September 16, 2013

A love affair with groundhogs and butternut squash


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Don Papson loves butternut squash, and this year, by chance, he has gargantuan ones to adore. 

“It’s my favorite squash,” said Papson, who lives with his wife, Vivian, in Plattsburgh.

“We eat a lot of butternut squash in the wintertime. This amazing plant grew out of the compost. I had one several years ago that did very well and this year, I just let this one go. It is like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ It’s just unbelievable.”

He dubs 2013 the Year of the Squash.

“Every year is different,” he said. “One year it’s the Year of the Tomato. We haven’t a Year of the Squash for about four years. It’s just an amazing plant. It’s a marvel. The leaves are 15 inches across. They (squash) are huge. They’re way bigger than you find in the store.”

Papson is a retired educator, historian, founder and former director of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, which operates the North Star Museum at Ausable Chasm.

In his native California, he was raised on a farm.

“My father had a garden. One year, he had an amazing garden. He had tomatoes that he staked up, and they were two times as high as a person. They were just huge. I grew flowers. When I lived in Chicago, I started growing food on vacant lots. And the problem with that was people would steal the food.”

With three friends, he purchased a six-flat building.

“There was a vacant lot next door where there had been an apartment building. There had been a lot of arson for profit so that building had been intentionally burned down for insurance. I started growing food on the lot. One day a guy came down the alley and said, ‘You can’t grow anything in there.’ But I did it anyway.”

He kept expanding the vacant-lot garden.

“The people were coming in there and stealing. So after Vivian and I got married, we sold our share and my partners bought that lot. One of the reasons we moved to the North Country, I wanted to get back to my roots and have another garden.”

At their first home in Schuyler Falls, there was an old garden with an asparagus patch.

“I love groundhogs. There was a groundhog that was getting my food. I put a fence around the garden. The groundhog was getting in. So, I took chicken wire and put around the base of my fence, and it was sneaking between the two wires and still getting in. Then, I tightened up the chicken wire around the base of the fence, and it was pushing the gate open.”

Papson knew where the mammal’s holes were and stood before one and said, “Why are you doing this? You have seven acres here. You can eat all this grass out here. Why are you doing this?”

Wild-foods naturalist Linda Runyon related a similar story to Papson.

“She had a garden once. She could actually see the plants being pulled into the earth by a groundhog that had tunneled beneath her garden. We’ve had a groundhog this year, too. It’s been under our porch. The nice thing about squashes, they don’t eat squash but they eat the other food.”

The Papsons’ greens were a tasty treat to the groundhogs.

“So, they’ve eaten our kale, beet tops and our collards but they don’t like Chinese greens so we got those, and they don’t like butternut squash.”

Vivian steams the squash and seasons with a little butter.

“You can make soup out of, too,” he said. “She has a very good recipe for butternut-squash soup.”

After he harvests the squash, Papson will put it away in a crawl space.

“And, I will give some of it away, too. I haven’t been able to garden much because of the museum. I decided this year since I retired from the board; I was going to do better with the garden. So, I expanded it a little bit. Vivian had been after me to grow more food because the cost of it is so high.”

One day she came home with an $8 butternut squash.

“This is like a gift. What I learned, if all my garden beds were as rich as that compost heap, what a garden I would have. It’s really a lesson in enriching my soil. Every year, I kind of hope that a squash plant will come up out of the compost.”

He doesn’t turn his compost but lets it decompose naturally.

“These seeds didn’t decompose, so they must be super seeds. So, I’m going to save some of them and plant them next year. My other squash plants haven’t done anything, the ones I actually planted. They have produced very little.”

He planted butternut seeds and they didn’t germinate.

“The environment was just perfect in the compost,” Papson said. “I had this fence I planted with morning glory to camouflage the compost heap, and the squash has taken it over.”

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Vivian's Savory Butternut Squash Soup




1. Pour the olive oil into a large soup pot and saute the onions and garlic over low heat for three to five minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the onion-garlic mixture steam for 15 minutes.

2. Sir in the squash, potato and carrot and mix well. Pour the stock and bring the soup to boil. Reduce heat, cover pot and simmer for additional 15 minutes.

3. Add salt, pepper and cilantro. Stir well. Cover pot and simmer for additional 15 minutes.

4. Blend one third of soup at at time in blender or food processor and place in clean pot. Reheat soup over low heat. Do not let it come to a boil. Serve hot. Garnish with thyme leaves.