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Colour Me Fall

Apparently, I’m not what you’d consider a fall person. I love the season. I love the rain and the mist, and the intensely fascinating rapid-fire decomposition that sets in after day 10 or so of cold drizzle. I love the deep squish of the ground, as our water table fills to the brim, bubbling up through the bee turf like a carpet woven of millions of tiny drops of mercury.

Fall sun rising on a trellised munchkin pumpkin

I love the great pile of alder and apple firewood that arrives each October, to be sorted and stacked for winter consumption. I love the wholesale stall that settles in across the garden, slowly releasing me from the demands of daily care and maintenance.

It is the colours of fall that don’t suit me, sadly. Orange, brown, gold — they don’t work at all with my skin and hair colouring, nor with my personality. Perhaps that is why I shy away from marigolds, lantana, day lilies and orange nasturtiums, and why I waited until the bewitching month to write about growing squash and pumpkins — far later than would have been at all useful to gardeners. Not too late though, to consider in next year's plans.

Fuzzy little guy, drunk and sleepy on the fermented ooze of a decaying zinnia

It was a thing when I was very young, to ‘season’ one's personal colours. A best-selling book titled ‘Color Me Beautiful’ had us all running to the mall to buy colour wheeled scarves to set off our eyes, and make us ‘look great and feel fabulous’. Apparently my ashy blond hair, uncomfortably pale complexion, and green eyes peg me as a ‘summer’ sort of person. Summer and winter in fact, are my least favourite of our four distinct and beautiful seasons.

Beautiful chocolate brown Genovese basil, long past its prime, returning to the earth to feed next year's crop

Many things have changed since the late ‘80s thankfully, present company included. Give me a carefree day in the garden during the transition seasons of spring and fall, and I promise to look great and feel fabulous.

Along the 49th parallel where we live, we rely on the three months of summer to grow pretty much everything of substance, because outside of summer, the intensity and duration of sunlight plummet drastically, and one’s options are more or less limited to growing 50 shades of green.

Gossamer groundcherry skeletons and rotting cucamelons in an in-bed worm compost

I cannot generalize absolutely. There are exceptions certainly, including summer-started root vegetables, and of course the brilliant rubies and amethysts that appear slowly on chicory, radicchio, and some winter mustards, and eventually, the deep flat purples and reds of sprouting broccoli, cabbage and kale.

So today, before the evidence of summer melts completely away, and in anticipation of an abundance of miniature pumpkins and squash set out to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) and American Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to write about all round and oblong things in various bright and beautiful shades of orange, brown and gold.

Gorgeous tromboncino, buttercup, delicata and spaghetti squash on their final day outside

My warm pumpkinish coloured photos — the same ones that scream chaos when presented alongside the cool pink and purpley colours of summer — look beautiful here as a seasonal set, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share both the photos and my adventures in vertical gardening.

Eight squash trellises form a living wall across the north side of two side-by-side raised beds

I experimented this year with growing several different types of squash and small pumpkins on trellises, to determine just how much nutrient dense cellarable fruit (botanically speaking) one can grow per square foot of garden bed. Would you believe six?

I surprised myself actually, with an impressive yield of 28 angel hair spaghettini squash, five buttercup squash, and 16 munchkin pumpkins produced on five 60-inch high iron obelisks consuming less than eight square feet of real estate — about one-quarter of a traditional four by eight-foot raised garden bed.

Bright orange munchkin pumpkins delighted neighborhood children

In an adjacent bed, I planted three similar obelisks with three varieties of Row 7 squash (centercut, 898 experimental, and tetra), that were collaboratively designed by chefs and growers to be harvested and consumed in their infancy, but could also be left to mature for cellaring. I did a bit of both, so while my return on investment was truly impressive, I can’t say for sure what it was.

Angel hair spaghetti squash dropped in place on their own, to finish the long process of ripening and curing

During late summer, I planted a handful of the Row 7 squash seeds, and a second variety of personal-size spaghetti squash called small wonder in a new edible ecosystem garden that I created using a hybrid of hugelkultur and lasagna layering principles. These rambling squash grew unbelievably quickly, but delivered only five fruit per eight square feet — about 10% of the trellised model.

A small but delightful assortment of squash and melons from a new edible ecosystem planted late summer

I really enjoyed trellising the squash, not just for its ROI, but also for its beauty and built-in pest-repelling and soil-mulching growth habits. The large dense leaves filter the sun to reduce soil temperature, and many veggie munching insects would rather not tangle with the softly but decidedly irritating prickles along the stalks and undersides of some leaves.

These same virtues play a role in the ancient Three Sisters trilogy of corn, beans and squash, in which nitrogen-fixing beans trellis on cornstalks and fertilize both the corn and the squash, whose role is to cool, and defend from predators. Nature is so incredibly clever, as were the Indigenous populations who perfected the ingenious companion planting scenario, practicing it throughout the Americas over thousands of years.

Yellow, green, and white summer scallopini squash companion planted with corn and beans

I think of winter squash as smart super foods. They don't require a huge amount of care in the garden, the grow their own packaging, they over-winter in a cool space very well, and you can use them to create all manner of dishes, ranging from soup and salad, to mains and desserts.

Plus, they are super healthy. Spaghetti squash for example, is nutrient dense, delivering a high measure of nutrients in relation to the number of calories on average. Spaghetti squash is a good source of dietary fibre, and it is loaded with antioxidant beta-carotene and vitamin C — two elements that can help reduce risk of cancer and chronic disease.

According to Healthline, one-cup (155 grams) of cooked spaghetti squash provides 42 calories, 10gr carbs, 2.2gr fiber, 1gr protein, 0.5gr fat, 9% RDI vitamin C, 8% RDI manganese, 8% RDI vitamin B6, 6% RDI pantothenic acid, 6% RDI niacin, 5% RDI potassium, plus small amounts of thiamine, magnesium, folate, calcium, and iron.

Clearing the beds for winter. Iron obelisks comes out and cold frames go on

In my kitchen, spaghetti squash offers a great alternative to carbs and traditional pasta noodles. Recently I served squash ‘spaghetti’ with home-grown mixed herb and walnut pesto as a pasta course to friends who were on a keto diet, and the low-calorie, low-carb squash made diet-restrictive meal planning super easy.

The small stash of winter squash that I stored in the cool garage for winter keeping, will last us nicely throughout the winter. Admittedly, I left them to dry just one day too long, outside on the garden cart. Two pairs of Northern Flicker woodpeckers went to town on a quantity of pumpkins and squash before I could bring them all in, so I will be cubing, roasting and freezing dented squash flesh for the next few days. Once the cured skin has been pierced or broken, squash deteriorate quickly and cannot be stored in the fridge for more than a few days. I’m not complaining, rather I am happy to share.

The last of the winter squash, ready to wash, dry and put into cool and dark storage

I will most definitely trellis tiny pumpkins and squash again next season. If you decide to try it as well, consider planting two squash seedlings at the base of each obelisk upright or trellis pole. Eight plants per obelisk may seem a lot, but given that extreme cold and extreme heat both limit pollinator activity, and/or make squash pollen sticky, hedging your bets by over-planting may be a good idea. Given the relatively low cost of seeds, it makes sense to me, to over-plant up front, then thin or cull surplus once you are confident of an adequate yield.

The extreme weather we experienced this summer, with record-setting heat waves and extended drought, wreaked havoc with our food garden, and the squash were no exception. There were weeks when no squash blossoms of any winter or summer variety pollinated at all. And, contrary to conventional wisdom about over-watering and mildew, the combination of heat stress and drought created a perfect storm for powdery mildew on both our squash and pumpkin leaves.

Powdery leaf mildew was evident soon after the first heatwave, but the fruit remained unaffected

Following heatwave number three, the powdery mildew was unstoppable, necessitating almost daily pruning of affected leaves to keep our front yard garden beds looking presentable. Miraculously, sun-scald didn’t become a problem for the newly exposed fruit, perhaps because we are relatively far north.

Eventually, as the leaves were removed and the vines dried up and around the iron obelisks, the sweet Walla Walla onions that had been interplanted among the squash earlier in the season and then forgotten, took advantage of the sun and quickly grew to bursting. The newly naked obelisks became handy in-situ drying and curing racks for the onions. Onions that I used just yesterday while preparing an assortment of woodpecker ravaged baked pumpkin and squash dishes for dinner.

Quick Pumpkin & Squash Recipes

Squash Noodles

Cut a spaghetti squash in half lengthwise carefully, remove seeds with a spoon, brush the flesh with olive oil and place the halves cut-side-down on parchment on a rimmed baking sheet or in a suitable pan. Bake at 350°F for about 30-minutes for a medium size squash — only until al dente, not mushy. Use a fork to tease out the noodles to toss gently with a sauce or add to a power bowl, or simply twist-out the noodles a bit in-place, then drizzle with pesto-infused olive oil. Salt only after cooking, to avoid water draw.

In the version shown, I drizzled with good quality extra virgin olive oil before sprinkling with pecorino cheese and some lemon verbena sea salt that I made earlier in the summer. So simple, fun and delicious — especially for children.

Delicata Squash Two Ways

Cut delicata squash in half lengthwise, or into 3/4-inch rings. Remove seeds, brush cut surfaces with garlic oil, and place cut-side-down on parchment on a rimmed baking sheet or in a suitable pan. Bake at 350°F for about 30-minutes for a medium size squash — only until al dente, not mushy.

Meanwhile prepare a mixed rice pilaf with diced cooked onion and garlic, and your favourite small or diced dried fruit. Season to taste. When the squash is cooked, either spoon the hot pilaf into the cut halves, or arrange the rings overtop. Garnish with fresh herbs and lemon zest and serve hot. Also delicious cold. In the version shown, I sprinkle the cut delicata with red Aleppo pepper as it looked so beautiful together with the red sage blossoms, and the bright pink dried barberries in the pilaf.

Baked Munchkin Pumpkin Dessert

Using a sharp serrated knife, carefully carve a small lid from the top of each pumpkin. Remove seeds. Pour two tablespoons of pure maple syrup inside the pumpkin, swirling to coat. Sprinkle inside lightly with sea salt. Add a small handful of chopped nuts and raisins or chopped dried fruit. Stuff with a tiny apple if you have one, or replace the lid, and place on parchment on a rimmed baking sheet or in a suitable pan. Bake at 350°F for about 30-minutes — until the flesh is soft and scoopable. Grate a dusting of nutmeg overtop and/or brown sugar into the cavity, or over the apple, and serve immediately atop a garland of fresh herbs. Children especially love making and eating munchkin pumpkins.

For a savoury version, skip the maple syrup, nuts, fruit and spices, and instead stuff the pumpkin with rice pilaf before replacing the lid and baking as above.

I must go now and set some bright orange munchkin pumpkins on the mantle to delight young trick-or-treaters, and set a few packages of pumpkin seeds next to the snack bowl, for my tiny neighbours.

I will try, over the long cold winter ahead, to warm up to fall colours. I may even order some marigold seeds.

Happy Halloween to you all. Stay safe.

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