Saturday, July 7, 2012

Grow, Grow, Squashzilla!

For years, I have devoted one of my garden beds to two of the traditional “three sisters” grown by Native Americans.  My corn and squash have always been content with this arrangement, but the third “sister”, beans, has its own space.  Until recently, I’ve grown exclusively bush beans, rather than the pole varieties that would climb the corn. Had I interplanted the beans with the corn and squash, each would have had a role to perform.  Beans fix nitrogen for squash and corn; squash shade the soil, preserving moisture and keeping down weeds; and corn provides poles for the beans to climb.  Absent the beans, the squash still shade the soil.  Its scratchy stems and leaves also provide the corn with protection from hungry critters. The corn, however, no longer contributes to the relationship.  This year, my squash decided it had had enough of these free-loaders and set about annihilating them.

I must admit to some culpability in this situation.  First, there was the overly ambitious ordering of seed in January, which, as usual, resulted in surprises in my seed box at planting time.  This year, one of those surprises was “sweet dumpling” winter squash.  My planting-self had little recollection of my ordering-self’s thought process, but surely there was a good reason for ordering the seed, so into the garden it went.  I couldn’t bring myself to reduce my normal number of butternuts or pumpkins, so the net result was two additional vining squash in my already filled-to-capacity squash bed.

Then there was my effort to outsmart the squash vine borers.  Last year, my squash were devastated by the creepy crawlers.  Even the normally resistant butternuts were attacked.  Researching possible solutions, I found several ideas.  There was the old “slit the stem and kill the bugger” method, which I had used in the past.  While a certain amount of satisfaction can be derived from squishing the borers, I’ve never had much success with this method.  Perhaps I fail to notice the borers until the vine is too far gone.  Another method is to cover the plants with row cover.  I imagine that would be fine with bush varieties, but with large vines, especially interplanted with tall corn, it seems impractical.  Finally, I came across the suggestion to pinch the growing tips, thereby encouraging the plant to produce more vines, in the hope that one or more of them would avoid attack by the dreaded borer.  Well, that seemed like an excellent idea, so out I went to pinch squash vines!  Sure enough, each plant produced more vines, further crowding my already crowded bed.

Lastly, there was the matter of the somewhat excessive order of Leaf-gro compost, much of which ended up in the bed in question.  The net result was the creation of perfect conditions for the monster that arose from my normally tranquil garden … SQUASHZILLA!

Squashzilla started its reign of terror by outgrowing the free-loading corn in its midst.  Huge leaves loomed tall over the young corn, shading it out.  I tried to counter this by bending leaves aside, even breaking off a few, to give the corn room to grow.  After all, corn is a tall plant. With a little time, it would be above the level of the squash and peace would be restored.  After about a week of this, I abandoned the effort in half of the bed, where the corn seemed a bit weaker.  Some of the remaining corn seemed poised to pop up above the level of the squash, so I continued helping it a bit longer before deciding to leave it to its own devices and sow additional corn where I had recently pulled up cauliflower.

That stronger section of corn did eventually rise above Squashzilla, only to be knocked down by the derecho.  Oh, well, how would I ever have reached it to harvest it, anyway?  Squashzilla had erased any semblance of a path and was heading across adjacent beds.

At one end of the squash bed is a bed of potatoes.  Having squash growing through that bed is not a problem. The tops are starting to die back anyway, and I’ll be able to get in to harvest spuds.  Behind the squash is the fence separating me from my tolerant neighbor; also fine, but after climbing the fence, the vines are showing no interest in proceeding into the dense shade of her evergreens.  At the other end of Squashzilla’s territory is a bed of tomatoes.  I’d rather the squash not start climbing the tomato cages, so I’ve been re-routing them a bit, but mostly tolerating them.

In front of Squashzilla, and in the direction it shows the most interest in growing, is a bed with okra and sweet potatoes.  I’ve been diligently re-routing the vines away from the sweet potatoes, but allowing it in the okra.  After all, the okra is taller than the squash, so they should be able to coexist peacefully.  That worked fine until I started to harvest okra.  The plants in front presented no problem, but I couldn’t reach across the bed to the plants in back and there was no longer a path between the beds.  After a little thought, I arrived at a solution that should be mutually beneficial to me and the beast.  I placed boards across the bed, giving me a place to step while picking okra.  Each morning, I check under the boards for squash bugs that are hiding there and kill them.  I’ve also used the boards to reach into Squashzilla’s lair and surgically remove a few vine borers.  Did I get them in time this time?  I think I may have and the monster may live to continue its reign of terror.

Meanwhile, in the other end of the garden, another monster is rearing its ugly (but delicious) head.  My normally mild-mannered muskmelons are running amok, eliminating paths and heading into the pepper patch and across the lawn.  Year of the Leafy Greens?  Not in my garden!  More like year of the cucurbit!  Thank goodness I neglected to plant that interesting cucumber variety I ordered in January!


  1. I had a very different problem. We have a groundhog who doesn't notice the pricklyness of squash vines and just jumps INTO the three sisters' raised bed. So she ate up all my vines. The derecho knocked down all my corn, but we have it propped up on PVC pipes and they are all happily producing pollen and silk, even if they all are leaning over like they are drunk. The stupid woodchuck also kept eating all the tops off of my beans, so they're pretty much gone too. I've gotten 2 yellow squash and 2 zucchini and that's it. And maybe 1-2 dozen green beans.

    1. Sorry to hear about your groundhog problem! As I was writing this, I wondered if it was accurate to say that the prickly vines deter "critters", or if it would be more accurate to specify "squirrels", as I have experience with. You just answered that question!

      Love the PVC pipe-supports for the corn!

  2. We had a load of cucumbers early on, but then a den of rabbits appeared in the next yard over, and the de-foliaging began. The vines are still there and they seem to be putting out new leaves, but the flowers and buds are mostly gone.

    Any tips on how to salvage this situation/better prep and ward small mammals next year?

    1. Do you have rabbit fencing? The combination of rabbit fencing (with the bottom 6" buried) and a healthy stand of weeds in the lawn works for me. The bunnies are quite content munching on the clover and dandelions.


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