Magazine article The Christian Century

Still Life with Winter Squash: Notes from the Farm

Magazine article The Christian Century

Still Life with Winter Squash: Notes from the Farm

Article excerpt

IT LANDED on my limestone patio--a warty, weighty, blue-gray, round-bellied, pointy-ended battleship that was more mineral than animal or vegetable.

But vegetable it was: a bulky Blue Hubbard squash from an organic farmer friend. It was a gift, he explained, for the simple reason that no one at the farmers market would buy such a monster.

This was in early November, and it lay where it landed, as each day brought a later sunrise and an earlier sunset. With fewer hours of daylight, we used each minute to the full, working in the fields to get the last greens harvested, the last root crops dug.

After Thanksgiving the weather often resembled my Blue Hubbard squash--heavy, gray, sometimes draped with icy fog. Both seemed to miss the light and warmth, and with good reason. Light is fundamental to all living things on earth--animal and vegetable.

On the farm the changes brought on by day length are seen most clearly in our hens, whose egg production declines precipitously in tandem with the sunlight. Although chickens have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still harbor genes from their ancestors, who like all wild birds lay eggs only in the spring so that they can raise their young in the warmth of summer. Although our hens lay an egg a day during the summer, we're lucky to get an egg every four or five days in the winter.

Many plants also have day-length triggers, mostly determining when they grow vegetatively and when they flower and set fruit. Through photosynthesis, water in the soil and carbon dioxide in the air combine to form carbohydrate molecules that make up the plant's leaves, stems, roots, and fruits. Long hours of sunshine put chloroplasts into overdrive, and plants grow fast and furious.

As the days shorten, there is less solar energy; vegetative growth slows, and plants put their energy into flowers and maturing fruits--tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and more. Some vegetables, such as a head of cauliflower (a mass of tightly packed flower buds), form only when the days get shorter. With only a few hours of daylight, some plants--basil, for example--stop growing entirely, even if they are inside a tropical greenhouse.

Although the term day length is used to talk about these effects on plants, it's a misnomer. Researchers have found that it's not the hours of daylight but the length of the dark periods that controls plant growth. If you interrupt a long dark period with even short bursts of light, most plants will grow as they would during the long days and short nights of summer. Understanding the importance of dark periods is important--and not just for gardeners and farmers.

Long nights provide time to rest and restore. Many animals conserve their energy by sleeping away the long nights in their warm burrows. The field that produced all our vegetables the past two years is now entering a fallow period when it will rest and regenerate for two years. My brother is just back from his own fallow year, a sabbatical in Japan. The sun itself appears to pause and take a break (sol + stice, "sun standing still") before the days lengthen again. And I am using this dark velvet time to hunker down, to read, sleep, think, and walk.

When I go down to the fields to pick the remains of the kale and parsley--frost-damaged but also frost-sweetened--I am struck by the stillness, the absence of activity. …

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