During my visit to Earth Fair in Balboa Park earlier this year, I joined the San Diego Seed Library’s annual seed swap. I painstakingly folded homemade paper pouches out of scenic pages pulled from travel magazines, and labeled each envelope with the heirloom seed variety contained inside that had been left unused from my spring garden plantings. As I sat at my station behind a table filled with contributors’ seed offerings, I exchanged my little envelopes for seeds that piqued my own interest, and conversed with other edible garden enthusiasts.
What journeys would unfold for my little seeds as I handed them off into the world? What new seeds would I cultivate from the harvests of others?
Upon leaving, one of the founders of the San Diego Seed Library pulled me aside and asked if I had adopted one of the eight rare, ancient squash seedlings he cultivated for the swap. “What?! You don’t have one? Go now, I hope there is still one left for you!”
I darted to the table and found just two seedlings left – and one was mine! I had no idea what I was coveting, but if it was ancient, rare, and green, I wanted it! “Come on little rare squash, you and all of your future generations are coming to live at my house!”
The plant label read “Gete-Okosomin.” The name was vaguely familiar… this was the ancient squash that had made the news a few years back! My friend and founder of the seed library urgently instructed me to nurture and protect the plant, and to harvest and share these special seeds with other committed growers. He beamed and said this plant was truly special, and he was delighted it had chosen ME to aid in its resurgence.
So, you’re telling me I can grow something green, eat it, save its seeds to grow it annually, and be an integral part of rare squash conservation???
I brought this little beauty home, dazzled by my sparkling new child, and gushed about it to my husband, family, and teammates. I researched this amazing squash, and subsequently began my ongoing education on seed saving. In order to preserve an heirloom seed, it must be grown isolated from other squash varieties to avoid cross-pollination irregularities. This meant that I must now choose between all of the squash babies I had already germinated while planning my spring garden and the Gete Okosomin – Known in my garden as The International Squash of Intrigue
I got on the phone. “Hey parents, want to adopt some homegrown squash plants?”
I had a job to do, and it certainly did NOT involve butternuts, delicatas, or other average squash I could find at the farmers market! I knew this ancient variety was known to be a prolific grower and would likely take over my entire dedicated planting area. So I had a conversation with my tomatoes, peppers, and the rest of my summer garden informing them that they’d better brace for containers this year. With the in-ground farm expansion area still in the planning stage, my fertile growing space was still limited to two large raised beds and a sunny patch of hillside out front.
When I brought this baby home, I was still in the process of purchasing and blending my raised bed soil mix, so my plant was upgraded to a larger pot to buy time. When I left town for a week on vacation, I entrusted this particular pot to my mother for consistent watering and hawk-like observation. Not my house sitter, who had complete responsibility for the loves of my life: my two dogs, three chickens, and the rest of my plants. Only my mom would do. I called her almost everyday begging for updates, and when I came home to my Gete, my baby was enormous! The situation was becoming urgent, calling for immediate preparation of a raised bed.
The Gete Okosomin vine doubled in size each week, and its leaves were the size of my head in less than three! This was foretelling of the THREE FOOT LONG, TWENTY POUND beauties the internet told me I would be harvesting soon.
In the few weeks that followed, I obsessed over my gorgeous plant. I watered him every morning by hand (because when you don’t have irrigation installed, by hand is the only way, and yes Gete is a boy) and mentally catalogued every blossom as it emerged. Squash plants have male and female flowers, and need the help of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to ensure reproduction through fruit growth. Having only one shot at this, I worried about my beloved plant successfully pollinating on its own. I studied hand-pollination videos and decided to give it a try, carefully painted the center of each golden flower with pollen. As each miniature fruit set, my excitement soared!
Next year’s crop of Gete Okosomins will be cultivated in patches in the ground, because in what felt like minutes I had squash as big as my forearm. These babies need serious room to grow. Not only did my vines burst up and over the walls of my raised beds, but they also sprawled another 10-12 feet into our yard. Finding places to guide the giant squash with clearance for additional growth was extremely challenging inside the confines of our beds.
The temptation to harvest early was torture, I mean how big could they really get? Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds reports 18-pounders in their description, but I don’t have a garden scale! (Note to self: buy garden scale.) My husband Tito pulled me away from the vines every single day, as patience is not my strong suit. When they finally reached about two and a half feet, I couldn’t take it anymore. Out they came.
I must have taken approximately 1,748 photos of my freshly harvest Gete Okosomin squash. Photos on the vines, photos of them in a giant vintage basket, photos of them in a pile next of my pup August. (#dogforscale) I moved them to my front porch and took photos of them in fallen leaves from our birch tree for texture. Then, after they were absolutely exhausted from all the Hollywood glamour, I set them to cure in the shade of my porch where they sat until this past weekend.
My obsession with seeds from an early age spurred my mom to buy me a copy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed’s annual masterpiece of a catalogue a few years back, and adorning its back cover was the most incredible image I had ever seen. There in glossy, full-colored glory was a two-story mountain of squash, containing more varieties than I could fully comprehend. This spectacle was an advertisement for the Pure Food Fair, also known as the National Heirloom Expo, and I knew at that moment I would attend someday.
September 5th – 7th, of this year, I was fortunate enough to spend three days in the presence of my people – seed-loving, soil-building, organic growers from all over the country. I pored over racks and tables of seeds, had in-depth discussions about loofa gourds and tomato varieties, and felt like I was home. I learned that even though at times my passion seems small in such a huge, busy world, there are in fact thousands of people who share the love of vegetable cultivation with me. My shining moment of the trip was attending a panel discussion on seed sovereignty lead by Dr. Vandana Shiva, seed defender and internationally respected environmentalist. She is a crusader against industrial agriculture, and is my hero.
My visit to the Heirloom Expo brought me full circle, from seed catalogue to seed mecca in three short days.
The temperature at my home in San Diego has been close to 100 degrees for basically as long as I can remember. Or at least for the past two months (a lifetime). The first day with a cloud in it, slightly dimming the sun above our house and feigning autumn, I placed the largest cured squash from the harvest on my cutting board and readied my Dutch oven.
Collecting information on the ancient Gete Okosomin is difficult as its mainstream popularity has only risen in the past few years, but I found an informative video on the “World Wide Web” that not only debunks the clay pot story, but shares a fantastic squash soup recipe. I’m not always a fan of nutmeg and cinnamon, (sorry @TheRealPSL), but this version cuts the sweetness with granny smith apples and bone broth. Perfect!
Gete, I gave you our first summer on the farm, and leading role in my first fall recipe prepared in our new home. And you, my darling, were worth every delicious moment. Halved, seeded, roasted, simmered, blended, and strained, the Gete Okosomin has earned its spot in my heart forever.
The little plant that began its journey with me in Balboa Park, just sitting there waiting to be chosen, now holds a permanent place in our summer garden. As the seeds lay drying for next year and beyond, I feel a part of something bigger. Rare and amazing varieties of produce can only be celebrated in their individuality and diversity if we protect and cultivate them. Post National Heirloom Expo, I am renewed once again in my vocation. I know have been chosen for the job, and I am committed to stewarding soil health, saving seeds, preserving food diversity, and truly being a part of this Real Food Fight – one squash plant at a time.