Wednesday, March 25, 2015

chayote chaos, part 4

In our last episode, I described my discovery that growing chayotes along an old and termite-damaged north-facing fence could destroy that fence and, possibly, a neighborly relationship going back almost forty years. In Mending Wall, poet Robert Frost has some ironic fun with the conventional wisdom that "Good fences make good neighbors," but I will stand by it (yes, pun fanciers, the wisdom and the fence).

A 1980 article in Mother Earth News showed me the error of my ways, and I am eternally grateful that MEN chose to put their back issues on line. But just think how much trouble and grief I'd have saved if I'd found the article last fall! Author Elizabeth S. O’Neill, a home gardener in California's central valley, has wonderful advice about sprouting chayotes:  
. . . locate a market . . . where chayote is sold in late fall. (It doesn’t matter if the fruit has been in cold storage and plastic-wrapped.) 
Buy several ... put them away in a dark, cool (not frosty) place . . . and wait. The seed sprout will emerge and lengthen in the darkness. By February it should be approximately six inches long.
 Then, if your area — like most parts of North America — isn’t yet frost-free, put the sprouted chayote in a pot . . . (Should you live in a zone, like ours, that usually stays above freezing in February, you can simply plant the germinated fruit wherever you want it to grow.)
So now it's apparent to me where I went wrong. I started in early (not late) fall, bought a net of three (not 'several') chayotes, and could not wait until February for the sprouts. Potting was totally unnecessary in our beneficent climate zone.

Oddly, O'Neill does not mention waiting for roots to appear before planting chayotes, but I learned about roots when I took my next step: transplanting the chayotes to a narrow strip of ground along a newer, sturdier redwood fence along the north side of our property. Steve had collaborated with our north-side neighbor in building this fence: digging post-holes to sink the four-by-four supports in concrete, attaching horizontal two-by-fours near the top and bottom of the four-by-fours, facing each section with one-by-sixes, and painting the whole with a wood preservative. No termites here, though they dominate an old wooden shed on the neighbor's side. Good fence, good neighbor. Good place to grow a bumper crop of heavy veggies.

BTW, O'Neill's article lists chayote's many names: 
They are known as christophine or mirliton to Caribbeans, chocho to Madeirans, pipinella to Italians, and pipinola to Hawaiians. (The plant’s scientific name is Sechium edule, but most North Americans call them 'vegetable pears.') 
Pipinella is my aesthetic favorite, but who wants to write or read about pipinella chaosPipinella pitfalls, perhaps, but I'm not going to change titles in midstream. Pipinella sounds more like the name of a female character in a Mozart opera anyway.

I hope you sense that a happy ending will follow closely upon my description of transplanting the chayotes to a spot where they can thrive. Part 5 of this lengthy narrative will, I hope, bring closure and satisfaction.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

chayote chaos, part 3

Remember when I was talking about the theme of getting things right, in part 1 of this series? Now you're going to find out how my experience with chayote squash made me question whether it's ever possible to learn the truth about anything.

Having watched a youtube video about how to sprout chayotes, I felt quite confident when I set two of them -- purchased at a supermarket, not stolen -- in a sunny spot to sprout. After waiting for weeks and then buying two more chayotes at Downtown L.A.'s Grand Central Market, I decided it was time for more research. Trying the same approach with the second pair, I reasoned, was something like throwing good money (79¢) after bad ($1.98). And so I went back to youtube and watched someone put a chayote into a brown paper bag and stash it in a cool dark place, coming back in a few days to find a bag full of leafiness. Aha! Here was a new approach I must try. Not having a paper bag of the right size to hold all four chayotes, I located a cardboard box that was just right for three. It fit nicely on a shelf in our cool dark linen closet. This was the point at which we ate one of the supermarket chayotes.

"Where are the links to those two youtube videos?" you are probably asking. Ordinarily I like to give my readers a lot of helpful links, but obviously these two were not helpful. In fact, I didn't see or read anything worth recommending until after the three chayotes were planted in the garden.

So . . . back to the linen closet. I think it's time to simplify this narrative by naming the fruits. ONE of the chayotes starting sprouting nicely after about a week; let's call it C1. Another (C2) showed no signs of any change, but one of them (C3) was seriously shriveling. I looked at more youtube videos, hoping to see something about how chayote roots were supposed to develop. What I saw was chayotes being put into pots with their flat, unsprouted sides down and soil drawn up around them. Most of the top sides were uncovered.

It must have been late December by now, because this was when I announced on an on-line forum that I had put two of them (C1 and C3) in pots and put them on the back porch where they'd get some sun and possibly put down some roots. I don't remember whether C2 stayed in the linen closet or not.

On January 8 or 9, according to my forum, I planted C1 next to my neighbor's fence. It was gratifying to see that a long tap root had developed and was supplemented by lots of hairy feeder roots

C3 was set out a couple of feet from C1 on January 13, while C2 remained in a pot on the bathroom window sill until February 2.

Meanwhile C1 was reaching for the top of my neighbor's fence. This fence, which starts where our chain link fence stops, runs along the south side of our property. Her ex-husband built it at least 20 years ago out of wooden two-by-fours resting on the concrete walkway to their back yard. He finished the fence on their side with a stucco covering painted to match their house Because we wanted to grow vines on our side, we covered it with white plastic trellis through which we can see some termite damage which, though it has been treated by an exterminator, has weakened the fence to a certain extent.

It was AFTER all the chayotes were planted along this north-facing fence and AFTER I'd proudly told our neighbor that they would soon come spilling over the top (fortunately she likes chayotes), that I found an article in Mother Earth News of November/December 1980: "Growing Chayote." According to a teaser right after the title:  "Growing chayote is a great option if you live in a warm or tropical climate. Once established, a single plant can bear 50 to 100 fruits a season." The article also states that individual chayotes fruits can weigh up to a pound each. In other words, I was about to subject an old,   weakened fence we didn't even own to a potential load of 300 pounds, plus the weight of the vines. What was I thinking?

Chayote chaos indeed!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

chayote chaos, part 2

After the explosion of fluff described in chayote chaos, part 1, I decided it was time to go out and actually buy a couple of these beautiful veggies. Chayotes were being sold for 99¢ each at an upscale supermarket nearby. I chose the ones I judged most likely to sprout soon, though the blossom ends of all the chayotes on display were pretty tightly closed. 

Returning home, I set my chayotes in the same spot where I'd cleared out the pile of unwanted fluff from my stolen pseudo-squashes and, once again, waited for nature to take its course.

I didn't record any dates for these activities, but I know that it was still early fall when I bought the two chayotes. When they hadn't sprouted by the middle of November, I started thinking that, like much supermarket produce, they'd been treated with some chemical that would keep them from sprouting. 

Throughout October and November, I was regularly visiting L.A.'s venerable Grand Central Market in connection with a yarnbombing project, and so I purchased two shriveled chayotes at one of the produce stalls. I was charged 99¢ a pound, and so these two chayotes, which looked like they might sprout any minute, cost a total of 79¢. While much of the market has been gentrified in recent months, the produce stalls continue to offer sad-looking produce at bargain prices.

You may wonder why I kept buying chayotes in pairs. Well, one of the things I thought I knew about growing chayotes was that there are male and female vines, and you had to have one of each gender to get the proper pollination. We happily ate the freshest-looking supermarket chayote, and I decided to try to sprout all of the remaining three. It made sense to me that a ménage à trois would improve our chances.

It was not until December 29, 2014, that I made this note in an on-line forum that I frequent: ". . . put two sprouted chayotes into pots, and put them on the back porch in hopes they'll put down some roots."

Why oh why had the sprouting process taken so long? Perhaps we'll get to that in Part 3 of this chronicle of chaos . . .

Monday, March 9, 2015

chayote chaos,* part 1

Theme (in the literary sense of the word) was the subject of it's cereus!, a post from August 2012 where I not only defined a theme for this blog but also illustrated the point by describing my astonishment at learning that a large cactus in our front garden was not a euphorbia but a cereus. (BTW, to understand the sheer gravitas of the piece, it helps to know that cereus is a homonym of serious.)

When I wrote it's cereus! I was reading The War of Art, a book about writing by the prolific novelist Steven Pressfield. Pressfield convinced me that I needed a theme for this blog. Not a subject, a theme.** After discussing the issue in detail, I made a sort of announcement:  "At last I think my major theme is 'getting things right.' Often this means simply learning something new, but it is the kind of learning that frequently requires discarding a preconception."

Last fall, when I started on a quest to grow chayote squash, I began to question whether "getting things right" is even possible. I had heard that chayotes were easy to grow in our climate, and I'd seen them sprout spontaneously from their blossom ends if they were not cooked in a timely enough manner. Little did I know that I was on the brink of vegetable chaos.

I had first eaten chayotes during the late 1950s, when my mother discovered them and quickly made them a family favorite: lightly steamed and served with butter, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Steve likes to grill chayotes after lightly brushing them with olive oil. Today I think this is the best way to prepare them, as it brings out their natural sweetness while cutting our intake of saturated fats.

In recent years I had seen chayotes growing locally on people's fences, and so I thought it would be fun to steal some, let them sprout, and plant them in our garden. Unfortunately I made this decision in the fall, and the fruit was substantially shriveled. The stems were tougher than I thought they'd be, and they exuded a sticky white goo that I'd never seen come out of a chayote. I furtively picked three and brought them home. Setting them under a skylight on our back porch, I waited for nature to take its course. It took a long time, but rather than producing a green stem, each one of them exploded into a mound of fluff. It was like dandelion fluff but the seeds and their silken parachutes were much larger.

At this point, I might have simply concluded that crime does not pay, but I chose to wade even deeper into chayote chaos.
to be continued . . .
- - - - -

* I urge you to visit if you have any questions about how the word chayote should be pronounced. The plant, a native of Central America, was called chayohtli by the ancient Aztecs, upon whom the conquistadores imposed latinate orthography as well as so many other arbitrary standardsI must confess that the title of this posting is a silly attempt to imply an alliteration that is purely visual unless we want to think about how chaos should be pronounced in ancient Greek. Maybe some other time?

** The difference between subject and theme is dear to the heart of every serious student of literature, and is well defined in a brief document created by the National Park Service, of all people. Oh, that all government agencies would be so diligent in training their employees to understand language and culture!

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License