Summer of the Cucurbits

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When the California Rainy Season stopped almost as soon as it started last winter, I got serious about researching ways to keep the garden going thru yet another year of drought. There has been a lot of talk of water usage cutbacks, voluntary and otherwise, and I wanted to be ready. I changed everything from the way I started seeds to how much and what I compost. And I discovered that this is the perfect time to explore the many Cucurbits I have been interested in growing.

Baby-Luffa-2The “Gourd Family”, Cucurbitaceae, includes muskmelons, watermelons, cucumbers, summer squash, and winter squash and pumpkins. It’s sometimes referred to as the plant family with the most varieties grown as food for humans. This family also includes luffa, which can be grown as food or sponges, or both. (I’ll have to remember to plant some of those.) Cucurbits need warmth, sun, space, and many of them are call ‘heavy feeders’ but luckily for me, the one thing they don’t need all that much of is water. Cucurbits like to grow in well-drained places in soil that is sandier than it is clay. In wet years or humid places these plants tend to suffer from fungus or bacteria.

That makes this the perfect year to try out as many members of this family as I can find room for. I began with cucumbers which I love in a quick Asian-inspired marinade or tossed whole into the juicer. I put in ‘Persian,’ ‘Armenian,’ and ‘Homemade Pickle’ which was the first to produce a cucumber this year. And I just started seeds for a second planting of the ‘Armenian’ cucumbers in case the early plantings get ahead of me and an unpicked fruit or two stop them from producing.

I also started seven different varieties of squash. I even mapped out the different squash varieties so I could still save seed. I am growing ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato,’ ‘Lakota,’ and ‘Spaghetti’ in the front garden, with ‘Candy Roaster Melon’ squash, ‘Sugar Pie’ pumpkins, ‘Rugosa’ butternuts, and ‘Green-Striped Cushaw’ in the back garden. That keeps the C. pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima squash from crossing. And leaves me one spot still open in case I want to grow more cushaw-types or find another C. argyrosperma I want to try. I like the look of this ‘Tennessee Sweet Potato.’ Then I could compare it to the ‘Upper Ground Sweet Potato’ and the other cushaw-type and see what works best.

Trellised Watermelon

2009 ‘Rainbow Sherbet’ Icebox Watermelon

And then there are the melons. Last year we did not have nearly enough watermelons, and the year or two before that the kids all-too-quickly ate through what ‘Amish’ melons we had, so this dry year is a good excuse to try a few more varieties and see if we can find at least a few that will produce well for us. I’m trying the ‘Amish’ again, even though the ones I started too early are half dead. I was taking a chance that the early warm weather would stay with us, but the cool nights were too much for them. Now that it’s almost June I’m adding ‘Crimson Sweet’ to the ‘Hopi Yellow’ watermelons and ‘Kajari’ melons that are surviving. I’m trying two additional great-fleshed melons, ‘Eden’s’ and ‘Sakata’s Sweet’, one large, and one small–though in this dry year, it won’t surprise me if all the melons are small. I added one F-1 ‘Cantaloupe’ to the mix just to have something to compare against and because it was growing so nicely at the nursery, and some ‘Charentais,’ I also plan to try adding in a Tuscan heirloom as soon as the seeds come.

Do you have some favorite cucurbits in your garden? I’d love to hear which ones do well for you.

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