From the Squirrel Garden

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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A big, round pumpkin ready for carving! 

Every year in the garden, something grows like crazy and something is a bust.  This year, members of the cucurbit family were the bust.  I don’t know how many times we tried replanting cucumbers and winter squash, but the success rate for germination in the chronically cool and damp soils this year was very poor.

And we weren’t the only ones—other neighbors struggled with their zucchini and winter squashes too, having the best success rates with plants started indoors and transplanted into the garden.  But a different kind of gardener on our farm had the best success rate with planting the squash family.

Last fall, about this time of year, Kara and I and our intern Olivia collected trailer loads of unwanted pumpkins.  Poor stems, blemishes, unloved shapes…we piled them up in the trailer and truck and brought them back to the farm to store for feeding our heritage Kunekune pigs through the winter.  The pumpkin flesh is sweet, and the pigs love gnawing up the smashed pieces like candy and eating up the seedy guts.

But the squirrels were thrilled about our stash in the green, hooped shed as well.  They climbed between the golden orbs, chewing their way in through the sides and stealing the seeds.  Whenever I’d approach the cobbled-together palates that held the pumpkin horde, three or four would scamper away, popping out the sides of half-frozen pumpkins like gophers from their holes.

The seeds are high in oils and protein—great food for the squirrels.  We assumed that they sat in their pumpkin bunkers and ate them, but apparently they also ran off with many of them to bury and hide their seedy treasure.

One of the places they chose to hide the seeds was in the compost pile beside the raspberry patch, all the way across the barnyard.  In spring, before we even had a chance to plant our own squashes and pumpkins, up sprung the tell-tale jagged-edged leaves from the rotting hay and mulch and sheep manure stashed there to spread on the raspberry patch.  Guess that wasn’t going to get spread this year, or we’d lose those curious volunteer plants coming up!

Now, sometimes when squashes sprout from the compost patch, you really don’t know what kind of fruit you’re going to get.  As the bees visit from flower-to-flower in the summertime, pollen from a variety of cucurbits can be mixed together, creating halfling squash children.  I’ve seen combinations that looked like a spaghetti squash and zucchini mix, or an acorn and delicotta squash mix, and so on.

But what came out of the compost patch was definitely pumpkins—and lots of them!  With all the rains this year, they grew and grew and grew.  When it came time to pick them, I could hardly lift some of the biggest ones into the golf cart to bring down to the Café!  Fat and orange, they were ready for decorating and upcoming pumpkin carving classes on Saturday afternoons.

The score for the pumpkin harvest was definitely in the squirrels’ favor.  My patch had yielded four nice pumpkins.  Their patch yielded 10.

And they’re quite nice looking pumpkins too.  Only one is a quirky, lop-sided shape.  That meant that, even with the cool and rainy temperatures, the local pollinator force did their duty of visiting each flower sufficiently.  If pollination is poor, not all parts of the flower are fully pollinated, which stimulates the production of the seeds.  If there are not the full number of seeds produced, the fruity flesh will not grow around that region, causing misshapen fruits.  You can see this in lop-sided apples, zucchinis with narrow ends, or cucumbers with one bulbus part and a skinny or curled-up part.

So I really should credit the squirrels AND the bees for a successful pumpkin crop.  And the sheep should get some credit for making the rich bedding that was piled up by the raspberries and made the compost in the first place.  And, of course, Mom and Kara need credit for hauling the manure to that site to be composted, so the squirrels could find it.  So, really, it was a full-farm project.

But last winter I’d been so miffed at the squirrels for stealing all those pumpkin seeds that were meant for the pigs.  How rude and selfish (and very squirrel-like) of them!  But now I get to enjoy the fruits of their frittering away for winter (and promptly forgetting the location of their stash).  It has to be our biggest pumpkin harvest on the farm yet!

I wonder if I could get the squirrels to plant all of my squashes for this next year.  Hmmmm…garden squirrels for hire?  Not sure if that would work as well as I might imagine.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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