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  • Rita Bloem

Native Plants & Squash: My Accidental Bumper Crop

Story and photos by Rita Bloem, volunteer BB member and new garden steward

It all started in the fall of 2020, when I listened to a podcast while taking a pandemic lockdown inspired walk around the neighbourhood. Renowned Canadian gardener Mark Cullen was interviewing the now famous entomologist (bug specialist) Doug Tallamy regarding his new book Bringing Nature Home on Marks’ podcast “The Green File”. Mark was especially enthusiastic about the book, calling it ‘revolutionary’. What could possibly be revolutionary for a high-profile gardener with 50 years of experience? The interview was very interesting, and Doug was very knowledgeable and even likeable, so I bought the book, and found it...revolutionary!

Of course, everybody knows that native plants are good, but who knew that they were critical? And not just plants that produce pollen and nectar for butterflies and bees; native trees and plants are necessary to feed the caterpillars and insects which are an important source of protein for birds. Doug has studied the relationship of native tree species to varieties of insects supported and describes them in his book.

Of course, everybody knows that native plants are good, but who knew that they were critical?

In the fall, I used to bemoan observing leaves of plants that were eaten by insects but now I now see things completely differently. A well chewed leaf is a sign that it supported native insects; a pristine leaf in the fall is almost certainly from an ‘alien’ plant that no butterfly could stomach. It’s a revolutionary change in perspective.

Our backyard is slightly deeper than even an average Applewood backyard; we had left a corridor of grass (maybe 45’ wide and 100’ deep’) all the way to the back fence to leave room for kids to play sports. The said children grew up and it was time to plant some trees and shrubs to create a more private yard. I was planning on doing this for 2021 anyway, but Doug Tallamy’s book convinced me to plant only native trees.

Once I started researching native plants, I discovered Blooming Boulevards and promptly signed up for Jeanne McRight’s seminars on native plant gardening. I didn’t go in exactly a straight line, but in the end, this is what I did to create the approximately 20’ x 55’ garden:

  • March – rented a sod cutter from Home Depot for ½ day. My son and husband helped run it and we turned the sod.

    • We covered it in black plastic, which turned out to be a very bad idea. Black plastic does nothing in cool months to kill grass and weeds; it’s apparently a terrible idea in summer too since it also kills beneficial organisms

  • Plan B, gleaned from the BB webinars: In late April we got a delivery of 3 cubic yards of ‘mushroom’ compost from Van Beeks. This is a euphemism – it makes you think it might not be that smelly. WRONG! It’s still animal manure!

    • We asked the nice people at Shoppers Drug Mart for the collapsed boxes which were waiting to be picked up by the recyclers. We put a single layer of cardboard down and then a few inches of the manure on top. This did in fact prevent the grass from coming through.

  • In the meantime, I was out collecting the native trees, shrubs and plants from Ontario Native Plants, Native Plants in Claremont, and local nurseries.

    • Trees included junior sizes of a red oak, white birch, larch and balsam fir

    • Shrubs included red osier dogwood, winterberry, pagoda dogwood, shrubby St. John’s wort, nannyberry and American elder.

    • Plants included New England aster, blue lobelia, bottle gentian, butterfly milkweed, cardinal flower, fireweed, nodding onion, Joe Pye weed, pearly everlasting, small pussytoes, spotted bee balm, swamp milkweed, tall cinquefoil, wild bergamot and wild columbine.

I asked a few fellow gardening friends to weigh in on plant placement, and once all was decided, I planted them all by early June and then covered the area with a few inches of cedar mulch. By this time the cardboard was soggy, so I just removed the bits needed to plant.

I thought I was done, but when one of my gardening friends came back to see the planted garden, it was still quite bare, so she encouraged me to plant still more! I transplanted some native beebalm and black eyed Susans, and then added more plants from the Blooming Boulevards plant sale.

Coincidentally, it was time to plant the existing small vegetable garden located on the west side of the new garden. I had picked up plants from someone in Applewood Acres who sources them from a local grower. Included were four butternut squash plants, and a number of varieties of tomato. The rest of our vegetable garden is planted from seed.

The squash plants were planted on each side of the new garden, knowing that they would want to creep across it. And creep they did! Eventually they covered almost the entire garden. When they came too close to some of the new plants and shrubs, we hacked them back a bit. I transplanted some of the tomato plants into the new garden since they were bursting out of their space. It became a mini squash and tomato jungle!

The squash plants were planted on each side of the new garden, knowing that they would want to creep across it. And creep they did!

During the summer, we saw lots of the large yellow blooms, but did not pay that much attention. We started to see a number of squashes growing but most of them were hidden below the very large leaves. We picked a number of them and thought there might be 30 or 40 of them, but as the leaves started to wilt in September, my husband decided to harvest them all. That’s when we did the final count – over 120 butternut squashes!

Many friends and family members have received one or two, and I took around 15 of them to a local food bank. Most of them were pristine; some were gnawed by disappointed rabbits or squirrels but were still very edible.

Female flowers are open and fertile for only one day, during which time eight to twelve pollinator visits are needed for good fruit set.

So why such a successful crop? All members of the squash family develop male and female flowers, and they depend on bees, flies and beetles to move sticky pollen grains between the two. Female flowers are open and fertile for only one day, during which time eight to twelve pollinator visits are needed for good fruit set. It turns out the squash would have attracted the attention of squash bees, which are solitary bees that nest in the ground and are quite common; they thrive when the ground is undisturbed. All of those native plants would have attracted extra insects to help pollinate the squash.

The fresh mushroom compost provided great nutrients, and there was good rainfall last year supplemented by our irrigation system. I have planted squash plants in the past but never had any native plants nearby and did not give them fancy compost. A good year would have yielded maybe 10 or 12 squash.

I’m looking forward to spring when I will learn which plants survived, which ones thrived, and which ones did not enjoy their sojourn in my garden. I will plant squash again as well as other vegetables in between the native plants, knowing that the miracle of pollination by will contribute to another plentiful harvest.

Although the focus of Doug Tallamy’s book was not how to grow more vegetables, it inspired me to plant a 100% native plant garden to contribute to biodiversity in our yard. The accidental squash bumper crop was the serendipitous result.

Squash soup anyone?


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