“The trouble is, you cannot grow just one zucchini. Minutes after you plant a single seed, hundreds of zucchini will barge out of the ground and sprawl around the garden, menacing the other vegetables. At night, you will be able to hear the ground quake as more and more zucchinis erupt.”
Zucchini, Cucurbita pepo, a humble, yet extremely prolific, member of most gardens today, had a very well-traveled beginning. It originated from native seeds taken from areas of Mesoamerica, central Mexico through parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, by Old World explorers. Squash seeds have been found in archeological digs in Mexico dating to between 9000 and 4000 BC. The word squash came from the Narragansett tribe’s word askutasquash which means “eaten raw or uncooked” - this tribe was indigenous to Rhode Island. It is Christopher Columbus who is credited with bringing these squash seeds, native to the Americas, to Europe and the Mediterranean region. Zucchini cultivation most likely began near Milan, Italy, as “Zucchini” is a derivative of the Italian word for squash, zucca. Zucchini also goes by the French name for squash, courgette, in many French-speaking countries and English-speaking countries outside the USA. In South Africa, zucchini goes by the name “baby marrow”. Many countries around the world have incorporated zucchini into their distinctive cuisines.
Zucchini was “reintroduced” to the United States in the 1920’s by Italian immigrants. The mass immigration of Italians to the US from 1875 to 1975 lends to the reason we use the term Zucchini rather than Courgette. California was probably the first area of cultivation here in the USA.
Zucchini or other squash varieties were a staple food to many indigenous peoples and it was part of what became known as the Three Sisters Garden. This method of gardening includes the three common staple foods, corn (maize), beans and squash (zucchini). The corn emerged first giving the beans a “trellis” or “pole” to grow up; the beans lent support to the corn to help keep it upright in the wind as well as fixing nitrogen in the soil; and the squash provided shade to help conserve moisture and helped to protect the corn and beans from pests. This may be the first traditional type of companion planting.
Interesting notes about zucchini:
Let’s Grow Some (OK, a lot of) Zucchini:
Zucchini is a relatively easy to grow plant; it isn’t extremely picky, but it does like some basic “creature comforts”. First be sure to grow a variety that fits the space you have. For small spaces choose a bush variety, which most common varieties are, such as: Black Beauty, Cocozelle, most of the yellow varieties, and patty pans. Less common and more difficult to find (it is more common to find vining varieties of winter squash) are the vining varieties of Zucchini such as: Table Dainty (don’t let the name fool you they are anything but dainty), Long Green Trailing, Tatume (a favorite in Mexico), Little Gem or Gem Store, Black Forest (can be grown in a container if a stake or pole is provided for it to grow up).
Zucchini like well-tilled deep soil that is rich in organic matter and drains well. Hilling the soil approximately 4 inches high can help with germination (warming the soil), and better drainage. Don’t crowd the plants, even bush varieties like to “stretch” and have good airflow. I usually thin to 2 plants per area or hill; this allows for better pollination, a must for a good crop. Zucchini are sensitive to root disturbances, so it is best to plant the seeds directly into your garden. They grow fast, so in most regions of the US there is no need to start them indoors. You can also do succession planting if you want a steady harvest Spring to late Fall. I have found that one planting is enough for my husband and me, our neighbors, friends, and my colleagues at work.
If you do not have a healthy bee/pollinator population, you may want to hand pollinate your zucchini. A zucchini plant produces both male and female (the ones the fruit grows from) flowers. The male flowers appear first, a great natural way the plant attracts pollinators before beginning to set fruit. If you see fruit beginning to set and then begin withering, it may be from lack of pollination or inconsistent watering. To hand pollinate, take a fine artist’s brush or a Q-tip and roll it around the male flower’s stamen (the middle part of the flower where the pollen is), then transfer the pollen to the female flower. You can also cut the male flower off the plant, remove the petals, and shake the stamen in the female flower.
Zucchini like deep watering; a good inch a week should be sufficient in most areas. Here in Nevada, we are hot and dry, so I tend to water more often, even in my raised beds. This is a general benchmark: if there is moisture 2-4 inches below the surface of the dirt around your plants, they are good; if it is dry, they need water. Avoid getting the leaves wet, as this may lead to the development of disease in your plants. It is common for Zucchini plants to wilt a little during the day in really hot weather, but they should recover nicely by morning. If they are still wilted in the morning, they need water.
Depending on your soil, zucchini may need extra fertilizer, as they are a heavy feeder. Compost or compost tea is a great way to give them a boost right after they emerge and when blossoms appear. I usually do not add additional fertilizer, as my soil is pretty rich. A good reminder for all garden plants: fertilizer may make a healthy plant stronger, but it will not cure a diseased plant.
Harvest zucchini when they are a relatively small 6-8” in length. Keep an eye on them as they can morph into gargantuan “logs” almost overnight! The large zucs can be used for bread and for stuffing with all sorts of meat and other garden bounty, so don’t toss them unless you have hungry chickens or pigs and your freezer is full! When picking, don’t try to pull or twist them off the plant, as this could damage the plant or its roots. Always cut the fruit from the plant with a sharp knife or shears, leaving about 1 inch of stem in the fruit.
Zucchini do not store well due to their high water content, a couple of weeks at the most in the refrigerator, unwashed. They can be cut up, steam blanched, and frozen for later use. I typically shred them and freeze them in ziplocks for use in muffins throughout the winter.
There are three pests that can cause issues with Zucchini: Cucumber Beetles, Vine borers (typically found in the Eastern US), and the illustrious Squash bug (Stink bugs). Rotating where you plant your squash may break the life cycle of these pests as do organic insecticidal soap and homemade sprays. I have been using an organic product called Surround, which protects plants from heat stress and aids in insect suppression by coating them with a kaolin clay-based film. I have not used it as a coating on my plants; I simply sprinkle it around and under the squash plants as they grow and I have not had an issue with the very same squash bugs that have in the past almost completely obliterated my squash and pumpkin crops. In years past, I have had quart jars with soapy water filled with them. Now I may see less than ten a year, if any. It is always a good idea to check the under sides of the leaves for eggs, especially if you have seen and squished an adult anywhere near your garden. Simply scrape them off the leaf and squish them. If you live in area prone to vine borers, you can wrap tin foil around the bottom 2-4 inches of the plants to prevent the larvae from penetrating the stem.
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that is common later in the season, You may notice a white coating on both sides of the leaves. This can happen in the larger plants, as they get crowded and good airflow is diminished or irregular watering has stressed them. Most plants will cope with it and continue to produce. Remove infected leaves as you find them to prevent spread.
My favorite varieties of zucchini are:
Yellow Straightneck or Crookkneck (my husband’s favorite)
Benning’s Green Tint Scallop
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