A Winter Squash for the South

Growing up in New England, winter squash were a staple in the garden – they were sweet by nature, but the cold falls brought the sugars out to perfection; their thick rind allowed them to sit in the root cellar all winter waiting to be used, sweetening as the days passed; their flowers are showy and easy to hand pollinate, and there is an endless variety to choose from ranging in flavor, shape, color, texture, size and plant habitat. I would often find myself perusing farmers’ markets looking for odd shaped and unique varieties to save seed from in the hope that something might come back true to form the following years.

When we moved to Georgia, the farmers’ markets were all but devoid of winter squash. The local nurseries could not suggest any specific varieties that would weather the heat, the squash borers, and, in the end, produce something remotely palatable. Initially, I went with a couple of my favorites: Delicata and Sweet Dumpling. Unfortunately, they did not work so well. By the time the weather started to cool, the fruit had been harvested and the vines long dead. Squash vine borers feasted, and the little squash we actually harvested was anything but sweet.

Not willing to miss out on one of my favorite garden delicacies, I went to the internet to search for some answers. I always learned that squash was a staple of Native Americans, and the Cherokee inhabited this land until they were driven to Oklahoma, so I started there and somehow ended up at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in search of something called the North Georgia Candy Roaster.

Unlike my favorites – which are all varieties of Cucubrita pepo – the Candy Roaster is a Cucubrita maxima, which means it’s big: the vines are big, the leaves are big, and the squash is big, but it’s over sized leaves, lengthy vines, and ability to root at will from nodes along the vine make it an ideal candidate for three sisters planting, keeping weeds down and moisture in, a plus when it comes to gardening in the deep south. According to Slow Foods USA, the Candy Roaster was cultivated among the Cherokee tribes in what is today western North Carolina, north Georgia, and east Tennessee. We are in Middle Georgia, so our winters are incredibly mild, and our summers are hot, but based on the plants historical habitat, we had to give it a shot, and by mid-summer, we were not disappointed.

These squash did excellent in the garden, almost too well. By summer’s end we were inundated with squash. Throughout the summer we continually moved vines to grow back into the corn, but eventually just began trimming the ends of the vines that became too long and unruly. By the end of summer we had a couple of wheel barrows full of the orange squash either tear drop or banana shaped, all with a green tip and some with greenish blue striations. They were a marvel to look at, they tasted just as good, and to top if off, they produced all summer, though the second crop was much skinnier and smaller, they were just as tasty.

Just a small batch of our second harvest.

This squash was certainly a winner and one we will continue to plant for seasons to come. SlowFoodsUSA lists seed availability as concern, but fortunately, we have some seeds of this variety available. You can find these seeds here.

Using the North Georgia Candy Roaster as a subject, I made a how-to video demonstrating hand pollination of the Cucurbitacae family. You can watch it here.

Making Okra Pickles!

What can I say? I hate okra. It’s slimy, and the flavor is simply not my favorite. Unfortunately, it grows really well in the summer heat, and so it ends up going into the garden. The food pantries take it, it can garner a few cents at the farmers market, and of course I have friends that will take it, and I’m happy to give it all away, that is, of course, after I make my personal batch of okra pickles. Nothing beats okra pickles; the hollow pockets inside the pods fill with delectable brine and the little immature seeds act almost like capers. My wife isn’t a fan, nor is my son, but my daughter – the one who would drown in kombucha – will eat them right along with me.

Before I get into the actual pickling process, a word or two about these seeds. I like to save my seeds, or acquire them from local sources. If a seed has been selected from a plant that has produced well and survived in my local climate, it is much more likely to do the same when it grows again in the same climate, than a seed that was saved from a plant in a very different climate. As I was new to the area, I asked around among some local farmers and found some okra seed that a guy from church had been growing for a number of years. He gave me some, and I was off. They’re a very long pod but remain tender up to eight inches, sometimes more.

Okra is also exceptionally easy from which to save seed. There’s no fleshy vegetation on the seeds so they don’t need any washing, and the pods ripen right on the plant, just make sure you pick them when they start to crack. I’m pretty diligent about not letting seed spill out into the garden, but I still have trouble with volunteers popping up all over the garden in the spring. If you do plan on saving seed, only grow one variety (unless you plan on caging or hand pollinating), but don’t worry about cotton or hibiscus (the flowers look very similar). The three are in the same family, but that’s as far as it goes.

As far as pickling goes, I use pods that will fit in pint jars after lopping off the stem. Quart jars will work, but that’s a lot of okra pickles and we don’t need to take up that much fridge space all at once. For four pints I’ll use 2.5 cups of apple cider vinegar and an equal amount of water, with 1 tablespoon of sugar and 3 tablespoons of salt. While that’s boiling, I’ll throw my spices in the jars. As you can see from the video, I like to use an eclectic variety and no two jars are the same. Then I pressure cook them for 10 minutes.

Give it a try sometime. They’re delicious and if you’re growing okra, you know you have extras to experiment with. Also, if you want some seeds, let me know.

Homestead Hack #1: Label Your Eggs!

Another repost. I have since read that a number of folks leave their eggs – with the natural “bloom” still on the shells – on the counter top until they are ready to be used. I guess you could still use this trick, but I am going to stick with putting my eggs in the fridge for now.

If I had to guess, I would imagine that the most common farm-type animal among homesteaders would have to be a chicken. More and more they can be found in urban settings and it seems that everyone knows at least one person with chickens, and with chickens come….eggs! Before long, you will realize you have too many chickens, but do not have the heart to put them in the freezer and you will quickly find yourself inundated with eggs. I know we have had 4.5 dozen eggs in our fridge a few times in the summer months when laying is heavy. Unfortunately, (I found this out as a kid) even with the best egg-rotation schedules, once you start acquiring lots of eggs, there is a chance one of those eggs might have been sitting in the fridge for too long and you will only figure out it is too old when you go to crack it open – which is certainly less than enjoyable. You could label your cartons – as I know many people do – but then you end up with at least two cartons that are not full. I do not know about you, but there is not room in my refrigerator for half-empty egg cartons.

The solution: Label Your Eggs! On the Good View Quarter, before each egg gets its bath in the sink, but before it goes in the carton, it has its laid-on-date scrawled on top. All of our eggs have a date on them. It helps conserve space, and it helps let us know which eggs are freshest, and which ones might be best hard boiled. We like to use pencil. I’m sure ink from a pen would work fine, but pencil seems the safest choice than then say, Sharpie.

Labeled Eggs