Z is for Zucchini

garden zucchini plant early july - 1

Chris:

I know that Z doesn’t come right after A, but when the Z stands for Zucchini, that lonely letter at the end of the alphabet just demands that it be paid attention to. Beware the summer gardener who plants zucchini. He or she will likely be knocking on your door to plead that you take some of these rampant dark green torpedoes off the grower’s hands. Or you will be finding some monster veggies on your doormat, placed there by the grower who is too embarrassed to ask yet again.

Lucky it is that zucchini is such a tasty and versatile veggie, because even a single plant that started from a two-leaf seedling in mid April can become a prolific producer by July, spread out over 30 to 50 square feet of huge multi-hued green leaves and gorgeous deep yellow blossoms, and keep producing into September. The zucchini is also amazingly efficient. Baking under the heat of a Sacramento Valley summer, our dry season, my current zucchini plant, almost a jungle in itself, needs only a few minutes of water spray a week to stay deep green and rich in succulent shoots and thick fruit.

Last spring was my first planting zucchini. I just popped the tiny seedling into our loamy, slightly alkaline, well-drained soil with some compost to get it started, and it didn’t take long, maybe two weeks, for new leaves to begin sprouting. By the end of May it was already a large, multi-leaved plant spreading over the ground, about six square feet, when, one morning, it was suddenly covered by white aphids. Rather than spray chemically, which I will not do, I cut back a bit on the water and just waited. Within a few days, ladybeetles began appearing on the leaves–a beautiful color contrast of orange amid the green–and in a week the aphids, and the ladybeetles, were gone, the plant healthier than ever.

This year’s plant–I now know better than to even think of planting more than one–followed the same growth pattern, but never developed the aphids, gets less water than last year’s plant, and covers three times as much square footage than last year’s. What we can’t give away of the produce we have used in salads, a tomato-cheese casserole, as “boats” for a mixture of cheeses and breadcrumbs, in loaves of delectable zucchini bread, as cups of grated ballast in large jars of homemade tomato sauce (see the entry “Speaking of Zucchini”), and as a layer in lasagna. Since the zucchini and our tomatoes flourish at the same time, they appear together in a range of dishes and create a Christmas-in-summer color pallet (With lasagna noodles and parmesan, we have the colors of the flag of Italy.)

garden zucchini and blossoms - 1.

A tip on regulating size of the zucchini fruit:

If you see small zucchini and large zucchini in the store, that’s not because they grow on different varieties of the plant. As I’ve learned the hard way, a zucchino (zucchini is plural in Italian) will just keep getting larger if you let it grow, but the plant will not put out new fruit–or at least fewer of them–as long as a large one is still unharvested. I’ve found thick foot-long monsters hiding beneath shoots and leaves, and if a new veggy appears beneath a yellow blossom one day, it takes less than a week for it to grow to a foot or more. So it you want petite zucchini, twist or clip them off within a few days of their first appearing.

Another amazing thing about this magic veggie is that, regardless of size, it has pretty much the same mild, fresh flavor. And I didn’t mention that these succulent items, encased in their tender, dark green rinds, keep for a long time in room temperatures. So, unless you use them or give them away, they’ll stay looking pretty on your table and waiting for more of their friends from the garden to join them.

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