Labors of Love (Except for the Killing Part)

I’ve been interested in seed collecting for some time, and H & M were excited to let me give it a go on their farm.  There are lots of good reasons for seed collecting, including saving money, ensuring that seeds are organic and non-genetically modified, and propagating heirloom varieties and native plant lines that are in danger of dwindling into memory.  I’ve done a bit of wildflower seed collecting in the past to give as gifts, and I once failed at growing from seeds I splinched from a local tomato.  It turns out, different vegetables have all sorts of ways of reproducing, and some are easier than others when it comes to seed-collecting. I won’t attempt to catalog the various types of seed producers and how you use them here, and there is definitely more to it than I describe here.  There are some great books out there for those who are interested in delving further.

Squash is traditionally one of the most difficult veggies to use for seed collection, but that also makes it the most fun.  In fact, preparing the squash for seed collecting is one of my absolute favorite things to do on the farm.  I suppose when you read more about what that involves, you might start to wonder about me.

This is a cool photo because it shows several stages of maturation of the male flower, from tiny in the upper right to almost ready to open in the center

If you look closely at a squash plant, you realize that there are actually male and female flowers.  The boys are the blossoms that sit on a long skinny stalk, and have the stamen and anthers, which make the pollen.  Males tend to start opening early in the season, before there are even any girls around.  Beats me why.  Over eager, I guess.  The ladies make a similar bright yellow flower, but it has a stigma, and sits upon a tiny immature little baby squash, which contains the ovaries.

Here is an immature female squash flower.

The guys and gals are spaced rather far apart on any given plant, so squash is heavily reliant on pollinators to get the good deed done.  Beginning gardeners who don’t have a large population of pollinators nearby sometimes lament that their plant is making flowers but not fruiting.  If that is the case, you can use the same technique a seed collector does to get your mamas producing.

So you’d think, as long as you’ve got plenty of bees around and your guys and gals are hooking up, you could just wait till you get a big tasty mature squash and keep those seeds.  The problem is that squash can easily cross-pollinate with other related species – summer and winter squash, yellow and green; even cousins gourd, cucumber and watermelon, so the resultant seeds might produce some funky hybrids.

So that is where the fun comes in.  You’ve got to time things right, because squash flowers are morning lovers.  I go out to the squash patch in the evening just after the sun sets and find the flowers that look like they are about to burst open.  I thought this might be difficult to recognize, after just reading about it, but you definitely know it when you see it.

Male flowers about to burst open with amore

Lady flower almost ready for her big morning of love

I find an equal number of males and females, and gently wrap up the flowers (you can use cheesecloth, gauze, cotton fabric, or even a paper bag) so that the pollinators can’t get to them.  The next morning, I unwrap the flowers, snip off the males, spread their petals open, and hand pollinate by touching the anthers to the stigma (some people use a q-tip or tiny paintbrush).  The girls need to be wrapped up again afterwards for about 24 hours to keep out any other suitors.  Then you just watch your babies grow!

It is hard to explain what is so satisfying about this process.  To have such an intimate window into the propagation of life feels really magical.  I suppose it appeals to the biologist in me – its like a tiny little field experiment.  It is fascinating to see that tiny squash grow into something I recognize from the dinner table.  And I love the idea that we won’t be paying for those seeds next year!

Another of my favorite things to do on the farm falls at the other end of the life cycle.  H & M garden organically, which means that they don’t use any products that might be toxic to humans.  Occasionally we use some sprays or powders that are derived from plant oils or roots.  If you’ve got really infested plants, these can be effective.  But sometimes it is just as effective to simply pick the bugs off with your hands.

Don't be fooled by this bean beetle's similarity to the benign ladybug. You can see his path of destruction on this leaf

This took a little getting used to.  At first I wore garden gloves, and I’d jump a little if my aim was off and a bug flew off or buzzed around my hands.  I winced at the crunchy, slimy feeling when I mashed the little pests between my fingers.  Then suddenly one day, I was over it, and I’ve been killing bugs with my bare hands ever since.  I found I was actually enjoying the hunt, and the kill.  It feels a little like a scavenger hunt, and I really enjoy having such a close up view of the world of these tiny creatures.

A cucumber beetle takes refuge in a squash blossom, while a bee gathers pollen

I guess it is hard to reconcile that sense of wonder with the fact that I proceed to violently kill the creatures I’m observing.  But, when you start to see the damage these little creatures are doing to your food crop, the motivation for elimination is high.

These Japanese beetles are the crunchiest. Check out how much leaf they've destroyed.

Bug hunting can be time consuming, and a little uncomfortable, because you end up down on your knees, head to the ground and neck craned to look back up under the plants without touching them. Most of the creepies like to hang out underneath leaves.  It is best if you can find and destroy a whole set of eggs – then you’ve knocked out a slew of future leaf munching adults.  Larvae are second best, since they are slow moving and mushy, therefore easy to kill.

The bean beetle larvae's last few moments of life.

Adults are samurai masters of evasion, stealth, and trickery.  Some instinctually drop to the ground at the slightest vibration of the plant.  Others have an incredibly annoying talent for scooting to the upside of a leaf just as you flip it over, and then scooting back to the underside when you turn the leaf back again.

A baby squash bug. These can defy gravity and magically transport themselves to the underside of whatever surface you are looking at.

Some look in color and shape like part of the plant, and then of course there are the fliers or the hoppers, who actually move at speeds undetectable to the human eye.  But when you catch them, they provide a satisfying crunch and splurt of guts.  Its disgusting, and by the end of an hour my fingertips are usually stained a revolting bile-like yellow-brown.  But I walk away feeling like a super hero who has saved the world from hostile invading aliens who plan to decimate our food supply.

Mashing a bean beetle

Beetle larvae liquefy at my touch

bug blood on my hands

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