Lessons from a not-that-green thumb


A few years ago, I developed what has become known by a circle of friends as the wimpy jalapeno theory.

The basic idea began simply enough… more and more menus were adding dishes that carried a spice warning. Icons and spicy wording and hot hot hot. The reality though, as it seemed to me and many of those I discussed it with, was that many of these spicy dishes weren’t all that spicy.

If I didn’t know better, I would develop some conspiracy theory about it. One where spicy was used as a description to create some sort of trend or fad or feeling of accomplishment. Kind of like defeating a game played at the simplest of levels, but not letting those that completed it know they were being carried along for the ride. Back to my jalapeno theory…

Conversations were held about the meaning of spicy on these menus. It was being used almost exclusively to convey a warning about heat. Many of us chuckled about it, since the jalapeno-flavored this and habanero-infused that often lacked jalapeno and habanero kicks of heat. For those of us keeping track, the sweet and spicy chili sauces would be sweet with perhaps a hint of spice.

A good way of summarizing this idea would be to think of it as spicy for the mass market. It was as if the label was added not because the food actually had lots of spice and heat, but rather the name offered a bit of exotic danger to it that added to the thrill of ordering it.

The wimpy jalapeno theory expanded from there in many ways. For one, I mentioned that it seemed like the peppers and produce I was buying didn’t seem to be as strong, and some people agreed.

About ten years ago, a potential answer came about. I read an article that talked about farming and produce. It mentioned that some ways of improving overall growth, specifically increasing the speed of getting things to harvest (while in some cases also producing larger fruits and vegetables), were actually resulting in produce that had fewer nutrients. The faster growth had removed the full development of nutrition (as an easily explanation). This article, in many ways and from a different perspective, lent a bit of support to my “the jalapenos aren’t as strong” stance.

An exception to the rule? Yup. Our garden.

Out there we had plenty of success with jalapenos and several other pepper varieties. And these have almost always, garden after garden, come along with solid flavors and a good touch of jalapeno-level heat.

I mention all of this because I want to talk to you about butternut squash.

(I know. Doesn’t seem to make sense. I have hopes, so stay with me.)

I’ve always heard about cross-pollination and hybrids and so on when it comes to gardens. But, for the most part, I would say a naïve approach to gardening and a somewhat inexperienced ability to really detect flavors crossing over from plant to plant would place me squarely in the couldn’t-tell-you group when it comes to mixing and matching and hybriding things in my garden.

Yes, I have noticed the flavors in my peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and more seem to be better than what I’m getting in the store. Same for the parsley, basil and other assorted efforts. But I have zero clue if the green peppers have picked up some traces of the jalapeno peppers. And I have even less of a clue as to whether the tomatoes or cucumbers or zucchinis have gained something from the bees and wind and such moving things around in our garden.

Until this year.

For the first time, we attempted to plant butternut squash.

And, the very first thing I need to mention about that would reflect how no one told me what was coming as a result. Squash. Simple. Like the summer squash and zucchini and similar plants. Right? Kind of leafy and circular (if you will) with how they’ll spread, read the directions but possibly plant in a mound, and so on. And the answer is… not really. Not at all.

These things went everywhere, shooting around like uncontrolled cucumber vines. Up and over and into raised beds. Along and around and inside and outside the garden fence. In between and through and back again other plants. We’ve got butternut squash all over the place.

Around mid-August I noticed a couple of summer squash that looked fine overall, but definitely different. The skin seemed firmer. The color was a bit darker, almost as if a touch of orange had been mixed in with the yellow. And then I picked a couple. And the inside was pretty much what you might expect to find if I told you a summer squash exterior and butternut squash interior.

While certainly not an intentional cross-pollination or similar effort, Terry and I arrived at the conclusion that we had grown hybrid butternut summer squash.

So… butternut summer squash… stronger jalapenos… or, perhaps, just the quality gained from absolute fresh from the vine vegetables served in your kitchen. The limits are strictly up to you.

This week, we took a trip to visit with the parents. A few eggplants and some traditional butternut squash were packed, with plans of a homecooked meal and some experiments placed on our agenda. But a bit of this ingredient and a bit of that conversation and suddenly a side dish of butternut squash with apples replaces plans for finding a good soup recipe.

Terry and I have a joke about green beans, which is that you can usually grow them on a rock. Not far from the truth. The reality is, many items in a garden will grow quite well with even the lightest of touches after the planting is done. (And the planting might not have to be the most detailed and planned of events to generate success.) Still, it never hurts to do the work. The watering… the weeding… the occasional prod. Occasionally, even a novice can learn a few things (and then harvest the rewards).


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com