Anyone For Squash

It doesn’t seem to take all that much in the end. After all the dreaming and scheming; all the sweat and worry and tears; just a bit of love and care and then, when finally Warmth and Light arrive, muttering their apologies and looking slightly shifty, everything else just falls into place: plants grow by themselves.

It was a rollover year for the great Hawkwood Bean Sweepstake, as last year everyone’s Big French Ones stopped short of the two metre high top wire. This year, it was over in a flash: well, a fortnight. A young “Neckargold” stalk, backed by an only-slightly-older-but-much-smaller  Ronan, aged six months, shot to success bagging Ronan the £17 jackpot. Summers youth: a long takes a little time.

Still far to go though. Full four weeks after planting, the squash in the Entrance Field are only starting to suggest an interest in “getting away”, much to my relief, as we did the BIG planting of squash, across the whole of the Old Kitchen Garden, on that cool damp Wednesday last week.

One way or another, this year will be a squashy one.  On top of its moment in the “all or nothing” kitchen garden rotation, there are four beds in the Entrance Field, plus we’re trailing some, Tuscan-style, through the vineyard.

As is The Rule here, we’ve gone largely for tried and tested cultivars: the rich orange “Uchiki Kuri”; the dense, chestnutty “Buttercup”; “Sweet Dumpling”, our lovable tagine grenade; and “Blue Ballet”, which is as weirdly gracious as it sounds. New entries for this year are the ornate eye-candy of “Turks Turban”; the naked seeded “Retzer Gold”; the heritage wild card and Billy Bragg favourite “New England Sugar Pie”; the elf-sized “Jack Be Little”. And of course there’s “Hawkwood Hybrid”, the first step on our journey to breeding a wonderful Waltham Forest winter squash..

There’s more to this breeding lark than meets the eye. During high-level roast vegetable meetings myself and Sean decided that, whilst the butternut persists in being the nation’s favourite squash, it is inferior, in flavour, keeping quality, and comical wartiness, to something like a “Green Hokkaido”. The simple act of marrying Hokkaido and Butternut, then, would, if not change the world, look forward to a New England. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture”.

The useful plant we’ve added at this point is not a better-flavoured butternut, but a bastard that looks and tastes nothing like either parent, and is twice their size. We’ve created a monster, albeit a tasty one. With scary inevitability, scientific progress presses on this season, as I attempt to inbreed two Hawkwood Hybrids in the confinement of the East Wing of the glasshouse. We have a long way to go before we can release a stable, open-pollinated OrganicLea variety on a world that didn’t ask for it in the first place. But somehow what started as a sideline summer shenanigan may  be becoming a life’s work.

I suppose that feeling – that despite a project being neither wanted, needed or requested by anyone, there is somehow no turning back –  is something that the biotech people can relate to, but that’s where the similarities end. The new EU “Plant Reproductive Material Law” is the latest naked, vindictive attack on home gardeners and small growers by the biotech corporations pursuing a stranglehold on the very stuff of life. Quite where it leaves us, with the Hawkwood Hybrid and our living library of heritage beans and tomatoes, I’ve still yet to fathom, though it’s likely to be, if not on, then close to, a sticky wicket, much like the rest of the planet.

Squashes remain a beacon of hope amidst such corporate control freakery. They are the very picture of promiscuous, rampant, diversity. The vision of our stalls and stores cascading in nine contrasting shapes shades and sizes at the end of summer is as liberating as it is seductive. It’s now approaching midsummer though, and all we have to show for this vision, all our work so far, is a few pale green leaves on the ground. Now back to nature.

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