"The zucchini files"

Zucchini can be a rewarding summer crop.
Sunday, 10 January 2021     

Zucchini plants in my garden

One of the most enduring garden-related memories from my childhood relates to coming home after a fortnight's family holiday by the seaside to find zucchinis in my mother's vegetable patch that were approximately the size and weight of a three-month-old baby. It was an impressive display of how quickly zucchinis can grow, and their ease of culture has been demonstrated recently in my own garden, where, for the first time, I have successfully grown this vegetable (though it is technically a fruit!). I am still a novice in veggie-growing, so it has been encouraging to have success - and, in fact, a bumper harvest!

Seeds were planted in spring, and soon germinated. The plants grew robustly and I thinned them to three seedlings. The white-flecked, deeply lobed foliage is large and actually quite decorative. With the variety I am growing the plants have progressed along the ground a bit via a stout stem, but so far aren't too unruly! Large, brilliant yellow flowers with the texture of crepe paper soon began to appear. Male flowers have a long slender stem, and the female ones can be identified by the cute miniature zucchini at their base. This is when I had to consult my mother about pollination, as I vaguely recalled that she had ensured fertilisation with the use of a paintbrush. It seems as if natural pollinators simply cannot be relied upon to play their role, possibly because the flowers only seem to stay open for a few hours in the morning (at least on my plants). Lacking a paintbrush, I ripped off most of the petals of the male flower, leaving just the middle part containing the stamen and placed it into the stigma in the middle of the female flower, where I left it - a seemingly rather obscene act - but it did the trick. Almost the next day, the tiny zucchini started to grow - and grow. It seemed that literally within days, I had a crop!

The next stage was to work out what to do with an ongoing supply of zucchinis! I sought recipes from my own cookbooks and from friends, and came up with a range of options. They can be eaten cooked or raw. They can be sauteed, stir-fried, stuffed, baked, char-grilled or spiralised into low-carb 'noodles', and they can be used in fritters, frittatas, risottos, pizzas, omelettes, pickles, cakes, muffins, bread, soups and salads. The flowers are also edible and can be added to salads or stuffed with cheese and baked or fried!

I wondered whether there was actually much nutrition in a zucchini, or are they simply akin to a choko - embodied water within a skin? I was pleasantly surprised to find that whilst, yes, they do have a high water content, there are indeed many health benefits to a zucchini, including their being moderately rich in various vitamins and minerals (particularly vitamins A and C, noting that the vitamin C level is reduced and the vitamin A level is increased when the zucchini is cooked). Zucchini is also said to be rich in antioxidants, located mainly in the skin, which can augment eye health as well as conferring possible other benefits to the heart and bones. It contains soluble and insoluble fibre, helpful for digestion (as is the water content!), and it is low in calories.

Zucchini (Cucurbita pepo var. melopepo), also known as courgette or marrow, belongs to the Cucurbitaceae plant family, which includes pumpkins, melons, spaghetti squash and cucumbers. There are a number of different varieties, including those with yellow or pale green skins, and ones with a round shape. They are a warm-season crop and need a sunny in the garden (or in a large pot), with organic matter dug into the soil before planting. It is best to plant seeds directly into the ground in from early spring to early summer, preferably into a small 'mound' of soil, to ensure the good drainage that they demand. It is, however, possible to sow individual seeds into small pots and plant them out carefully (without disturbing the roots) when they are strong enough - this is useful if early crops are wanted and heat can be provided indoors for the pots to aid germination when the weather is still cold outdoors. The plants need to be spaced well apart to allow them plenty of room. Feed and water regularly, and apply a surface mulch over the soil around them, to maintain moisture. The plants grow very quickly and the first crops should be ready about six to eight weeks after planting; regular harvesting will encourage higher yields. They are at their most tasty if picked when fairly small. It's best to cut the zucchinis off rather than breaking them, which can damage the plant. It is apparently possible to plant a second crop in February to get further crops into autumn.

If you are overwhelmed with too many of them developing at once, you can refrain from pollinating for a few days (or eat the flowers!). I found it useful to grow three plants so that amongst them there would always be some male and female flowers opening on any given day. However, zucchini can cover some area as they grow: it's a good idea to choose more compact 'bush' varieties if possible, especially for growing in pots, rather than the rambling sorts. With the more sprawling types, it can be useful to pinch the leading shoot out when the runner is about 45 cm long, to induce branching. The only problem I have encountered so far with my plants was powdery mildew, which occurred during a period of cool, rainy, humid weather. I removed the worst-affected leaves and sprayed with an organic fungicide (based on potassium bicarbonate), which fixed the issue. Making sure the soil is kept moist is also a way to avoid powdery mildew.

I've enjoyed growing zucchini and have now been emboldened to try some different crops in my garden!

 Reader Comments

1/9  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 January 2021

So pleased your zucchinis have proved so productive - it is very satisfying. I have not grown them for years, but do remember that they sometimes need help with the fertilizing of the fruit. They are also prone to mildew, but you have conquered that very well. I did find they seemed to grow overnight, so you needed to use them before they became too large. Great to read the nutritional content, thank you. Thanks, Margaret. The mildew has come back so now I have tried a milk-and-water spray! Deirdre

2/9  Rob - 2263 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 11 January 2021

It's also not a good idea to save the seeds from your own zucchinis to plant, they can revert to a poisonous form, better to use packet seeds. If you grow any from saved seeds and the fruit has a bitter taste, don't eat them. https://foodsafety.asn.au/zucchini-courgette/ Thanks so much for this information, Rob, which I will add to the plant reference description. Deirdre

3/9  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 January 2021

Dear Deirdre, Glad you mentioned chokos as well! I also have a productive choko vine, and have some Mexican recipes that list 1-2 chokos (chayotes) or 3-4 zucchini. I often substitute these veges as they are so similar in taste. I often put them in mixed vege bakes like Ratatouille as they absorb the flavour of the tomatoes etc. Thanks, Pam. Mum had a thriving choko vine and would famously use them to substitute for ANY ingredient she didn't have on hand! Deirdre

4/9  Linda - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 January 2021

Aubergines! I have had a bumper crop, in no way afflicted with powdery mildew, which completely annihilated my golden squash. Taken while still quite young, cut in rounds, sprinkled with oil, salt and pepper and then roasted on high oven heat, they have been a fabulous side dish or salad topping. My best crop ever! Linda Yum, they sound amazing. I haven't ever grown them but am keen to try! Deirdre

5/9  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 January 2021

Brings back memories of a long ago disastrous attempt at cooking a huge after holiday zucchini stuffed with mince. Last year I grew tromboncino zucchinis which were quite prolific ....and large. This year I,ll need to help my yellow crookneck ones along with a paintbrush. Have you tried Grandma's Throwing Tomatoes? Very large, interesting shape but sadly so far spoiled by fruit fly. I seem to recall Mum used our giant ones to make zucchini bread or cakes! I haven't tried that tomato variety - I have never had much luck with tomatoes, alas! Deirdre

6/9  Hanni - 2134 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 11 January 2021

Thank you for your informative Zucchini blog! I totally agree with it. For years I planted them, watched them flowering beautifully but never succeeded in getting fruits. Until somebody alerted me to the fact that they have to be pollinated by hand. From then on I did exactly the same as you. Sometimes there were no male flowers, but plenty of female ones, or the other way around. But generally it worked well! How comes the bees dont pollinate them? I just don't know why the bees don't pollinate them! I haven't seen a bee anywhere near my zucchini flowers. Part of the issue may be that the flowers only seem to open for a very short time in the morning. I did see some ants in the flowers at one stage - not sure if they were doing any pollinating!! Deirdre

7/9  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 12 January 2021

What a happy fun post Dierdre ! Thanks, Kerrie! Deirdre

8/9  Kalina - 2795 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Thank you, what wonderful timing . I have just arrived home with a new zucchini and an eggplant, neither of which I have grown before. I've been a gardener for years and have only discovered the joys of a vege patch in the last six months. Thank you for the timely information. I hope you have good success with your plants! Deirdre

9/9  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Lovely post Deirdre. It is so satisfying to grow your own. One year I had heaps of male flowers which was due to high heat- apparently the females can abort with high heat or stress, so the rain and cool is a blessing this year however not for my tomatoes and corn which have been very slow during the cool weather. Borage is a good bee attractant to help with pollination of cucurbits. Thanks for those good tips, Sue. The weather has finally warmed up so your tomatoes and corn should come along now! Deirdre

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