Weymouth, Mass. — As February fades into March, we still are enjoying winter squash harvested late last summer and stored on shelves in the basement of our home. From the look of it we have another 8 to 10 weeks before the supply runs out.
The point is, we had a sizable harvest last year, largely, I believe, because an early crop of peas with its nitrogen-fixing qualities fertilized the winter squash that followed.
Here in the relatively short-seasoned Northeast, peas and winter squash are never suggested as following crops because peas are 3 to 4 weeks away from harvest when it is time to sow the squash seed. But there are ways to get around this as I was to discover in a bed 4 feet wide by 25 feet long last year.
I mentioned these findings in a column last fall, but in the absence of any accompanying sketches, just how the rambling vines were contained in such a narrow bed was not quite clear to everyone. Also, in the light of last year's experience, I shall modify the approach somewhat.
This is how I suggest a combined peas-squash (or melons or cucumbers) combination might operate in 4X25-foot bed (plant fewer hills of squash if yours is a shorter bed):
First, build four raised "islands" of soil and compost on the bed. These should be approximately 18 inches across and about 8 inches high, one each at either end of the bed; and two, moderately close together, near the center (see diagram).
It would help if these mounds of soil are contained within a circle of hardware cloth, stip of aluminum, plastic lawn edging, or whatever else is suitable. A square planting area, with wooden boards to support the soil, would be equally effective.
The rest of the bed will be given over to dwarf peas, broadcast evenly.
Once the peas are up and growing strongly, the raised circles of soil will stand out like islands in a sea of green, exposed to the sun and ready to receive the squash or melon seeds as soon as the threat of frost has passed.
When the pea vines are mature and about ready to flower, it will be time to sow the squash seeds. Plant one seed in each of the "islands." (To insure germination, you might plant two seeds in each island, but allow only one to grow to maturity).
By the time the young peas have formed, the squash seeds will have germinated. When the peas are ready for harvest the squash vines should be about ready to tumble out of their circular raised beds.
Now you can simply pull out the pea vines if you wish to make way for the now rapidly growing squash vines. I didn't do it that way last year because I wanted the nitrogen-enriched roots to stay in the soil and feed the squash. Thus, I cut down each pea vine -- leaving the roots undisturbed --the soil as a mulch.
The squash vines had no difficulty growing over the top of this mulch, sending roots down through it into the rich soil below. Moreover, as the pea- vine mulch decayed it, too, fed the growing squash.
Now a bed only 4 feet wide isn't considered the right size for trailing vine crops that prefer to ramble over a wide area. The answer then is to train the vines down the length of the bed (see diagram) and trim them once they reach the end. I found this promoted vigorous side growth, about half of which I cut off. The remaining new growth I kept throwing back on top of the existing vines.
This led to a really tangled vine bed by season's end. But it was a fairly productive one. That 100 square feet produced 127 pounds of winter squash, while the conventionally grown squash in a much larger area, but where the soil had not been "fertilized" by a preceding pea crop, did not produce anywhere near as the heavily.
That same bed produced 15 pounds of shelled green peas (I didn't weigh them before shelling) which indicates how much less productive garden peas are compared to many other crops. But, fresh garden peas are as much as gourmet treat as anything your backyard will produce. On top of that they fertilize the soil, boosting the productivity of the following crop. I have had particularly good results with carrots whenever they have followed peas.
Indeed, whatever the crop, it will be better because of the peas that grew there previously.
This approach could be used with any of the vining crops. This year I plan to grow cantaloupe this way