Our connection to winter squash can be traced back to this country’s Native American roots. It was a staple of the “Three Sisters” tradition practiced by many tribes across North America.
Squash, corn, and beans were commonly clustered together in mounds because of their symbiotic benefits to one another – a technique now known as companion planting. The corn stalks give the bean vines room to climb. The beans, in turn, add nitrogen to the soil to nourish the corn. Below, the squash run along the ground, providing shade and moisture to the soil and helping to keep out weeds.
“In essence, our Native American ancestors were practicing an early form of sustainable agriculture,” says Wes Ryals, a landscape designer in Madison and all-around squash enthusiast.
This agricultural history is what fascinates Ryals and has driven him to preserve endangered varieties through his work and in his own garden.
By day, he works with Environs Design Studio, a partner of Georgia Civil, in the field of landscape architecture and ecological planning for residential, farm, and commercial properties. His work largely involves reestablishing botanical diversity and preserving natural habitats for long-term sustainability.
He carries this philosophy over to his own gardens. At home, he grows several varieties of winter squash from all over the world, many of which originated principally in South and Central America and what is now Mexico. “Everything I grow is heirloom and has a historical significance to it,” he says.
Heirloom varieties are typically considered anything cultivated before 1950. Ryals purchases his seeds through Seed Savers Exchange or Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, two companies he says have helped preserve thousands of heirlooms from around the world.
Ryals says the region has probably lost 75 percent of its agricultural diversity since WWII. “As the big farm has taken over, we’ve lost a lot of these delicate varieties that have either just fallen out of favor, or they don’t ship well, or whatever reason,” he says. “Part of my interest in building that interest in varieties that you wouldn’t otherwise see, and trying to resurrect some historical varieties that pre-WWII were traditionally seen in this area.”
He encourages his clients to plant these rare and endangered varieties when he can. “Unless people purposefully plant these, we’re not going to see them anymore,” says Ryals. “We like to introduce people to these different varieties and see if it plays into what they’d like to grow and like to eat.”
That, after all, is the best part about restoring this heritage to the home garden. Ryals says he and his wife, Leslie, look forward to harvesting the squash each year and are constantly seeking new recipes to highlight the culinary characteristics of each variety.
His garden has around a dozen varieties ranging from sweet “North Georgia Candy Roasters” to hearty “Marina di Chioggias.”
The “Marinas” are deep green and “warty,” but their beauty shines in Italian dishes. His “Pike’s Peak” or “Sibley Squash” are ideal for roasting, he says, only getting sweeter and drier with age as its flesh turns a rich salmon color. His “Potimarron,” or “Kuri Squash” from Japan have chestnut-like undertones that work well in soups. And the classic, “Winter Luxury Pie” squash fall squarely in the Pumpkin group and is one of the finest for pie stock.
The squash from Ryals’ home garden are usually ready in September, but they store all winter and can last a year or two, he says – another reason the winter squash was a staple for Native American life.
“I love bringing back these rare, traditionally-grown species in this area and being able to grow things that you’re not able to find elsewhere,” says Ryals. “It’s part of our agricultural heritage that I think we’ve largely lost and are just now starting to find again.”
Written by Andrea Gable
Photographed by Holly Brown
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
– Wendell Phillips