LEAVE THE SQUASH BUGS?! Gainesville couple works to breed variety of squash for the Ozarks that is resistant to dreaded squash bugs
There are few pests that gardeners here love to hate as much as squash bugs - and for good reason.
Flourishing gardens in early spring can take a sharp turn as tiny copper-colored eggs tucked inconspicuously onto the undersides of leaves begin hatching into droves of hungry nymphs that seem to multiply at an unbelievable rate. The nymphs grow into adult shield-shaped brown bugs that wreck havoc in no time, attacking squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and other vining vegetables.
Some say squash bugs are a lot like roaches. Once you know you’ve got them, it’s too late.
They feed on the plants, sucking moisture from stems and leaves and spreading yellow vine disease in their wake, a bacteria that can cause healthy plants to turn yellow and wilt nearly overnight.
The heart-stopping discovery of the destructive bugs is usually followed by a flurry of remedies to try and rid the plants of the hated pests as quickly as possible, usually in the form of chemical or natural powders and sprays, picking, vacuuming, shaking and lots of squashing and stomping - all which vary in their degree of effectiveness.
What if there was another way?
That’s the question that Gainesville-area residents Wren Haffner and Ini Giesbrecht began asking three years ago.
With the help of a grant-funded experiment that has continued again this year, Wren and Ini are finding ways to breed squash to adapt to the conditions of Ozark County, which means (you guessed it) oftentimes being covered in squash bugs.
Moving to Ozark County, getting first-hand squash bug experience
Wren and Ini bought a piece of property and moved to Ozark County in 2016. Self-professed plant lovers, the pair brought many different seeds they’d collected from various places they’d lived prior to moving here. Their seed collection included a few varieties of squash they were eager to plant and harvest here.
“For two years in a row, our plants would start off looking great, and then once they had put on one or two fruits, they’d turn yellow, wilt and die before the fruits could mature…a common symptom of cucurbit yellow vining disease,” Wren said. “As we love squash, we were really discouraged. Talking with local gardeners we found that many people give up on growing squash in this region.”
Wren and Ini traded their seeds with another Ozark County gardener they’d met and became friends with. The new seeds were from a squash that had been grown by a man in Ava and was an “Ozark Cheese” variety, named for its wide, round resemblance to a wheel of cheese.
She and Ini planted the seeds that year and were thrilled that they hadn’t lost their plants and were able to harvest a few squash.
“We were able to get three mature squash that fall, and we were so excited. Cheese [squash] types belong to the moschata species, which are overall known for being hardier and more resistant to bugs and their diseases,” Wren explained. “So, that gave us a little bit of hope. We thought, OK, some squash can survive here amid pest pressure.”
An introduction to the Seminole pumpkin
In 2019, after harvesting the three Ozark Cheese squash, Wren came across a video online from Rob Greenfield, who grew and foraged 100 percent of his food for an entire year. She was inspired.
“What intrigued me was a little squash he was growing that he mentioned was tolerant to pests and bugs in his Florida climate. It was a primary staple [food] for him,” Wren explained. “The squash is known as Seminole pumpkin, which is also a moschata variety. Becoming familiar with this squash, that has an incredible history and culture, has forever changed my life. It has shown me what is possible in the realm of squash.”
The Seminole Pumpkin squash was grown by the Seminole natives in the Everglades, facing high moisture, pest pressure, intense heat and other trying conditions.
“Because ground storage wasn’t an option in the swampy landscape, they had a culture of encouraging the plant to climb standing dead trees where it would get off the ground, mature and hang until they harvested the squash,” she said. “This harvest strategy also aided them in their war against the Spanish as the hanging fruits provided ready food throughout their territory in times of need.”
Landrace gardening, a drastically different approach
The introduction of the Seminole pumpkin led Wren down the path of researching ways to manage squash bugs and squash varieties that are able to withstand pest pressure.
In that process she found Joseph Lofthouse and his strategy of gardening, called the “landrace” method, which focuses on letting seeds and plants adapt to the growing area rather than keeping genetics of varieties pure. Wren now avidly recommends Lofthouse’s book, Landrace Gardening: Food Security through Biodiversity and Promiscuous Pollination, to anyone interested in growing food.
Lofthouse encourages gardeners to grow and save seeds from their favorite varieties of plants, and grow another variety of the same crop with desirable traits next to it.
As bees and other pollinators carry pollen from blooms of one plant to others in the area, the plants naturally cross-pollinate, meaning the seeds of those vegetables will be a cross-bred variety.
Lofthouse says gardeners should aim to have two to five varieties of the same crop to cross pollinate in order to stand the “landrace.”
“Lofthouse was talking about his landrace gardening method…[with] a woman like me who was living in Forsyth, Missouri having trouble growing squash. He encouraged her to grow a wide variety of genetics and save seed from whatever survived, a method he practiced with great success in his high altitude desert mountain climate in Utah,” Wren said. “As I read further, I became invigorated with what he was saying and read everything I could find on the subject of landrace gardening.”
Wren and Ini were intrigued by the concept, as it is drastically different from the current way vegetables and other plants are commonly handled.
“In our current purity-driven seed saving culture, we fossilize varieties through inbreeding them in an effort to maintain precise phenotypes. For example, we grow a butternut squash and save seeds from it, often being careful not to let it cross so that we can retain the look and characteristics of the original squash. We want to know what we are getting, and we want it to be uniform. Squash love to outcross so there are a lot of tutorials online about how to hand-pollinate and ‘save pure seed.’”
Wren says she was excited by the thought of doing just the opposite, widening the pool of seed lineage, allowing it to carry more information to provide resistance against certain pests, contain increased vigor in a specific climate and other positive traits.
She especially liked the idea of increasing diversity at their home, in their garden, allowing the seeds to breed into a variety that works exceptionally well at their specific locale.
A very encouraging year of squash growing
Inspired by what she’d learned, the next year Wren planted a few different moschata varieties of squash that she’d read about that were known to be hardier and resilient to pest pressure.
“In an effort to allow the lines to blur between the distinct varieties and share genetics, I let them cross pollinate at will, which I’m sure happened with great success given our abundant honeybee hives on site,” she said.
The moschata squash varieties that she planted were Thai Kang Kob, Seminole, Ozark Cheese, Rancho Marquez (a landrace from Sonora Mexico), a Lofthouse-variety crossed with Thai Raw Ka Tok mixed with Butternut, South Anna, a Seminole Waltham Butternut cross from Commonwealth seeds and a Seminole/Butternut cross bred by residents of the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northern Missouri.
In addition to those, she planted a non-moschata variety of Green Striped Cushaw.
“We had the most successful year of squash growing we’d ever experienced. We got dozens and dozens of squash, and many of the plants would have kept producing if not for the frost. Before our plants had always died because of the squash bug damage and wilt from the bacteria they transmit,” she said. “Prior to their death, we were lucky if they produced one or two fruits.”
Grant funding from SARE
Fueled by the success she had with growing the pest-resistant varieties of squash paired with the landrace inspiration from Lofthouse, Wren applied for a grant from the sustainable agriculture research and education (SARE) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture.
“I had wanted to do one for a few years. I’d thought about different problems that make it hard to grow out in the hills…things like growing food with barely any topsoil. But I also knew that people really struggle to grow squash, and they often give up. My goal is to create a squash that makes it easy to grow squash here, because I don’t want people to get discouraged. And I know it’s a real challenge,” she said.
In her application, she laid out a plan to build upon her squash research and conduct a landrace breeding program focused on creating a squash bug resistant variety for the Ozarks.
“I was surprised to see that no one had focused on this specific interface. There had been research done in relation to powdery mildew and squash vine borer, but no one had tried to breed a variety that could withstand the pressure of squash bugs. Researchers have also not identified genes, as far as I’m aware, that are resistant to cucurbit yellow vine disease.”
It wasn’t long before she was notified that her project was one that was granted funding through the program.
First year of the program
So last spring, she and Ini got to work, planting 500 squash plants that would end up being thinned to about 100 plants.
Wren planted approximately five seeds in each squash mound. As the seeds sprouted and grew, she worked to pluck out all but the most vigorous plant with the strongest stem, purposefully selecting genetics that are superior for growing at her home.
They grew the squash in two patches, one at Wren and Ini’s place that had been organically gardened for five years and another half of the plants grew at a neighbor’s property about 10 miles away that had never been gardened and housed grass for the last 40 years. The sandier river bottom area offered different growing conditions.
Thinning was the easy part. The harder concept was to keep from managing the plants for squash bugs at all. One of the parameters of the experiment was to allow the plants to grow and survive despite squash bugs and their damage.
“Visiting my plots and seeing some of the plants covered in mating squash bugs was a little intimidating at first. In the past, I had worked to pull the bugs off and rub their eggs to reduce populations, although some always carried on. This year I didn’t pick off one squash bug. I did not rip off leaves. I did not take off the little eggs. I wanted to trust the process of what genetics could survive that type of pressure. So many people go and use chemicals or organic methods or just spend so much labor on squash bugs. I wanted to see if we could go at this a different way,” she said.
So, the copper colored eggs, the flourishing nymphs and the shield-shaped adults were able to reproduce, live and feed on the plants throughout the growing season. Wren and Ini didn’t pick a single bug or egg off.
“The lens of landrace gardening has encouraged me to look at the plant, bug and human evolution in a whole new way. Our modern paradigm encourages us to look at the garden as a type of war zone where the pests are invading our crops and we must manage or eradicate them,” Wren said. “To me, landrace gardening asks whether we can work with the powers of genetic selection to breed varieties that can cohabitate with the pests. In this vein I am looking at the squash bug as an evolutionary pressure.”
Trap crops, vigorous varieties
The experiment returned some surprising results.
“It went really well, but I saw a lot of death, especially as the season went on. I learned a lot of different things from that…” she said. “One thing I learned was in reference to a trap crop. A trap crop is when farmers sometimes put crops that are really susceptible to pests on the edge of the field, and it will attract all the pests [leaving them off other crops]. I found that the first squash that came up and were most vigorous usually became the trap crops, which is an interesting inadvertent learning. It wasn’t even the weakest crops became the trap crops, it was just the first. So, I did implement that this year by growing zucchini first, and of course, it was a magnet.”
She said she also learned that some squash varieties performed very well at their site while others failed to flourish.
“Some squash like the Thai Kang Kob seemed to out-compete squash bug pressure through sheer vigor. Seminole acted along those lines as well, but it also expertly rooted at the nodes as it grew and showed incredible pest resistance. I witnessed an older part of the plant wilt and die while a younger section, rooted as it went, continued trailing along putting on flowers and setting and maturing fruit.”
She said it was nerve-wracking at times seeing things die off, but it also brought her excitement to take notes on what survived and why.
“The whole idea is not babying the crops. It’s seeing if they can take the conditions that they are in at a specific place. Because really, low-input gardening is what a lot of us have time for. Most of us don’t have the time or skills to go and intensively manage crops as they grow.”
Community squash tasting
The first year’s selections, made for survivability amid the squash bug pressure, laid the basis for the base layer of the project and genetics that are going into their own landrace squash varieties.
Although the grant funding was only for one year, Wren and Ini chose to continue the project into 2022 and beyond, creating a more dynamic swarm of genetics known as a “grex” that is continually sifted down for their own desired traits.
They decided their second year to be based on tapering seeds down for the best taste and texture, instead of selecting varieties solely based on survivability.
Last November, at the end of the growing season, Wren and Ini hosted a community squash tasting event where they roasted the different varieties in an outdoor oven they built.
“Twenty people came with bellies ready to taste these squash. Ini and I had just completed the cob oven the week before. It was a race to not only prepare the oven for the squash tasting event but also to beat the encroaching hard frosts as cob and clay plaster do not do well fully drying in freezing temps,” Wren said. “We had a lovely day together, and the folks who showed up gave us truly valuable feedback.”
Although the genetic lines had blurred since the first year’s simple varieties were planted, Wren and Ini chose to use loose descriptors based on the line’s original parentage to identify the squash to gather data and opinions on taste and texture.
“The opinions varied. What was absolutely disagreeable to some was another’s favorite. Some people prized texture over flavor, and others went straight for the sweetest squash,” Wren said. “The overall winner of the day was a Molena, a landrace heirloom squash from a town of 475 people of the same name in Georgia.”
At the end of the event, Wren and Ini decided that they also had to take their own interests and habits into consideration.
“After getting feedback from the squash tasting, I realized that, though this squash lineage will always be diverse, it is up to individuals to select anything notable to them and continue breeding that line toward their own aims. Personally, Ini and I treat squash as a staple crop rather than a sweet treat,” Wren said. “It is challenging to eat sweet squash multiple times per week. After the squash tasting I was ‘squashed out’ for a few days! We tend to prefer less sweet, larger squash with denser, firm texture for use in our diet in soups, baked dishes and more.”
Sharing and inspiring
This year marks the third in the squash growing project, a time in landrace gardening when Lofthouse says “the magic happens,” as plants veer away from their two parents and instead pull from a dynamic mix of thousands of genetics Wren and Ini have introduced.
The gardens at Wren and Ini’s place are again filled with rows and rows of squash plants, many freckled with squash bugs. Despite the pest pressure, the plants are growing well and holding up.
The pair say they’re even more excited to see how the grex changes and flexes through their selections. This year, their focus is survivability and taste and texture like the previous two years but also yield per plant as they noticed a decline in productivity in 2021.
A big part of this project is to grow a community squash, that means sharing the seeds with other Ozark Countians. The pair offer squash seeds and a variety of other seeds, plants and saplings they grow in their online store at ozarkmountainjewel.com.
Wren and Ini say they also hopes they might inspire other locals to save seeds and create their own landrace varieties.
“I think it’s a really inspiring and encouraging prospect. Any time we save seeds, we’re actually making selections and we’re breeding. So, if you have ever saved your seed in your garden, you’re engaging in breeding. It’s that easy,” Wren said. “We, as humans, have been doing this type of breeding for tens of thousands of years, people without educations. It’s only recently that it goes to the universities who have taken it in a mechanic, pesticide paradigm direction. Before the war, a lot of people were engaged in this type of breeding: site specific, pest inclusive breeding, instead of just wiping out the pests. We hope this can inspire others to engage in creating new heirlooms of the present that can face the cahllenges we see today with increased heat, more pests and other pressures.”
For more information or to connect with Wren and Ini, visit www.ozarkmountainjewel.com, ‘Mountain Jewel’ on Facebook, @_mountainjewel_ on Instagram and Mountain Jewel Land Project on YouTube.com.