What’s Up in the Garden: Squash!

Last year , our 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old students in Tamara Brayshaw’s class was introducted to the family of vegetables called “cucurbits.” The cucurbitaceae family includes cucumbers, gourds, melons, pumpkins, and squash. They’re not difficult to grow and they’re fun because they come in so many shapes, colors, sizes and textures. There are roughly 960 species within the cucurbit family. Many are good to eat and the edible ones can be cooked in hundreds of ways. They are staples in the diet of many cultures. We eat different ones than people in other parts of the world eat. Hard-skinned gourds are used both as containers and for decorative purposes and have been for thousands of years. A cucurbit garden can be used to teach about seeds, plants, farming, agriculture, nutrition, food security, hunger, other cultures, history, geography, art and craft traditions, evolution and genetics.

Tamara’s students started last fall (2011) by looking closely at three familiar cucurbits–cucumber, butternut squash and pumpkin. They shared what they already knew about these. Then they observed them more closely by sketching them, both whole and cut in half, and wrote about what they noticed. When spring arrived, they looked at similarities in and differences between size, shape, and color of the seeds of many different varieties of cucurbits. They planted over a dozen different kinds. When the seedlings had grown big enough and the weather was warm enough, they transplanted them into one of our gardens. The plants were still babies when summer vacation began. By September, however, there had been stupendous changes. The garden itself was a jungle of vines and the vines had also climbed up, over, under and through the holes the fence and were heading out into the parking lot. As for fruits, they were the best we’ve ever had: watermelons, cantaloupes, “Tasty Bites” melons, pumpkins, acorn, delicate, buttercup and (of course) butternut squash, and exotic snake, swan, bottle, and turtle gourds. Tamara’s students harvested these. Now we are deciding what to do with all of these squashy things and the cycle of learning and growing begins with another school year.