Zucchini, or courgette as the British and French call it, is a summer squash and a member of the gourd family. Technically a fruit, because they contain seeds, in culinary terms they’re classed a vegetable and are mostly used in savoury dishes. Some people love a good courgette cake, however, but I’ll leave it to you whether you’d like to try that. If you’re interested in growing zucchini, read on!
Zucchini is a great plant for your backyard. It’s easy to grow and you only need a couple of plants to keep a family of 4 in good supply of squash over the summer.
The choice of which variety to grow depends firstly on where you’re planning to grow it, and how much space the plants will have. Generally they take up quite a bit of space, but there are also plenty of dwarf zucchini varieties that will happily grow in containers.
There are also various options when it comes to the fruit’s color and shape. Colours range from the darkest of green to very pale. If green isn’t your color, then consider going for one of the yellow varieties. They look lovely and bright against the green leaves and are easier to spot when harvesting.
Some zucchinis have smooth skin whilst others can be rougher with ridges. Shape wise, there’s the traditional cylinder or you can opt for a round-shaped variety (these are good for stuffing).
Planting and Growing Zucchini
Zucchini will not germinate below 56°F and do best at around 20°F. If you’re sowing outside, make sure the soil is warm enough for them to germinate. Don’t sow them if there is still a chance of a late spring frost.
I personally enjoy the challenge of stretching the growing season and often try to push my luck with sowing before the recommended time. Sometimes this works a treat, other times it has ended in complete disaster. Just make sure that if you’re experimenting like this, you don’t sow all your seeds at the same time. Sow a couple every few weeks and see what works for you.
Another good option is to start them off inside and move them out when the weather has warmed up. Just plant them in little pots until they’re big enough to handle and there’s no chance of night frost. To harden off your zucchini seedlings—so they don’t get shocked from all of a sudden being moved outside in the cold—put them out during the day and get them back inside at night. If you do this for a week or so, they should be fine to be planted into their final position.
It will take about 10 days for the seeds to germinate. Once planted out, you could be harvesting your very own home-grown zucchinis in about 35 – 55 days time.
Where to Place Your Plants
The best possible place to grow your zucchini is on top of a compost heap. There it will happily dig into the rich soil and thrive, whilst also making the heap look a lot more attractive. If you don’t have a compost heap, not to worry. Zucchinis are very easy-going and, in my experience, will grow pretty much any place where there is a good amount of sun.
Soil and Water
As mentioned above, zucchins are laid-back plants that will put up with whatever soil condition you have to offer. They do prefer nutrient-rich soil, but if yours is lacking a bit, no problem. Feed them a high potash liquid feed every couple of weeks once the fruits start to grow.
Do make sure you water them often as they can get very thirsty in summer. Don’t pour water onto the plant: instead, water around it and try to keep the soil constantly moist.
Pests and Diseases
There are a few pests and diseases that can be a… well a pest, for zucchinis.
They’re prone to powdery mildew, which causes a dusty white coating on not just the leaves but also the stems and flowers. The warmer the weather gets, the greater the risk for your zucchinis to suffer from this. Keeping the plants well watered and improving air flow around it can help keep the disease at bay.
Zucchinis can also be affected by the Cucumber Mosaic virus. This will cause yellow mottling and distorted and stunted growth. Unfortunately there is no remedy for this and plants suffering from it will need to be discarded. You can, however, avoid the virus by growing disease resistant varieties.
Slugs and snails are a zucchini’s biggest enemies. They can devour young plants, leaving no sign that there was ever a zucchini plant there. It’s best to cover young plants to protect them from being eaten.
Best Companion Plants for Zucchini
Zucchinis are friends with most other plants but there are a few that will be particularly beneficial to grow nearby:
- Nasturtiums – they repel pests, and the edible flowers are delicious in many dishes.
- Parsley, peppermint, dill, oregano, and lemon balm – also help in the fight against pests.
- Spinach – likes to grow under the big leaves’ shady protection, and happily lets your zucchini benefit from the nutrients it leaves behind.
- Radish, garlic and corn – they do their bit to repel pests.
- Beans and Peas – fix nitrogen to the soil, and zucchinis LOVE nitrogen.
- Borage – attracts bees, which are crucial for pollination. No bees, no zucchinis.
In Native American Gardens, a symbiotic guild system that is known as the Three Sisters Garden is often used. Beans, corn and zucchini (or sometimes pumpkins) are grown together in perfect harmony. The corn provides a sturdy support for the beans to grow up, the beans fix nitrogen into the soil for the zucchini, and the zucchini covers the ground to suppress the weeds. It’s the ultimate example of companion planting.
There are a couple of species that the zucchini does not play well with and which you should avoid growing nearby:
- Potatoes – make sure to plant potatoes alone. They’re heavy feeders that rob the soil of its nutrients. Always rotate potato crops for this reason.
- Pumpkins – since they’re members of the same family, cross pollination can affect the fruit.
Harvesting and Storing
Zucchinis are tastiest when they’re picked small. The bigger they grow, the more flavour they lose and the more watery they get. If you leave them too long they grow into marrows. Some people like them but I have yet to cook something tasty with them.
It can be tricky to keep zucchinis fresh as opposed to the winter squash variety. The latter have hard, inedible skin that makes it easy to store them over winter. Zucchinis will keep for 4 or 5 days if picked small and stored in the fridge. It helps to not wash them until right before you need them. That way they stay fresh for longer.
Zucchinis are extremely versatile and they make some amazing dishes. My three favourite things to make with them are:
- Zucchini Soup – deliciously smooth and perfect with some shavings of parmesan on top. This also freezes extremely well and could help if you’re dealing with a large batch that’s been harvested at the same time.
- Pickled Zucchini – where some gherkins can go a bit slimy, pickled zucchinis stay far more crunchy and they go great with a spicy curry. Again as they’re pickled, they keep and could help make a large harvest last.
- Zoodles (zucchini noodles) – just add your favourite pasta sauce to spiralized or shredded zucchini and enjoy.
If you’re feeling brave and experimental, or if you’ve grown zucchini before and would like to expand your garden, consider trying a more unusual heirloom variety. Here are a few interesting ones to explore:
Cocozella di Napoli – an Italian heirloom variety with long, slender fruit and flavorful flesh. It has alternating bright yellow and deep green stripes, and matures in 55 days.
Costata Romanesco – an ancient Roman zucchini variety that has deep, serrated ridges. Each slice looks like a scalloped flower, and the plant’s fresh blossoms are delicious when stuffed.
Lebanese White Bush – this rare Lebanese courgette has oblong fruits and creamy, pale inner flesh. Harvest when still quite small to enjoy their flavor. It’s an ideal variety to grow as a container plant.
Zucchino Rampicante – an heirloom Italian variety that has long, vining fruits that can grow up to 15″ long. Each fruit has a bulb at the end, and their flavorful flesh is perfect for all kinds of pasta dishes.
Desi Summer Squash Zucchini – a unique variety from India, it has baseball-sized (and shaped) fruits that mature in a scant 40 days. The nutty, richly flavored fruits grow on low bushes, so they don’t sprawl the way many other varieties do. This one has won countless taste tests, and would be an invaluable addition to your garden.
So go ahead, and start growing zucchini in your own garden. You’ll be glad you did.