What to Do with Not-Quite-Ripe Winter Squash? Recipes Included

My ‘Honeynut’ winter squash got a late start in the garden this year, and that, coupled with our cold, wet fall, left me with a big pile of not-quite-ripe squash. It’s not that the squash are not ripe enough to eat—although some are pretty green—they are just not ripe enough to store over a long period.

Butternut squash is the only winter squash I grow in my small urban garden, and Honeynut is by far my favorite variety. The plants sprawl like other squash, but they are extremely productive and the fruits are delicious. In the past, I’ve followed standard squash procedure, curing them outside on warm fall days, and then storing them for a few months in a cool spot in the basement. (My experience is that well-cured, ripe squash will keep until mid-January in a typical, unfinished basement in Minnesota. After that, it’s time to cook it off.)

But what to do with squash that is not ripe? You can continue to ripen unripe squash by bringing them inside, washing them off and putting them in a sunny spot. You watch them carefully, turning them occasionally until they reach the proper color for eating. About 10 of my unripe squash are currently taking the indoor sun cure. I will report later how they do.

squash on table
Not-quite-ripe squash bask in the indoor sun.

Three of the squash had some knicks in them, so they will be used in my fall mum pot for Halloween.

The rest I decided to cook. (Two recipes follow)

Roasted Honeynut Squash Half-Moons

Turn the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut off the tops and bottoms of a squash, then peel it and remove the seeds. Cut it in half and cut the halves into slices. (Mine are about 1/4 of an inch thick, but would have been better thinner.) Place the halves in a single layer on a sheet pan and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over it. Move the slices around to coat. Add a generous shake of salt and pepper. Slide the pan into the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Squash is not as dry as potatoes, for example, so it may be a bit mushy. An alternative would be to cut the squash into 1-inch cubes and roast it that way. Thinner slices will dry and crisp more and taste more chip-like.

Steaming the Squash and Muffins!

squash muffins on plate
The finished muffins.

The rest of the squash I steamed so it could be easily mashed and frozen. To steam it, I set a steamer rack in a large soup pot with an inch or two of water in it. I cut the squash into halves, leaving the skin on. Set the halves on the rack (about 2 squash per batch) and cover the pot. Steam for 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the squash. You want to squash to be soft when you stick a fork in it so it can be easily mashed. Once cool, I packed the squash into quart size bags, two cups per bag. I flattened the bags on a cookie tray so they would freeze in an easy to store shape. Squash is a nutritious replacement for potatoes and a great addition to fall sweets.

Butternut squash are just one step away from pumpkin so I decided to make a batch of muffins with some of the steamed squash.

Honeynut Squash Muffins

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners or spray with nonstick spray.

Mixed together with a whisk:

2 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

Set aside, and in a large bowl mix together:

2 eggs

1/4 cup canola oil (or melted butter)

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cups mashed squash (or pumpkin)

Whisk the wet ingredients until thoroughly mixed. I use an immersion blender to make sure the squash strings and bits are incorporated. Then gently add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir to blend. (You could also add a half cup or so of raisins, chocolate chips or nuts at this point. I went plain.) Divide the mixture evenly among the 12 muffin cups and bake in the center of the oven for 18-22 minutes. These are not super sweet muffins, so if you like a bit more sweetness consider adding the raisins or even frosting the muffins.



Update on the Container Tomatoes

Leaf curl and blossom end rot have been problems for my container tomatoes, but not serious ones — at least so far.  Despite the heat, humidity and rain of the early summer, it looks like this will be a good year for tomatoes.

First, the facts: As of mid-July, Minnesota has seen the highest combined levels of heat and humidity ever recorded. Ever. Recorded. That means, in terms of heat AND humidity, it is worse than 1936 or 1988, two years that were noted for their terrible heat and large number of 90+ degree days.  This time, it’s not just the heat, it really is the humidity. Fortunately, the last couple of weeks have been down-right pleasant for people and plants.

Green pear tomatoes on vine
Chocolate Pear tomatoes ripen on the vine.

So, how are the tomatoes doing?

With one exception, the container tomatoes (five plants total) look good. (I have another tomato in the ground that’s growing well.) They have adequate, healthy looking foliage with no signs of blight or spots on the leaves. I am seeing leaf curl, which can be caused by many things, but in my case may be simply because of inconsistent watering. We have had a lot of rain — often in short periods — and this can cause leaves to curl as a defense mechanism. I have watered the tomatoes daily during the dry periods at the soil level to keep watering consistent and prevent splashing soil up on leaves. I’m also giving them regular doses of fish emulsion because nutrients are probably running out of the soil with all the rain.

One of my tomatoes—a yellow pear—really, really did not like growing in a container. Its leaves always curled more than the other plants and its fruit had more blossom end rot than any of the others. One day last week, I threw in the trowel.

“You want out of the container—fine!”

I had a spot near our fence that gets decent light and didn’t have anything growing in it. I dug a big hole — the plant was large! I pruned the plant back to reduce the amount of foliage it had to support; added some organic tomato fertilizer to the hole, pulled it out of its pot and dropped it in. I gave it a good watering and added back the soil to make the fit snug. Frankly, I’m not sure how it will do . I’ve never heard of transplanting tomatoes at this size, but it actually looks happy. It has produced some new flowers since the transplant, though and that’s a good sign.

Yellow pears are one of my favorite tomatoes, because I like to make Thomas Jefferson’s jam with them. In the past, they have produced well into the fall.

Blossom end rot

Bleech! Blossom end rot.

Sorry for the gross photo, but that’s what I’m seeing on some of my tomatoes. Blossom end rot  is also related to inconsistent watering. Because most of the over-watering has been done by Mother Nature, there isn’t a lot you can do. I have been picking any tomatoes that show signs of blossom end rot off the plant as soon as I see it. Why have a plant put the energy into producing rotten fruit? It’s early enough in the season that the plants will continue to set flowers and produce healthy fruit.

Harvest Time?

We are getting into peak harvest season for tomatoes. So far, I’ve picked a half a dozen or so, mostly plum and cherry tomatoes. A couple of my big slicers have fruit that is ripening fast, so I’m hopeful I’ll be enjoying a big BLT within  a week or so.

How are your tomatoes doing?



Why Grow Tomatoes in Containers?

This is the first year that I am growing the majority of my tomatoes in containers, and wow, are they doing well! I decided to go with containers because I’m using my raised beds for a cutting garden, and I’ve found that growing tomatoes in my regular garden beds results in slow growth and late-season diseases. I planted one tomato in the ground and it is definitely lagging behind the guys in the containers.

Why grow tomatoes in containers? A few reasons:

An 18-inch container may be a little tight, but most tomatoes do well in 18- to 24-inch containers.

1. You control the soil. For my container tomatoes, I used large containers and a high-quality potting mix.  The mix has most of what the tomatoes need in terms of nutrients and I will add some bone meal or liquid fish emulsion as the tomatoes produce fruit to keep the calcium and fertility levels up.  The potting soil also lacks all the soil-borne diseases that tend to hang out in the ground—that’s a good thing!

2. Decent drainage. We’ve had a pretty wet early summer in Minnesota. (We had a solid 3 inches in the past week and many areas of Minnesota had much more.) Unlike the ground, which can get water-logged, containers drain well. (I’m considering adding pot feet to my containers to ensure even better drainage.) They have holes in the bottom so excess moisture moves away from the roots, preventing root rot. One disadvantage of container tomatoes is that in dry spells you have to stay on top of watering. Tomatoes need consistent—but not excessive—moisture throughout the growing season to perform best and avoid blossom end rot.

3. Air circulation, easily. Every time I plant tomatoes in the ground, I end up putting them too close together. They look so little when they go in the garden and it’s hard to imagine how big they will get — and how entwined in each other.  With tomatoes in pots, I can move the pots if they get bigger than expected and start encroaching on their neighbors. Air circulation is another important factor in the health of tomatoes.

4. Easy to cage. The pots I chose for my tomatoes are all 18 inches in diameter. For really large tomatoes, you could go even bigger, but the 18-inch pots are a perfect fit for the standard size tomato cage, which I put on the tomatoes a few days after planting. Don’t wait to cage your tomatoes.

Green tomatoes already on some of the plants!

5) Easy to pick. Container tomatoes are elevated by the height of the pot so it’s easy to see when fruit is ripe. The elevation also makes it harder for rabbits and voles (though unfortunately, not squirrels) to get at the tomatoes. For squirrels — a bit more engineering may be necessary.

Many of the usual instructions for growing tomatoes apply to container tomatoes — place them in a very sunny spot, plant them deeply in the container to allow roots to form, and pinch extraneous foliage to keep the plant focused on producing fruit. Generally, determinate tomatoes are recommended for container growing, though I’m growing several types of heirloom tomatoes and I think most of them are indeterminate.

I will report how things go as the season progresses! Do you grow tomatoes in containers?



411 on Cracked Tomatoes

I was out of town Wednesday night and came home to three inches of rain in the rain gauge and a handful of cracked tomatoes.  The two items are related.

Why Tomatoes Crack: To grow well and fruit profusely, tomatoes need even, consistent moisture. I water tomato plants during dry periods to encourage fruiting and healthy growth. But when Mother Nature dumps a bucket of moisture on the ground, the plant naturally takes it up and the fruits crack. Their skins can’t grow fast enough to take in the extra moisture. Cracking is most common with a heavy rain after a long dry spell, though this was not the case here because we have had an unusually rainy August. As typically happens, the fruits closest to ripeness cracked.  The cracks in the fruits provide an entry point for bacteria and fungi, and typically the fruit will rot quickly—in fact, I tossed one really rotten tomato before taking the picture.

Can you prevent cracking? You can’t prevent cracking from extreme storms, but you can prevent losing tomatoes due to cracking, by harvesting tomatoes most susceptible to cracking. Green or very unripe tomatoes are less likely to crack, so picking those that are ripe or nearly so before a big storm is a good way to prevent cracking. Since I was away during the last storm, I picked a lot of ripe or nearly ripe fruit right after I got home. You can prevent cracking if the problem is dryness by watering regularly.  You also can reduce cracking by growing tomatoes in raised beds, which drain more thoroughly than in-ground gardens, and by applying a layer of compost or other mulch to keep soil evenly moist in dry periods.

Are there tomatoes that don’t crack? Yes, there are some varieties that resist cracking. (Those that crack the most tend to be heirloom varieties and large tomatoes.) You can find a long list here of crack-resistant varieties. Popular varieties that crack less include Arkansas Traveler, Celebrity, Big Boy, Big Beef, Summer Sweet, Sungold and Yellow Pear. If cracking tends to be a problem with your tomatoes, you may want to choose a crack-resistant type.

What about calcium and cracking? Calcium helps tomatoes regulate their intake of moisture, and a shortage of calcium in the soil is also linked to blossom end rot, another really discouraging tomato problem. Some gardeners add crushed eggshells to the planting hole, antacid tablets or a commercial calcium to increase the calcium available to plants. Consider a soil test before you heavily supplement the soil.

We have more rain in the forecast for the next couple of days, so I will be harvesting more tomatoes today. How are your tomatoes doing during this rainy period?

Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.



How I Shop for Seeds: Catalogs and Online

old seed catalog
This is the catalog one of several seed companies once based in Minnesota.

Within a week or two, the pile of seed catalogs next to my reading chair will be just about to topple over. It’s that time of year—and I love it. Though I’m not a complete Luddite and do much of my work online (ahem, this is a blog), seed ordering seems to require paper and pens.

The reasons I prefer to choose seeds using catalogs are many: the comfort of being able to page through multiple catalogs at once; the feel of the catalog paper and the chance to peruse gardening information without having a hot laptop on my thighs, savoring the images and the descriptions of beans, potatoes and melons that would make a poet swoon, plus I have my special seed ordering system.

Here’s how it works: I wait until mid-January or beyond to even look at the catalogs, just letting them pile up as the anticipation builds. Then some evening—after the Christmas decorations have been removed and preferably with snow falling—I start reading. At my left is a cup of tea and a red pen. On the first pass through the catalogs, I circle all the seeds that appeal to me and rip out the pages on which they are listed. No judgements, just what looks good. In one evening (sometimes two), I’ll have a pile of torn pages and a pile of tattered catalogs.

Of course, my eyes are always bigger than my time, my garden and my skill, so I need to restrain myself. What do I really want to grow and eat? What kinds of annuals do I want to grace my front walk? What will work in my soil and sun and climate? What old faithfuls must I plant and which new things do I want to try? There will be lists and sometimes maps of the garden space. This is—as my father once said about waxing a car—contemplative work. No need to rush.

When the list has been narrowed, it’s time to get practical. I don’t like to order from too many companies, and I have my favorites in terms of quality and customer service. But I usually order from at least three companies. When all the decisions have been made, I rev up the laptop and do my ordering. With the catalog pages at hand, it’s easy to finish this step quickly. Some seed companies do not have catalogs because of the cost involved in printing. I understand that, and if I am looking for a specific seed, I may check out these sites. But still, I hope companies will continue to produce catalogs.

My winter evenings would not be the same without them.


Growing Lettuce in a Window Box

Lettuce in deck boxes, May 27

Like a lot of gardeners in the North (and South and everywhere else, it seems), my garden has been under constant attack from rabbits this year. I’m working on some fencing, but in the meantime, I decided to plant lettuce in these window boxes, which are on my back deck. The rabbits are huge, but not big enough to get up the deck steps, and consequently, the lettuce looks great.

I bought these boxes on steep discount when a local hardware store went out of business a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been using them to grow annuals. This year, I decided to try greens instead. I bought a six-pack of romaine lettuce starts and used a mix of commercial potting soil and compost for the growing medium. We have had plenty of rain since I put them in, so with just a little supplemental watering they have grown really well.

Deck garden lettuce, June 5

Harvest begins in the next few days. To keep the harvest coming, I’ve seeded the pots with another lettuce mix and I will probably buy a few more starts at the local farmers’ market, if I can find them.

I’ve written about deck gardening before and it’s consistently been one of my most popular blog posts. Do you garden on the deck? Flowers or veg?

Book Review: Keeping Vegetable Gardeners on Track

If growing more vegetables is one of your New Year’s resolutions (it is one of mine), you might want to check out a new book designed to tell vegetable gardeners specifically when to do what. The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook (Storey Books) by the father-daughter team of Ron and Jennifer Kujawski was just published, and is a combination calendar/how-to manual. It tells gardeners which specific tasks to do when based on the last frost date for your area — a key statistic for determining what kinds of crops you can grow and the best way to grow them.

After you determine your frost-free date, the book asks readers to back up 20 weeks, and from there, provides week-by-week tasks to prepare, plant, weed, and harvest a great vegetable garden. According to the book, my frost-free date is May 3. That’s the date for Rochester, Mn., the nearest city listed in the appendix, and it seems about right based on experience. So, backing up 20 weeks from May 3, I should have already inventoried my seed-starting supplies (check!) and inventoried and cleaned up my gardening tools from last year (double check!).  Anytime in January I should order seeds, start from seed any herbs I plan to plant, and even sow leeks indoors, if I plan to grow them.

Because Minnesota’s season is especially compressed, not every task can be done on the schedule the Kujawskis set out — but when that’s the case, they usually note it. So for seven weeks before the frost-free date (mid-March in Minnesota), they recommend gardeners sow carrots, beets, and leaf lettuce outdoors — if the soil is workable — or in containers, if it is not. It’s almost certain I’ll be sowing beets and leaf lettuce in containers.

The book is more than a to-do list, however. It offers charts and drawings that show gardeners how to do the tasks, and it provides insights obviously gleaned from years of experience. (Ron Kujawski was a Massachusetts extension educator for 25 years.) A few examples:

  • Having a shady yard doesn’t mean you have to give up on vegetables. Gardeners with as little as two to four hours of sun can grow leafy greens and herbs such as parsley and chives. If you have dappled shade, you may be able to grow small-headed cabbages.
  • If you are plagued by dry weather, some vegetables endure it better than others. While all vegetables need water as seedlings to develop good root systems, some such as asparagus, eggplant, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, can tolerate a dry period.
  • Even if your tomatoes are covered with blossoms, that’s no guarantee you will get fruit. If temperatures are below 58 degrees F or above 85 F (each a distinct possibility in Minnesota in July), tomatoes will not set fruit. I wonder if this is why we had such a poor tomato year in 2010.

If you are planning on buying a vegetable garden book in 2010, this is definitely one to consider.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of The Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook from Storey Press.

Seed Starting Basics

It’s still too early to start seeds indoors but that didn’t prevent a large group of eager seed-starters from attending the Just Food Co-op class Saturday. Sara Morrison, a home gardening consultant, offered a thorough and practical overview of why and how to start seeds indoors.

Sara noted that if you plan to grow only a few tomatoes or peppers, indoor seed starting may not be worth the bother. Instead, pick up some plant starts at the local nursery. (Or, for more interesting offerings, try farmers’ markets in early spring when the farmers have lots of plants they don’t have room to grow.) However, if you are planning a more substantial garden, seed starting is a way to increase the variety of offerings, save money, and control the kinds of plants you are growing. And, when it comes right down to it, you can get a pack of seeds that will produce bushels of food for less than the price of a latte.

seeds in pots
Seed starting is a fun way to try new varieties of vegetables.

Here are some of the most important take-aways from Sara’s class:

  • Study your seed catalogs. Make sure the seeds you buy are appropriate for our zone. If they have a long growing season, you’ll need to start them indoors or forget about growing them. The catalogs will also give you information about days to harvest, the kind of plant you are growing (bush beans or climbers? indeterminate tomatoes or determinate?), and whether the varieties are heirlooms, hybrids, or something else. I would add, read the seed packages and keep them for reference during the growing season.
  • If you are new to seed starting, don’t spend a bundle on it. A simple florescent light will provide most of the light you need. You don’t need fancy pots or a special table just for seed starting. Basics you need are: sterile soil, seeds, something to put them in with drainage holes, a light source, and a small fan to keep the air moving once the plants are growing.
  • Make sure your seeds are cozy for germination. Tomatoes, peppers, and many herbs want soil between 75 and 85 degrees to germinate. If you have hot-water radiators, near the radiators is a great place to start plants. You may find that the lights create enough heat to start many plants in a moderately warm (65ish) room. If you are starting seeds in a cold basement, get a heat mat.
  • Pay attention to your seedlings. My results with seed starting improved dramatically when I set the seeds up near my home office. It just became part of my day to check whether they needed water, the lights adjusted, or just a little pep talk.
  • Water gently and sparingly. If possible, try to water from the bottom, by placing your seedlings in a pan.

For a more complete review of seed-starting procedures, check out this overview from North Dakota State University.

Recipe for a Use-What-You-Have Summer Salad

My vegetable garden is like a jungle these days, but it’s yielding some wonderful produce, including parts of this delicious two-bean salad I made recently. I had some leftover green beans and a tomato from the Northfield Farmers’ Market and a half a Vidalia onion from Just Food Co-op. From my garden, I picked a pile of the delicate yellow climbing bean (French Duet) I planted with seeds from Renee’s Garden, a cucumber, green and purple basil, and parsley.

summer salad
An easy summer salad from what’s available

The recipe is simple. Cut the beans and onion into 2-inch lengths and start some water boiling. Since the green beans were a slightly tougher variety, I put them in first and cooked for 4 minutes; then I added the thin yellow beans for 2 minutes, and the onion for 30 seconds. (I am not a fan of raw onion, but those who are can skip that step.) Drain it all and run cool water over it to stop the cooking. Meanwhile, halve, seed and slice the cucumber, slice the tomato, and chop the herbs. Mix it all together with a generous shake of salt and pepper. For the dressing, I juiced a small lemon (again, from the co-op), added a tablespoon or so of red wine vinegar, and enough olive oil (maybe 1/3rd cup) to pull it together. Mix that up, douse the salad, and enjoy!