The Star of Summer Squash
By Julia Maddock
Is it possible for a single plant to be the perfect fit for any garden? The zucchini argues that it is. Also known by the Latin name of Cucurbita pepo, the zucchini is a variety of summer squash with a rich history dating back thousands of years. Humble, yet incredibly versatile, the zucchini is a prolific grower that provides a bountiful harvest with low, easy maintenance. Suitable for any temperate climate, the zucchini provides enjoyment and value to both experienced and novice gardeners. Because it requires only three feet of space, it can grow successfully in even a small urban backyard. Containing a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the zucchini is nutrient-dense and provides a variety of health benefits. Even better, the zucchini can transform any meal of the day, from breakfast to dessert. With so many exceptional benefits, zucchini belongs in every backyard.
Zucchini is botanically classified as a fruit, because it grows from the flower of the plant. However, common misconception usually refers to it as a vegetable, and it has been treated as a vegetable in the culinary arts for many years. The squash’s ancestors originated in Central and South America thousands of years ago, and it is rumored that Christopher Columbus himself brought seeds from these plants back to the Europeans. This early predecessor to today’s zucchini was cultivated across Europe, and was quickly adopted into Italian cooking. It is believed that zucchini first reached the United States in the 1920s, brought across the ocean by Italian immigrants. Because of its hearty qualities and ease of production, it has grown in popularity ever since. Today, both heirloom and hybrid seeds are available. Heirloom plants have been cultivated for many years, pollinated by others of the same variety, thus producing consistent traits. Hybrid plants are the result of cross-pollination between different varieties, and can sometimes produce hardier plants or increased yields. However, these plants may differ each generation. No matter your preference, the zucchini offers something for everyone.
The zucchini is not a fickle plant and will grow readily in most temperate climates. However, for the best results, zucchini prefers slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 – 7.0. Providing the appropriate soil composition for the plant is important for its success in growing and producing fruit, and can be compared to building the foundation of a house. Without a stable foundation of soil nutrients to feed the plant, the plant cannot reach its full potential, regardless of what happens above the ground. For soil that is too acidic, agricultural lime can help raise the pH. Conversely, peat moss can lower pH for soil that is too alkaline. While essential, soil composition is not hard to test, and kits can be acquired at most garden stores. Once the correct pH is achieved, it is important to continue to test the soil every couple of years as the composition can change with the nutrient cycle. These small adjustments will give a zucchini plant the best chance at producing an optimal yield.
Zucchini is best suited for outdoor gardening, because it requires three feet or more per plant, and full sun. While it can be grown in containers, it grows best in soil that is loose and drains well. The plant doesn’t like wet feet, so be careful not to over-water it! Those that are concerned with their plants becoming too wet can plant zucchini in a mound or on a hill so excess water runs off. Wherever your plants are located, ensure they have plenty of room to sprawl out, because the zucchini produces long vines. For the urban gardener with limited space, a trellis can be provided for the plants to grow up, which will also keep the plant from becoming tangled. One downside to growing outdoors, however, is that the plant might attract insects. The aptly named squash bug is attracted to young plants and will feed on the leaves, damaging the crop. If the leaves of the plant begin to turn yellow, squash bugs are feeding on the plant and need to be addressed quickly. Luckily, the pests can be easily managed by lightly spraying the plant with neem oil. Neem oil is an all-natural byproduct of the neem tree and tastes bitter to insects, but will not harm other plants, animals, or people. This deters insect feeding and will keep your zucchini happy and healthy!
The growing season culminates into the production stage, when the plant begins to produce, which typically occurs fifty-five days after planting. This is the most exciting, and crucial, aspect of a successful zucchini harvest. Because zucchini grow quickly, many mistakenly believe that the ideal fruit is as large as possible, which couldn't be farther from the truth! Zucchini should be harvested when they are about 6 inches in length, because it is at this stage that they are the most flavorful. Additionally, frequent picking of the smaller squash will encourage continued production, and ensure a steady supply of squash all summer. Because of their heavy yields, just a few plants can provide more than enough produce, which is also stocked with nutritional benefits. Exceptionally high in antiinflammatory antioxidants and vitamins A, C, and B-6, the zucchini can provide a high percentage of required daily nutrients to meals, and a wide range of uses ensures it never gets old. Cooking options for the plant range from breakfast frittatas, to zucchini noodles ("zoodles"), to even zucchini muffins and cakes. Zucchini blossoms themselves can even be picked and served several ways! The options are truly endless, offering opportunities for creativity and allowing the zucchini to fit into any lifestyle. No matter how one chooses to enjoy the plant, it is easy to see what makes the small, nutritious summer squash so popular. It is easy to grow, loves most climates, is high in nutritional value, and can be included in every meal. Given these facts, the zucchini is truly the perfect option for the urban gardener.