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Harvest Frequency, Yield, and Economics of Summer Squash

8/30/2003

Squash, Beans and Deadheading Flowers I

Before we had a garden, my husband went to a Farmers' Market one summer and purchased a large zucchini for what seemed to him a very minimal price.  The next day he bragged to his coworkers  "I got a great big zucchini at the Farmers' Market for only 25 cents!"

His coworkers looked at him incredulous.  For a moment there was silence.  Then someone spoke up.  "You paid for zucchini?"

The prolific reproduction of summer squash, particularly zucchini, is legendary.  "Why do folks in Lake Woebegone lock their cars during the summer?"  Garrison Keillor asked his audience on National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion one summer day.   "To prevent their neighbors from leaving bags of zucchini in the car."

When I first started bringing summer squash to the Nampa Farmers' Market, I didn't think that it would sell.  Everyone is selling summer squash at the same time, and half of the customers have zucchini in their garden, or have neighbors who do. So it's not surprising that much of the summer squash doesn't sell.  One of our vendors, a high school student, uses large yellow patty pan squash as weights to anchor the poles of his canopy.  It's a clever, if temporary way to use the excess.

To my surprise, most of my summer squash does sell.  The secret is that I sell small, "baby" squash in a variety of colors and shapes.  The small patty pan or scallop zucchini are a novelty to many people.  People comment on how colorful our display is.  We've been asked if they are real.

In order to sell small squash, I have to pick daily.  Some days I pick twice, in the morning and in the evening.  Most summer squash grows very fast; you can almost watch it.  A patty pan that is marginal in the morning may be perfect by the end of the day.  By the next day it is no longer "baby".

I can pick frequently because my garden patch is relatively small.  I have 10 hills with 3 or 4 plants per hill.  That's more than my husband and I can eat, but it's a good number for a farmers' market. 

Frequent harvests of squash is one advantage of being small.  Quality can be high.  But it takes a labor of love.  At 4 or 5 squash for $1.00, I'm hardly bringing in a minimum wage from squash.  But I am happy to keep them out of my refrigerator, and actually make some money doing so.

There is a tradeoff to frequent picking. When one picks daily, squash picked early in the week is not fit for market by the end of the week.  Soon after they are picked, summer squash start to bruise.  The squash that come to market on Saturday was picked on Thursday and Friday, and sometimes very early Saturday morning.  Thursdays evenings I bring squash that was picked Tuesday through Thursday to Payette or Parma markets.  That leaves squash that is picked Saturday through Monday for our customers in Parma and for us.  Even three days worth of squash is too much for the two of us.  We grill and freeze much of the excess, or we make a large batch of Ratatouille and freeze a meal or two.  Frozen grilled summer squash makes a great pizza topping in the middle of winter. 

Beans and cucumbers also have to be picked frequently, or they grow too big.  Every other day is enough for these crops, since they don't grow quite as fast as summer squash.   However, I have to be careful not to miss anything that is large enough to pick, because two days later it is likely to be too big to sell. 

Picking beans is time consuming.  They hang under dense foliage, and often look like stems, so it is easy to miss one that is big enough to pick.  When the crop is at its peak it takes an hour or more to pick a couple of pounds of beans from my four rows.  Again, it is a labor of love because the time doesn't justify the price of the beans.  But this way I can grow unusual varieties like the flat Black Coco beans and speckled dragon's tongue.  If I were growing a field of green beans I would be looking for a variety that matures over a short time period so the crop could be harvested all at once.  And I would hire someone to help me pick the beans.

Frequent harvests of squash, cucumber and beans serve the same purpose as deadheading flowers.  Deadheading is the process of pulling off flowers that have started to wilt so the plant continues to bloom.  This doesn't work for all flowers, but it does work for many, particularly plants that have "indeterminate" bloom.  If the flowers go to seed, the plant shuts down bloom and starts to put all of its energy reserves into fruiting and setting seed.  When we deadhead, or pick a young squash or bean, we are interrupting reproduction.  If plants had feelings, they might feel very frustrated!  But as far as we know, they don't have feelings, and they seem perfectly happy to continue to produce more flowers or fruits up until frost if those fruits are not allowed to mature.

(Read Part II)

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August 29, 2003
Copyright 2003, Karen Strickler. All rights reserved.