Friday, August 1, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Squashmas

Squashmas this year is a slightly subdued celebration for us, because both our zucchini plants have fallen prey to the dreaded squash vine borer. These pests are particularly nasty because, by the time your plant starts to wilt, they're already inside and making their way up the stem, killing as they go. Last year we tried to stop the little buggers from infesting in the first place by wrapping the vines in foil, which would, in theory, keep the moths from laying their eggs at the base of the stem where the larvae can hatch and burrow their way in. That tactic quickly proved to be pointless, because (duh) zucchini plants aren't like butternut squash, which have just one big main stem; they branch out, forming dozens of individual stems, and there's no way you could possibly wrap every one of them without breaking off the leaves and damaging the plant. We also tried setting out yellow cups filled with water around the plants; these are supposed to attract the moths so that they fall in and drown. These had, as far as we can tell, no effect at all. So instead, we just watched the plants vigilantly for signs of damage, and as soon as we spotted the dreaded wilting and orange, sawdust-like debris, we performed surgery on the plants to extract the grubs. Result: our plants stayed healthy all summer long and produced a good 14 pounds of squash throughout the growing season.

Based on these results, we figured there was no point in bothering with prevention measures this year; we'd just watch the plants and perform surgery at the first sign of damage. Sadly, our efforts don't seem to have been quite as successful as they were last year. Maybe we didn't catch the problem early enough, or maybe we didn't manage to catch all the grubs, but the results were...ambiguous. The smaller of the two plants was heavily infested; Brian ended up pulling out the entire plant, then cutting off one the section that looked healthy, re-burying it, and hoping for the best. As you can see in this picture, the replanted vine doesn't look any too well; all its largest leaves have wilted and turned yellow, and at first glance, you might say the whole plant was dead or dying. Yet if you look closely, there is a small core of green, healthy-looking foliage right at the heart of the plant, and it's actually producing new blossoms and even one tiny squash. So I guess we'll have to wait and see. The plant may be done for, or it may have more fight left in it then we thought.

As for the larger plant, it didn't seem at first blush to be as badly infested; Brian only dug two grubs out of it before cutting off the dead leaves and heaping dirt over the stem. Yet it's not exactly thriving, either. Its outermost leaves are looking wilted, and some of them have developed a sort of whitish, patchy discoloration. Gardening forums indicate that this is probably powdery mildew, which is unrelated to the borer damage, but equally dangerous to the plant. So I'll have to go out there today and cut off all those leaves before the damage spreads too much, and then maybe give the leaves a good spraying in the morning to keep it from coming back.

For the time being, however, we still have plenty of zucchini. I managed to get one good-sized one off the larger vine today, and added to the three others we already had in the fridge (one small, one large, and one absolute whopper), we definitely have more than enough to celebrate the annual zucchini-fest in style. In fact, we're likely to be scrambling to come up with ways to use it all up. All in all, this looks like a job for Barbara Kingsolver's Disappearing Zucchini Orzo, as presented in her fascinating book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It magically absorbs the contents of 3 large zucchini, plus an onion, into just 12 ounces of orzo, with just a bit of grated cheese and herbs added for flavor. (I'm considering leaving out the oregano, which I'm not that crazy about, and perhaps adding a touch of garlic, which I think improves just about anything.)

And for dessert? Well, earlier this week Brian made up a big batch of zucchini brownies. I'm not sure just where I originally found the recipe, so I guess there's no harm in just reproducing it and seeing if anyone claims it:
Zucchini Brownies 
2 c. Shredded zucchini
2 c. flour
2 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsp. cocoa
1/2 c. oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 c. nuts (optional)
2 eggs
Grease and flour 9x13 pan. Mix as listed. Bake 350 for 22-30 mins. Can be doubled and fill cookie sheet. I always do .. 
For frosting:
1/3 c. milk
5 Tbsp. butter
1 c. sugar
Boil for 4 minutes then add 1 cup of chocolate chips.
Brian made some modifications to this: first, we decided to skip the frosting, since what kind of brownie needs it? He also doubled the amount of cocoa, considering 3 tablespoons too small an amount to chocolafy anything. The third change was accidental: he used baking powder instead of baking soda, resulting in a finished product that was very moist and much more like a cake than a brownie. Good, though, and a good way to make one whole large zucchini disappear. But next time I think I might be inclined to go with this version from, which boosts the cocoa to 1/2 cup and leaves out the eggs entirely. It, too, calls for frosting, but I think if the recipe we made tasted fine without it, probably this one will too.
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