By: PAUL McKAY
Teacher, Paul Mckay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.
AS I write this in London in mid March, the rain is pounding down outside, accompanied by a freezing cold wind. The idea of planting summer vegetables feels very remote indeed, more akin to something that takes place in a parallel universe. Nonetheless, by the time you are reading this I should be back in Monchique and the Algarve weather should be at its early spring best.
The variety of summer squash that exists is phenomenal. There are, of course, the well known courgettes, dark green and cucumber shaped. There are others that are the same shape but bright yellow or light green. Others are the same colour but are rounded and there are some more bizarre varieties that resemble fried eggs. Seeds are available throughout the usual agricultural stores and supermarkets in Portugal. For the more exotic (and weird) varieties, like all things weird, you may need to search the internet for suppliers.
Summer squash are planted in spring and have fruit ready to harvest within less than 3 months of sowing the seed, unlike pumpkins which take a lot longer to produce the fruit and take up more space in the garden.
You need to read the packet carefully when planting courgettes, to make sure you get the spacing correct. Some varieties need a lot of space and all suffer if they are planted too close together. As a general rule, give them at least a square metre to themselves.
Courgettes are planted in well drained, fertile soil that is easy to keep moist. Early April is a good time to plant but more importantly it needs to be at a time when the days are warm and the ground is not waterlogged. The seeds and the seedlings suffer if the weather is cold or wet when they are young. They sometimes never recover from this poor start.
Sow three seeds together in a shallow trench, but raise a small mound where you put the seeds. This enables you to flood the ground with water while preventing the young plant from sitting in water. The seeds are sown to a depth of 3cm.
After germination, thin out to the strongest seed. After about 6 to 8 weeks, flowers appear. Behind the female flowers you will see small fruit. After pollination, the flower dies back and the fruit begins to grow rapidly. Ensure the fruit does not sit on wet soil where it may rot.
Harvest the fruit regularly when they are still quite small. The fruits have more flavour at this stage (10 to 15cm long), and the plant continues to produce more flowers and fruit.
An interesting idea
I recently read that squash was known as one of the ‘Three Sisters’ along with beans and maize by Native Americans. These three indigenous plants were often planted together with the cornstalk providing support for the climbing bean and shade for the squash. The squash vines provided ground cover to limit weeds. This may be something to consider trying.
Courgettes are great in tomato based casserole dishes, are delicious fried and tasty sliced and barbecued. They also make a wonderful creamy soup.