Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I was very excited to pick my first zucchini this week. I'm sure that a few weeks into zucchini season, this excitement will wane a bit. I've learned from a young age that more than one or two plants will produce far more zucchini than any family can reasonably consume.
One of my early gardening memories was the summer before I entered the third grade. I strongly suspect that my dad was the one that planted enough zucchini plants to feed the entire neighborhood. His philosophy seemed to be that if one plant was enough, than a dozen would surely be better. When the plants began producing, my family was overwhelmed with zucchini quickly.
My mom's strategy to deal with the overabundance was to use me. She had me load up my little red wagon with as much zucchini as I could move and go from house to house, giving it to the neighbors. My mom was pretty clever on this one. Most people took at least one zucchini from me—if not to eat, then to lighten my load because they felt sorry for me. My mom was just glad to get out from under the mountain of zucchini that was threatening a hostile takeover of the kitchen.
My other job that summer was to help my mom pick zucchini. I had a knack for finding those zucchini that had managed to hide among the plants and had ballooned to gargantuan proportions. There is a great picture in my family's photo album showing me and my two younger sisters along with three of the biggest zucchini's we had ever seen. I remember mine weighing in at almost ten pounds!
This was also the summer of "creative" zucchini recipes. My mom assembled all the recipes that she could find from friends and neighbors (remember this was before the internet was invented!) and while most were tasty, a few were a stretch. One afternoon I was surprised to find my mom was making chocolate chip cookies. She usually didn't want to heat up the kitchen in the heat of summer, so my young mind concluded something was up.
As I reached for a cookie still warm from the oven, I noticed tiny green specks in the cookie. My mom must have seen the look on my face, because as I was about to ask about the suspicious green specks, she said to herself, "I should have taken the time to peel them like the recipe said". My sisters were completely horror struck by the idea of mixing squash into cookies, but you really couldn't taste any zucchini in them. For all I know, my mom continued to sneak zucchini into our favorite dishes, but she made sure to peel them first!
Several years later when I was in high school, I resurrected some of mom's zucchini recipes for a project in my Foods and Nutrition class, which challenged me to fix a familiar food in an unfamiliar way. My choice was a zucchini milkshake, which made my family cringe. It really wasn't bad. Zucchini by itself has very little flavor, and so mixed with fruit juice and ice called for in the recipe, it just added to the thickness of the finished product.
Zucchini are a specific type of summer squash. Summer squash have thin tender skin, mild flavor and are harvested while young and immature. If allowed to mature the seeds and flesh are tough, and many gardeners will testify that left unattended, summer squash will assume enormous proportions in a short time. The other group of squash is winter squash, which are harvested late in the season when they are mature. Their skin is very thick, housing very flavorful flesh that stores well and is a staple in many homes over the winter months.
The zucchini traces its origin to the native summer squash in central and south America. European explorers brought these summer squash back to Europe, where they became popular with nearly everyone except the French. They considered the squash inferior until they learned to use the young tender fruits which were much more palatable than the fibrous mature fruit.
The Italians are credited with developing what we now call zucchini. It is widely thought that a chance mutation in an existing summer squash gave rise to the squash we now call zucchini in the late 1800's near Milan. The Italian words "zucca, zucchini, and zucchine" are the singular and plural words for squash, giving rise to the name zucchini that we use today.
Zucchini didn't make it to the U.S. until the 1920's, when Italian immigrants brought seeds with them to California. A small southern California seed company began distributing seed a short time later, but zucchini didn't catch on with the rest of the U.S. until the late 1930's. It seems like California is always a trendsetting state, but who knew that this included zucchini?!
Today zucchini is a common sight in homeowner vegetable gardens and restaurant menus. Growing zucchini is fairly simple, and the plants produce so well that some gardeners, like my mom, have to come up with schemes to sneak them into neighbor's hands. One group of Pennsylvania gardeners dubbed August 8 "National Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night".
There are many different variations of zucchini available in seemingly all shapes and sizes. A unique one is 'Roly Poly' that is small and round. It makes a perfect individual serving when stuffed. 'Gadzukes' grows with raised ridges along the outside, and slices look like little stars.
The common pests of zucchini are cucumber beetles and squash vine borer. Black striped yellow Cucumber beetles feed on the plant, or their larvae feed on the roots and can spread a bacterial wilt that will kill the plant. There is no way to save a plant that has contracted this bacterial wilt. The affected plant should be removed from the garden and destroyed. Using row cover fabric which lets light but not insects in will help prevent the beetles from feeding on the vines.
Squash vine borers cause a sudden wilting of the plant, and left untreated will kill the plant. The bore into the lower portions of the stem and eat their way through the stem tissue. A characteristic sawdust-like yellow frass around squash stems is a telltale sign that vine borers are present. To put it politely, frass is what the vine borer leaves after it's digested the stem tissue. If caught early, the individual borers can be removed by carefully slitting the stem open with a knife. Moist soil should be mounded over leaf joints at higher points to encourage secondary root formation, since the borer likely disrupted the main roots. A cultural way to control these pests is to remember to rotate crop location in the garden each year.
Chemicals effective for both cucumber beetles and squash vine borer are carbaryl and malathion. Avoid using both chemicals together, as they can be toxic to the plant. Remember to read and follow label directions.