June brings a transition to my garden as well as to the business of buying and selling produce. At home the spring potatoes have been dug, the peas are almost finished, and the remaining artichokes on my plants are fated to be in flower vases rather than on dinner plates. Sunflower starts await the end of the shelling pea season and in the space recently occupied by potatoes go my and Aidan’s pumpkin choices for Halloween along with that great equalizer of summer: squash.
No other crop proves small local producers can still compete with giant, far reaching agribusinesses better than summer squash. The plant is hardy and prolific — producing multiple crops in a single season, and it flourishes in wide ranges of climate conditions and temperature zones. Any time a large scale shipper comes to us saying they can grown plenty of squash in the summer, we back away slowly shaking our heads — summer squash (particularly zucchini) is already spoken for by medium-sized regional and small local producers all over the U.S.
It’s this small, diverse family of farmers that drive the transition from long haul, single source product replenishment to the overlapping mosaic of smaller regional/local providers we simultaneously dread and look forward to every summer. The dread comes from the fact that every year brings with it a different start date for the local transition that we have to try and match that date up with the end of the long distance, larger consolidated product needs of the spring. This start/ stop supply dance is further complicated by weather and this spring has provided plenty all over — from flooded farmland in the midwest, tornadoes in the south, late cold snaps in New England, and unusually cold, wet conditions out west, the shift from long haul to local is even more of a moving target.
But once the transition takes place we are off to the local races. Summer squash, like the earlier pea crops of spring, provides a consistent commodity anchor that enables growers to put in and deliver lower volume but often more dynamic varieties of fruits and vegetables — thereby perpetuating plant diversity. Often even the same variety will have different culinary characteristics depending on where in the U.S. it is grown. It’s this diversity I look forward to in squash and other classes of vegetables – new hybrid or heirloom, it seems almost every year we discover (or rediscover) a plant type with promise.
I like summer squash in my garden because it makes me feel like I am a better gardener than I really am. Once established, summer squash will make everyone’s thumb look a little greener and it’s the rare summer that fails to produce less squash than any reasonably sized family could possibly hope to consume. I also like it because any squash I fail to harvest will continue to grow to truly mutant proportions and the outer skin will harden just like a pumpkin or winter squash — these I add to my stable of Halloween carving candidates.
Summer squash is also great in a wide variety of dishes — from simple sautés and grilling, to more complex stuffed and baked dishes or breads. It’s rare for me to end the summer without a new way to prepare summer squash – last year was all about scaloppini squash stuffed with tomatoes and parmesan, brushed with olive oil and grilled over indirect heat. Mostly though, out in my garden in a few weeks as I remove the first fuzzy, young specimens — most with the bright yellow blossom still attached — I’ll smile as I think about how this simple action will be repeated all over the country. In gardens and farms big and small, it’s harvest time (or will be soon) for the great equalizer of summer.