Gina Covina: Saving squash seeds…

Laughing Frog Farm

We’ve spent the last week in the heady thrill of garden planning. The process used to be an orgy of seed catalog porn, but now we’re in transition to sustainability, so the first step was identifying the crops we want to grow for seed this year. That list included way more than we can grow ourselves, so we brought our favorite candidates to the Laytonville Seed Swap on Sunday and found growers for them from the ranks of the newly evolving Mendocino Seed Growers Co-op. The near future is looking good for local seed.

Here’s one example. Squash divide themselves into three main species (and a couple more minor ones) and within those species they cross-pollinate like crazy. Between species, no. Cucurbita pepo includes most summer squash, as well as acorn, delicata, and many pumpkins. Cucurbita maxima includes a long list of buttercups, Hubbards, turbans, bananas, and more pumpkins. The third, C. moschata, has the butternuts, cheese, trombetta – and yes, more pumpkins. A gardener without near neighbors can grow one variety from each species and confidently save the seeds without having to resort to hand pollination. Our only C. pepo this year will be Dark Star zucchini, the result of Bill Richards’ many years of breeding work on the Eel River flood plain. Delicious, prolific as the hybrid zucchinis, deep-rooted (Richards grows without irrigation), and cold-tolerant beyond the limits of other zukes.

But we also have seed of the delicata rehabilitated by Frank Morton at Wild Garden Seed in Oregon – another C. pepo. I used to love delicata, but in recent years have found its taste underwhelming. Other gardeners have reported an occasional bitter squash. Turns out all the seed was being grown by one company, and a wild C. pepo near its field cross-pollinated with the delicata, turning all commercial delicata seed into something less than desirable ever after. Morton found someone with older seed and used that, reselecting the best plants for several seasons until releasing it commercially this year. Lucinda, neighbor of the far hills, has agreed to grow this delicata as her only C. pepo – in exchange for a steady supply of Dark Star zucchini.

This week we’re engaged in the more difficult garden planning task of deciding where to plant all these fabulous foods. Halfway through, we’ve already realized we need two new garden beds to make room for the Dark Star and the sweet corn – the first open-pollinated super-sweet corn, in fact, called New Mama by its co-creators at Adaptive Seeds. I’m such a sweet corn snob that until this year I’ve insisted on the Japanese super-sweet hybrid Mirai and nothing else. So for me 2012 marks the beginning of a new era – local, sustainable, and sweet.