by Matthew Richards
I had the good fortune to attend a recent talk given by Linda Leitner the venerable head gardener at the Redwood Coast Senior Center; the topic of the talk being a remarkable perennial gourd thought to originate from Mesoamerica. It is known by many names throughout the world but “Chayote” (Sechium edule) is probably the most familiar to North Americans. There are two main varieties: spiny and smooth, each has its own unique attributes and idiosyncrasies so choose the one that’s best for you.
A member of the squash family, Chayote is 100% edible, each part of the plant from seed to root to vine may be prepared in a variety of delectable ways, even the prolific tendrils which are considered a delicacy in some culinary traditions. A single Chayote plant when well managed is capable of producing up to 500 pounds of nutritious food per year!
While not typically perceived as copacetic with cool temperate climates such as we regularly enjoy here on the coast, the humble Chayote is surprisingly well adapted to Fort Bragg weather. In fact it thrives so exceedingly well that special care should be taken when selecting and preparing a site for planting. It is not uncommon for its explosive growth to quickly overtake small structures, which is one of the main reasons that significant trellising is highly recommended.
When it comes to site selection, ideally you should have a minimum of 100 square feet of tilth, a 10×10 foot plot is a good start. The site should be fully exposed to the sun as this is critical for the health of the plant. Chayote are “heavy feeders” so it is also important to ensure that the soil contains plenty of organic matter and is nitrogen rich. Amend the entire plot if possible, this will encourage extensive root growth and provide the Chayote with ample nutrition.
Assuming you already have a Chayote on hand, it should be stored in a cool dark place prior to planting. If you acquire your gourd in March, wait until May to plant. The Chayote is half rather than fully buried when planted, this makes it a tempting target for many hungry animals. A large gopher cage placed below and around the gourd provides minimal protection. Bury the Chayote on its side with any protruding vine facing upward.
During the first year of growth the Chayote will be working hard to put down roots so that it is well established, there will most likely be no flowers and no fruit, this is totally normal. Place three tomato cages in a triangle around the plant and give it patient assistance until the vine manages to find purchase. By the end of the first year your plant may take up a relatively small area of 4×4×4 feet.
Foliage will die back in December, this is natural and important. Do not remove any of the dead foliage as it provides a natural yet imperfect layer of insulation that protects the plant from frosts. Additional mulching with rice straw which doesn’t sprout or mold is also smart. Keep the plant covered all winter, a weighted down bed sheet will do nicely. Once May rolls around it should be safe to uncover for the duration of the summer. Water like you would any other growing plant.
In January of the following year do the Chayote a huge favor and replenish the plot, more organic matter, more nitrogen rich amendments. The plant is gearing up for a truly spectacular display and it needs all the nutrition it can get. Now is the time to build your arbor. There are countless ways to do this, but the tried and true method involves creating a grid of eight-foot T-posts placed equidistantly at approximately six-foot intervals.
Bamboo poles are then lashed to their tops forming an aerial grid. Extra poles can also be lashed crosswise for additional strength and support. Regardless of your personal method, always keep in mind that the Chayote fruit will be hanging down from above so it is essential that your arbor structure allow for adequate openings.
By September of year two your Arbor should be absolutely inundated with foliage. Huge beautiful heart-shaped leaves that create a canopy so thick that it will block most of the light falling below leading to a natural die-off of the foliage underneath. All your work has finally paid off. Flowers which are very tiny and may be hard to spot at first will inevitably lead to a large number of small gourds which begin to form from August to November. Baby Chayote will rapidly mature and be ready to harvest by early November to late December.
Another one of Linda’s excellent tips is to flag your first big gourds with red tape. These will be the ones you want to save for successive propagation as they represent the early variety. Once they’ve been marked you’ll be able to identify them later when you are reaping the full rewards of your labor. Which brings us to another important point: it is very prudent to pick all the Chayote, because every gourd you leave behind has the potential to multiply the scale of growth. If just one plant can overwhelm a 10×10×6 foot area, just imagine what a few dozen could do.
So you’ve survived your first Chayote harvest, congratulations. If you’ve done everything right, next year should be pretty much the same as the last, with the possible exception of even more Chayote!
All the information above was compiled from my notes taken during the presentation. Any additional inquiries would most certainly be best directed to the source, Linda who has the gardening expertise and detailed instructions on how to prepare and cook Chayote. Linda can be found at the senior center garden during volunteer hours on Monday from 1-3pm.