some mature fruits.  Mirliton are in the cucurbitaceae family (same as pumpkins and cucumbers). They are prolific growers, covering many yards of fence in one season, and may have up to 150 fruit on one vine.  It will be interesting to see if the deer eat them!
The recipe my cousin sent me (my father remembers having this growing up) is the following:
Stuffed Mirliton

  • 4 mirlitons
  • 1 cup soft bread crumbs
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsps. butter
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • 1 tsp chopped parsley
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1/2 pound cooked shrimp (or crab), coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup buttered bread crumbs

Simmer mirlitons in salted water till tender. Cut each in half, remove seeds and spoon out pulp (without making a hole in the skin). Reserve shells. Chop pulp; add bread crumbs. Saute onion and garlic in butter over medium heat till tender (about 5 mins.) Stir in pulp, salt and pepper; continue cooking for 5 mins, stirring frequently. Cool. Add egg, parsley, thyme and shrimp; mix thoroughly. Fill shells and cover with buttered crumbs. Bake in a 375 degree F. oven for 25 minutes.  There are some photos on the internet of Emeril and Martha Stewart’s finished products, so I won’t put mine here.

By the way, if you don’t want to wait for them to grow, you can buy them at the local grocery stores. I have seen them in several.  They are called Chayote Squash in my neighborhood.

Vegetable Memories-Okra

cowhorn okra pod

We’re planning to grow okra again this year.  A couple of years ago I grew okra for indoor arrangements and for fall/winter containers. If you leave the pods on the plants, they eventually get woody, curl and split–looking like linen-colored lilies!  The plants were easy to grow and got to be 3-4’ tall with sturdy stems.  The pods remained attached even after they dried.

When my father visited us this Christmas, we talked about foods he ate growing up in New Orleans–he will be 90 this year.  We also revisited our favorites that he and my mother cooked for us growing up in Louisiana and Texas (and Pennsylvania).  The first in this series is fried okra.  It is easy to grow, easy to cook and tres bon!  The recipe:  Select the tender young pods, wash them, slice them into coins, roll in corn meal, fry in canola oil (in a cast iron skillet, of course!) until lightly brown, drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with kosher salt. Serve with a spicy Bloody Mary—delicious!

So this year we are planting okra to eat.   We are growing it inside the fence since the deer and bunnies both like the pods.  We are going to plant Carmine Splendor (from Jung’s Seeds). The pods are deep red and turn green when cooked. We could also try Scheeper’s Heirloom Red Okra. Okra likes to be planted when the soil is plenty warm, so we will be setting out seedlings we start inside around May 1st. We are starting the seeds indoors March 22nd.  We may grow Cowhorn Okra, an heirloom variety that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello.  Once it starts having pods, you can pick them every couple of days and they just keep bearing till the weather gets cold.     FAMILY: Malvaceae. GENUS: Abelmoschus. SPECIES: esculentus.  (Related to the mallows.)

Witch Hazel Walk

One of the rewards of walking around the garden in this cooler weather is seeing the witch hazels in full bloom.   Only after the leaves fall can I see the yellow flowers appearing on the twigs.   It is a subtle effect that you have to get close enough to notice.

These witch hazel bushes (Hamamelis virginiana) in my back border must be at least 14 years old since they were established when I moved here 12 years ago.  Now they are over 8 feet tall and bloom every year in late October/early November.    Ultimately, they could grow to be 15’ high or taller.  Mine are growing in the shade of tall trees and receive no special treatment.  Fortunately, the deer haven’t bothered them at all.    They are native to Illinois and other states including those to the east.   The fall color is a fantastic golden yellow and the plant is supposed to have many medicinal benefits beyond its use as an astringent.

I did plant one of the newer hybrid witch hazels. Both the fall foliage (the little bit the deer allowed me to keep) and the early March flowers were orangey-yellow.. Sadly the deer enjoyed it too and nibbled it to death in two years. (Since it was close to the house, I didn’t want to use the normal chicken-wire winter fence.) I replaced it with another peony for now.

Interesting Facts about Pumpkins

Pumpkins are everywhere this time of year and will be around for the next few weeks until Thanksgiving. Did you know that

• botanically speaking, pumpkins are actually fruits? We eat the ripe fruit and seeds.

• the word “pumpkin” has no botanical meaning? What we think of as pumpkins are actually members of the squash family (the Cucurbitaceae family)

• the original jack o’lanterns were made of turnips? People in Scotland and Ireland used them to ward off evil spirits on Halloween. Turnips were scraped out and candles were placed within. Families brought the tradition to our country, but pumpkins were more plentiful and substituted for turnips. We are still appreciating the fact that pumpkins are easier to scrape out and carve than turnips!

• according to the Farmer’s Almanac, Illinois grows the most pumpkins of any state. harvesting over 12,000 acres of pumpkins each year.

• pumpkins were grown as a farm crop by Mayans dating back to 7000 B. C. They originated in Central America and Mexico.

• pumpkins are monoecious—(mono ee shus) that is, they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. (Other plants like hollies, have separate male and female plants—they are dioecious (dye oh ee shus)

• when the female flower is pollinated and fertilized, it forms a fruit. The male flower does not form fruit, but provides the pollen to fertilize the females. This is something to remember for new gardeners—the male flowers are typically earlier than females and will not form fruit!

If you would like to grow your own pumpkins next year, plan to sow your seeds around June 15, after the ground has warmed up. The vines need plenty of room to run, depending upon the variety you choose.

We are planning 2013 fruit and vegetable gardens beginning now!

Pumpkin with bunny

Three Easy Annual Flowers for Salads –Nasturtiums, Borage and Cornflowers

We have been growing nasturtiums in the vegetable garden for many years.  The hardest part of growing nasturtiums is remembering to buy the seeds and plant them! (So they are great for childrens’ gardens.) Since there are many different colors available I switch colors every year.  I love the round green leaves, the large flowers and the peppery flavor. Gardeners say they repel whiteflies from tomatoes and other vegetables and attract aphids away from other crops. Nasturtiums don’t mind poor soil and are drought-tolerant once established. I tuck them in corners around the garden beds once the ground is warm (around Mid-May) and have flowers for salads in a few weeks.  These keep going until the first frost in October.   Mine are still going strong today, Sept. 26, 2012.

This year I added borage and cornflowers in the herb gardens as an experiment.

I am delighted to report that for my two seed packets I have been rewarded with large stands of beautiful plants. The bees love them and the deer do not! The borage has 2-foot tall, slightly prickly, thick-stemmed plants with dozens of sky-blue flowers. You can eat the leaves, but I find them too sharp, so I stick with the flowers. They are tiny blue stars and taste a bit like cucumbers.

The cornflowers are also blue with totally different foliage and flower form.  Leaves are greyish-green and thin, about 12 inches high with blue flowers with many petals at the top of stalks.  I pull the flowers apart and sprinkle the petals in salads. Both of these blue flowers are nice as a decorative accent on a caprese salad (still harvesting tomatoes!)

Here we are in late September and these annuals are all growing like weeds. Next year they will live in the sunny open garden where they will have plenty of room to spread.   Some of the other edible flowers I’ve tried include: roses, chives, Johnny jump-ups and pansies, lavender, thyme, sage, violets and calendulas.

I don’t use pesticides in my garden, so these are safe to eat. I do carefully wash them—especially check the throats of the nasturtium flowers for bugs!

A Few True Blue Flowers for May

Brunnera Macrophylla- ‘Jack Frost’

Variegated silvery-white and green foliage in a clump form that is decorative from Spring through Fall, with light blue flower spray on 12-15” stems that float above the leaves in mid-late Spring for 3-4 weeks. Deer resistant. Part shade average soil and average moisture. Plant matures to a height of 12-15’ and a spread of 18’.

Amsonia hubrichtii (Arkansas blue star)

Delicate willow-like (feathery) foliage topped with pale blue star-shaped flowers in spring. The clear green foliage looks good all summer and turns a beautiful golden color in fall. It grows to 3’ high and wide. Looks skimpy until mature in the 3rd year. Plant in full sun to partial shade in average, well-drained soil. It is low maintenance and deer resistant.

Delphinium grandiflorum ‘Blue Mirror’ and other varieties

Delphiniums come in a variety of different blue shades and heights, depending on the variety. This one is 24” tall with deep green leaves that flowers in full sun in the early summer. If deadheaded, this plant will rebloom on a second spike.

Camassia cusickii

Bulbs planted in fall will bear pale blue flowers on 30 inch stalks in May-June. Full sun and quite damp tolerant. Deer Resistant.

Wisteria in Italy – April 2012

April 2012

We felt especially lucky to be in Italy last week while the wisteria was blooming!  This photo is wisteria in one of many spots it appeared in the Roman Forum.  In Assisi we found it climbing out of small paved spaces to bloom on the 2nd story of old buildings in town. In Florence white spirea was planted along the sides of road!  Redbud trees were also blooming everywhere in Rome, Florence and Venice.  Seeing these familiar plants in Italy reminded me of seeing them in Barrington.

We planted a new wisteria vine, a Japanese variety of Wisteria floribunda “Betty Tam” last Fall by the elm tree far out in the side yard. This vine is supposed to have large (20”) lavender flower clusters that have a light grape scent before the foliage arrives in spring, then rebloom during the growing season on shiny dark green leaves. That is, if the deer will let it grow. Our plan is to have it climb up the elm (it should reach 25’) in case we lose the elm to disease. My mother’s advice was to remember that wisteria can be aggressive and to plant it far away from the house. Vines can take over structures requiring many hours of pruning to keep them at bay! (It is interesting to note that the deer haven’t bothered haven’t bothered the clematis or the akebia vines at all!)