The Mystery of the Zero-Irrigation Squash

squash chairs

We can’t sit down until we eat our squash.

You guys might remember that last year our entire back yard was swamped with squash vines, as we were growing two types of large squash: Tromboncino and “Long of Naples”.  They were both tasty as juveniles, but our long wait for them to ripen was disappointing. Both were rather bland. Bland yet remarkably plenteous. We tried many things to make this stuff useful and/or tasting: pies, pickles, soups, but in the end we felt like we were always trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Though we had almost no rain this year, a couple of volunteer squash vines popped up out of the mulch near our raised beds, and we let them grow, because we wanted to eat the baby squash as we would zucchini–it’s good that way. We also didn’t think the vines would last very long without water. Well, they did. We couldn’t keep up with the baby squash (they’re so good at hiding) and ended up with a harvest of big, bland squash.


(The squash is a hybrid, by the way. They look like Tromboncino, but are bigger than the Tromboncinos we had last year. Squash cross-breed like crazy. Volunteers are rarely like their parents.)

I bring this up mostly because I am amazed how well this squash did without irrigation. And to be clear, that means they’ve had no water for months. The chairs in the picture above are holding over 100 lbs (45+ kilos) of food grown with zero water inputs! To top that, this was one of the healthiest squash plants we’ve ever “grown” or rather allowed to grow. How did that work? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again?

I have three thoughts:

1) Perfect timing. Volunteers know exactly when to come up. They’re rarely wrong. We humans schedule planting by when we finally buy our seeds and find time to trundle out into the garden. It’s not good enough. Masanobu Fukuoka had a good thought when he went out and just tossed seed all over the place and waited to see what grew. I really need to figure out how to work that man’s ideas into our garden. In times of stress and hard conditions, it seems best to turn to Nature as a teacher.

2) Mulch/compost basins may work well for some types of plants, and do a good job of retaining water. The area where the squash grew is the site of a huge hole which Erik dug out to harvest clay to make our oven. That pit has been filled with compost and the remains of last year’s straw bale beds, and topped with lots of mulch. The squash seems to really like this compost-y growing medium. We’ve not had many volunteers of other types, though, so I don’t think the appeal is universal. However, it may lead to hints of how to grow squash crops here successfully with little water.

3) Cheating. I do wonder if Mr. Squash stretched his roots under the nearest raised bed (about 2 feet/.5 meter away) and siphoned off some of the water. Certainly if I’d planted a seedling that far from the bed, and told it “Okay, you’re on your own. Just get what you need from that bed over yonder” that plant would never have made it. But volunteers are canny. And it may come down to timing. The squash might have used what little rain we had as a jump start, and got its roots over into the wet zone before the real heat set in.

Have you ever been amazed by a volunteer’s hardiness? Anyone from a dry place have any favorite squash/melon growing strategies?

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  1. I grew one zucchini conventionally in a raised bed this year but have had three squash experiments, all of which have been successful.

    1) I planted an acorn squash in front of a swale leading off my downspout. I did have to water it the first couple of weeks in the ground to get it established, but I have given it zero water over the summer other than what it has pulled from the swale/mulch bed. I had actually intended it to be a living mulch, not worried about production. I had planted it in a very rocky portion of part of a fruit tree guild. But, I looked last week and it looks like I am going to have several mature squash!

    2) I have one volunteer kabocha squash that I left in place wrapping around a plumb tree. I have never watered it. It only has one large squash…but hey…for a volunteer that I have provided with nothing, I’ll take it!

    3) I made a bastardized hugelkultur bed out of blackberry canes, chicken compost, straw, and anything else I had on hand. I had to water them initially, but the further summer goes on, they’ve needed very very little supplemental water.

    This got long, but these experiments really made me rethink my future garden plans!

    • Yes! There’s so much to learn, so many ways to grow other than straight planting in beds. Love your experiments.

  2. I use pureed winter squash instead of mashed potato when making bread; it serves the same purpose, plus adds a little beta carotene. I also include it as part of the liquid ingredients in granola, heating it with honey and coconut oil before stirring it into the grains and nuts. I don’t think these recipes will use all of your squashy bounty, but they are a start.

  3. This year I had two volunteer cherry tomato plants come up in one of my raised beds. At the end of last season I removed the original plants, so these must be from tomatoes that were buried in the bed.
    The plants have needed little water, been incredibly vigorous and survived where another variety planted this year was a complete failure. I have been harvesting tomatoes since at least early May and the flavour is excellent. Little balls of sweetness, almost like candy.
    I am making sure some of the fallen tomatoes get buried so we can do this again next year. I’m wondering if I can have the same success with zucchini and cucumber.

    • We had the best thing going with volunteer cherries for years– zero care, excellent flavor. They were growing on a chain link fence on the North side of the house, so didn’t see the sun, and got no water. It was amazing. But after a few years their flavor went downhill, and after that, their vigor declined and they vanished. It was a good run while it lasted! I hope yours gives you years of good tomatoes too!

    • We can’t generally do that with tomatoes here in north central Florida. Not that they don’t want to volunteer! But with our short winter cold season, which occasionally goes from fall to spring without a single hard freeze, the near-constant presence of live and dead foliage provides a vector for all sorts of diseases and pests.

  4. Last year I had some volunteer squash come up next to the garden compost pile. I was curious to see how they were going to grow. They did well and developed some delicious looking squash. We cooked them up and served them for dinner as part of a squash medley. I was sick the entire night with cramps and intestinal issues. I found out later that my mother was also sick. My father didn’t have any of the mystery squash and he was fine. Can volunteer squash be poisonous? I don’t know. I assumed it was from the squash we grew the previous year. It hadn’t crossed my mind that any droppings that fell into that compost rich area would probably do well. For all I know a opossum could have eaten a poisonous gourd, visited my compost pile a couple hours later and then struggled off into the wilderness to die. From now on, unless I’ve tested it out on myself first I’m not going to be serving any volunteers or foraged items. Also, remembering that unpleasant night, I’m much less willing to test unknown produce out on myself. Best of luck with the Mystery Squash!

    • That’s really interesting. Squash of course are “promiscuous” and cross breed readily with close relatives. This can result in some funky looking and tasting squash in the second generation. I’ve never heard of any squash getting tastier via hybridization. Sometimes they stay equivalent, but there’s a likelihood they’ll be worse. Therefore, conventional wisdom has it that it’s not worth the garden space to let volunteers grow.

      However, I’ve never heard of volunteers being poisonous. I just did a quick google search and found an account that sounds very much like yours–volunteer marrows leading to intestinal distress. ( She noted that the marrows were bitter. Bitter in the wild is often a warning sign. We often don’t taste familiar veggies as we’re prepping them to cook, but it the case of volunteer squash, taste testing seems a good precaution.

      This is such an interesting question that I think Erik and I should poke around and maybe do a whole post on it.

    • From
      “Occasionally, a gardener will find a zucchini growing in their garden that is extremely bitter, as was the case in 2003 for one Dodge county, Nebraska gardener. Eating these vegetables caused severe stomach cramps and diarrhea that lasted several days. These symptoms were similar to 22 cases of human poisoning by bitter zucchini reported in Australia from 1981 to 1982, and in Alabama and California in 1984.”
      In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the whole family is considered “cold”, generally good as medicine for “hot” disorders but with poisonous properties (not all of them bitter) which have of course been largely bred out of our cultivated varieties. It’s hard to predict when the right (wrong?) combination of genes will pop up again, especially when seeds of the fruits from F1 hybrid parent varieties are planted.

  5. My guess is those are bland for two reasons: 1) they may not be ripe – I’m pretty sure they should look more like a butternut (especially the tromboncinos). Are they bright orange inside? If not, they were picked too late for the summer stage and too early for the winter stage. And 2) all hard squashes taste better after some time in storage – they sweeten up a lot after curing for several weeks.

    • This is true–they’re not fully ripe. We let them ripen and age last year and it did not help. I guess the best you can say is that it is a very mild squash, whereas I like the true pumpkin-type squash so much better. As this year’s crop were volunteers and likely hybrids, I didn’t think it worth waiting around another couple of months to let them ripen. My plan is to give them to a friend with goats.

  6. My 90+ year-old neighbor had a huge garden where she planted all sorts of vegetables. However, she planted squash under other bushes around her yard. Actually, she said she scratched up the soil a bit and threw seeds on the soil and moistened it. She never watered anything, even in the garden. Even though we are not water-deprived most people do water things. Squash seemed to thrive in weeds and under other plants. Of course, I am talking about little yellow cook-neck or summer squashes. I was always amazed.

  7. I growing a volunteer of a volunteer peach tree and the peaches are the best I have ever tasted.

  8. I get lots of volunteer tomatoes from my homemade compost, which is fine by me. One has enormous tomatoes on it and I’m looking forward to tasting it. I’ve grown (and eaten) a variety of tomatoes, so it could be anything!

    I know you’re going to feed the squash to the goats, but should you be tempted to try cooking more, have you looked at (British) marrow recipes? Marrow are giant courgettes (zucchini) and are famously bland, boring and watery. It’s what we grew and ate in Britain until we rediscovered courgettes in the 1970s 😉
    I actually quite like them, though I’m entirely prepared to admit it’s probably partly nostalgia, and if I get given them (or I miss a summer squash and it becomes enormous) I cut them in rings (or in half longways), deseed and fill with a well seasoned meatloaf or nutloaf type filling. If you’re cutting the squash in half longways and filling it, par-bake it first. It takes a long time to cook for something that’s mostly water.
    Bake until tender and the filling is cooked, checking it’s not catching. Cover with foil if necessary (or peel the halved squash at the start and cover with bacon slices.)
    Serve, with white/onion/parsley sauce if you’re English and have the genetic predisposition for it, or a tomato sauce if you’re not. Or American gravy would work, I think. Essentially you’re accepting the blandness and using it as a foil against the richness of the filling.
    Otherwise I use them in soup or roast them in chunks with potatoes.

    BTW, I still haven’t heard back from the British Museum. If I haven’t had a reply by next week I’ll try phoning them.

    • That sounds delicious! But then again, I have to admit I’d eat empty toilet paper rolls if they were stuffed with nut loaf mix, layered with bacon and smothered with sauce. 🙂

  9. One year I had a strawberry plant that grew in the crack between the house and the back path. It did get a little water tossed at it, but not much and all summer it produced lovely large sweet berries. I always think that parsley seeds from a self seeding plant will always grow better in a crack in the concrete than the seeds you plant!!

  10. I’ve been growing the Tromboncino and do agree they are bland when matured but their asset are how firm the texture is similar to butternut squash. I make canned salsa, relish, strudel, and cakes because they absorb the flavors and seem to act as fillers. I’ve made canned pineapple salsa because the idea was it could stretch the pineapple by adding the zucchini since the texture and color are similar.

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