How to Grow a $400 Squash

My husband said to the realtor, “we really want a house with an interesting back yard.” The back yard of the house we moved to in May has four crepe myrtles, five feet high, and a large cement patio. No overhang. No shade. No garden.

We lived in Oklahoma for thirty years before this move, twenty years in the same house. The back yard included a half dozen thirty-plus foot regal oaks and one native ash we planted in 1999. Two raised vegetable and flower beds and one strawberry bed claimed one side yard. Some years we had strawberry pie, strawberry jam, strawberry scones, and gallons of strawberries in the freezer all year. I also learned twenty-seven ways to use tomatoes. Friends and family clamored for their Christmas jar of salsa. There was a milkweed Monarch patch (I counted 18 caterpillars at one point last summer), roses (a gift from former coworkers), three althea (from one-gallon buckets, but eventually pruned each year to avoid scritch-scratching the eaves of the back porch roof), azaleas (only two of three left after one harsh winter). The back porch overhang was twenty feet wide and ten deep. My husband built a wood deck over remaining cement pad, and we had a red pavestone patio installed beyond the deck, with a bed for plumbago, bee balm, impatiens, and coral bells. The broad canopy of a lightening-stung grandfather oak with the trunk it took two to hug completely sheltered it all.

Beyond the fence, Haikey Creek trickled in dry weather and raged in wet; its associated flora and fauna attracted deer, coyotes, hawks, and owls. To the east, against another giant oak was the “treehouse” the grandkids helped construct and paint from found materials, with the wooden ladder and the slide that started it all. My husband found it dumped on an out-of-the-way roadside during his morning run the year after our first grandchild was born (he’s now thirteen). That home was the only one our grandchildren had visited us in until after we moved to Texas.

In Oklahoma, where we built deep friendships over those thirty years, I finished graduate school and had three careers: medical/research technologist, freelance writer, then teacher. My husband finished grad school, too. Then his telecom career fell victim to the WorldCom debacle, so he started a business, and fourteen years later sold it. We retired and moved to the house with the empty back yard, but near the granddaughter, who is eleven.

“I’d like two raised beds,” I said, after the boxes were unpacked, “but they can wait a while.” It was June.

Within days, my husband traipsed to Home Depot. Lumber, weed-block, and screws filled the back of his pickup. He borrowed the “son-of-a-bitch” breaker bar from my brother to bust up the limestone slabs lurking beneath the sod. Bam! Pry. Bam! Bam!

“The beds can wait until the weather’s cooler,” I said. My husband measured and cut, laid wood frames into different spots to gauge the angle and hours of direct sun. Temperatures topped 100 and sweat dripped from his chin.

“I think west side, away from the fence is best,” he said. I concurred. Digging and rock-busting and wedging frames into the slope of the yard followed. It was July.

“We don’t have to fill them yet,” I said.

“Maybe just one for now,” he said.

More trips to Home Depot, Wal Mart, and Lowes. He lugged ten bags of topsoil and eighteen of raised bed soil. Mulch and soaker hoses. Hose splitters.

“I’ll check out some books on fall gardening from the library,” I said, but it waited until we got the Texas car insurance, inspection, car tags and Texas driver’s license, as required to obtain a Texas library card. The welcome to Texas package. I selected recommended seeds and pinched them into seed starter soil. The August heat gave the seeds a jumpstart; they were six inches tall within a week.

 “Might as well see how it goes,” my husband said, meaning the veggies. He packed in the topsoil and topped that off with rich raised bed soil, smelling of decayed grass or hay. He wound soaker hose around the surface and I planted seedlings along and around the turns, a blanket of mulch against dry Texas wind. Sun blistered the grass.

“I’ll string up some shade fabric,” my husband said. He hammered tall metal stakes into rocky ground along one edge and draped fabric over ropes suspended from the fence and stakes. I turned the hose on every day, and water seeped out the lower edge of the bed, under the fence, into our neighbors’ flower bed on the other side.

The seedlings didn’t grow, and squash bugs nibbled leaves all the way back to the stem. I sprayed with insecticidal soap. No effect. I sprinkled with Sevin dust and seemed to gain ground. The September sun moved further south, providing shade in different areas, and earlier.

“I’ll take down the shade cloth,” my husband said, after a slightly cooler week.

We had a cedar pergola constructed over the cement pad for siting in elusive summer shade. We strung party lights from the massive beams overhead, and they cast a warm glow at dusk as the days cooled slightly. It was a start.

The seedlings didn’t grow an inch until the first real cooling rain in October. I walked out to check them twice a day, and I could see the squash and okra plants begin to take off.


* * *

“I have something to show you,” I tell my husband just before dinner. We traipse down the slope to find two large yellow squash blossoms inviting whatever flies by to pollinate. There are several more ready to pop open.

“We’ll have squash before long,” I say.

“That’ll be the most expensive squash ever grown,” he says with a smirk. “They’d better be pretty good, for $400.” This is my husband who doesn’t eat squash, not even the garlicky, cheesy squash casserole I love.

I shrug. We slog back up the incline to our beautiful new pergola, flip on the party lights, and settle down with our glasses of wine. From where we sit, we can see for miles.

“Look how pretty the sky is.” He points up to the streaks of orange and purple along the horizon above our fence. I have to admit there’s a certain charm to this open expanse of Texas sky.

“Mmm.” The sky is beautiful, out beyond the raised bed with the scrappy little plants burrowing their roots into the fresh, outrageously expensive soil. We forget about the money and energy we’ve poured into their survival; we relax and enjoy the darkening sky.

It isn’t about the squash.

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