Last week, my Saturday afternoon nap was interrupted by a knock at the back door. Now what? The person standing at the door was Scott, a neighbor, a really nice guy, and very active in many of our local charities. Over the years I had gotten to know Scott and his passion for helping the community. I knew the drill: I was going to be hit up for a donation for his current community mission. So I waited for him to pop the question, but what he said was a surprise: “I am volunteering at the local food bank and wondered if you could donate some zucchini squash.” Hmmm. Donate zucchini squash?
Now, I have about 12 zucchini hills (36 plants) that are going gangbusters, and to be truthful, I am having trouble keeping up with the harvest. Zucchini is one of the most prolific producers in the garden, and arguably one of the most versatile vegetables (actually from a botanical standpoint, they are a fruit). You can eat them raw, as an appetizer with a dip, in soups, in salads, grilled, grated and added to breads, cakes, and muffins, casseroles, stir fries, made into pickles or relish forms– the list of possibilities are endless. I couldn’t think of a more versatile vegetable to donate to the food bank than zucchini squash.
“Sure Scott, it would be my pleasure to help the food bank.” I grabbed several paper bags along with two knives and headed to the garden. On the way, Scott became a chatter box, asking endless zucchini questions — where they come from, how to grow them and if there were any problems growing them. So I shared a bit of the information I had collected over my many years of gardening.
Zucchini is one of many varieties of summer squash that originated on the American continent. Archaeological findings document that Native Americans cultivated squash as far back as 8000 years ago.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, European explorers would often return to Europe from America with plants and seeds. Squash seeds were transported back to Europe, and for the next 300-400 years, squash grew steadily in popularity on the European continent, becoming an important food source, especially in Italy and in other countries bordering the Mediterranean. Zucchini was cultivated and improved in the late 1800’s in Italy. Italian immigrants then brought the new improved squash back to the U.S. in the early 1920’s. The name “zucchini” comes from the Italian language and it means “little squash.”
The popularity of zucchini in American cuisine increased in the 1940’s as the result of soldiers returning from World War II and Americans traveling in Europe or Asia after the war. America was soon fascinated by the beautiful squash they found in the farm markets and by the sight of orange zucchini blossoms busting open in skillets of hot butter in Italian restaurants. Thus, a new and improved zucchini came back home to American gardens, kitchens, and restaurants.
Zucchini, unlike winter squash, grows on nonvining bushes, requiring less space than their cousins. In the spring, after the soil temperature exceeds 60º F., plant 2 to 3 seeds every 2 to 3 feet (some gardeners prefer planting 3-5 seeds in a hills placed every 3-4 feet and then thinning the number of plants to 2-3 plants per hill). Zucchini seeds may also be started inside three weeks before transplanting outside. The seedlings should be transplanted outside after the danger of frost has past, which is May 15th in central Virginia. Zucchini plants will mature in about 50 days. A second crop may be planted in our area from July 1- July 15th.
Soils—Well-drained, sandy loams with high organic-matter content and a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 are the most productive for zucchini. For early crops, choose a lighter soil that warms rapidly. Avoid low, poorly drained soils on which waterlogged conditions are likely to occur. To reduce the likelihood of soil-borne diseases, plant on soils that have not had squash, cucumbers, watermelons or cantaloupes for at least three years.
Nutrient Requirements—Squash are considered medium-to-heavy feeders. A soil test should be performed every couple of years to determine the need for nutrients and the type to be added to the soil. Organic fertilizers, such as alfalfa meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, feather meal or fishmeal, may also be utilized as a source of nitrogen. Soil containing a high percentage of compost or well-rotted manure is ideal.
The squash bug and the squash vine borer are major pests to zucchini, often collapsing a plant overnight.
Squash bugs damage the plant by removing sap, causing the leaves to wilt and collapse. Squash bugs are also carriers or vectors of a deadly disease called Yellow Vine Decline. The bacterium that causes this disease is injected into the plant while the squash bug feeds. The disease results in yellowing, wilting and death of the plant. Early infection by the bacteria that causes the disease can result in severe yield loss; therefore, it is important to prevent the squash bugs from feeding on young plants early in the season.
Cultural control involves proper gardening sanitation to reduce debris that act as a squash bug shelter, the use of disease-resistant varieties, early planting (to limit early colonization), and crop rotation. Elimination of weeds may also be helpful as weeds provide an area for the squash bug to hide.
Physical and mechanical control is another tool that can be helpful in controlling squash bugs. Ambush those pesky bugs by placing boards or pieces of plywood on the ground around the squash plants. The boards provide shelter and a place for the squash bugs to concentrate. Once the boards are flipped over, the bugs can be destroyed. Scout the squash plant leaves for egg masses; newly-laid eggs are usually light-colored, but become coppery and turn darker. Egg masses are commonly laid in a diamond or v-shaped pattern along leaf veins. Once you have located and identified the egg masses, squeezing them between your thumb and forefinger can destroy them. Row covers, when tightly secured, have been shown to be helpful in field trials in West Virginia and Iowa.
Biological Control: A native tachinid fly, Trichopoda pennipes, attacks adult squash bugs in the field. There are a few parasitoid wasps, including the Platygastrid wasp and Eupelmid wasp, which lay their eggs in the eggs of squash bug eggs, effectively limiting initial colonization of the squash bug.
Squash Vine Borer is a type of caterpillar and is the most destructive squash pest, killing almost every plant it infests. The moth (having the appearance of a wasp) of the squash vine borer will fly around the plant during the day, depositing its eggs on the stems near the soil level of the squash plants. Thus begins the infestation. In a few weeks the eggs will hatch and the borers will drill into squash stems, where they feed for four to six weeks. It is this feeding activity that kills the squash plants. If your squash crop has squash vine borers, the lower stems will have holes, from which emerges a wet sawdust-like material know as frass. The only treatment at this point is to split one side of the stem with a razor blade or sharp knife and puncture the worm. Burying the wound under a mound of moist soil will encourage rooting.
Reducing the Risk:
Plant early with transplants. A planting made in early spring may bear fruit before the squash vine borer can kill the plant.
Floating row covers have been found to be help, as they prevent the adult squash borer moth from laying eggs at the base of the stem. However, row covers must be removed to allow pollinators to visit the blossoms.
Other means of reducing borer populations include crop rotation, removing crop debris from the garden at the end of the growing season, and destroying the infested plants during the season (do not place them in the compost as the squash vine borer may overwinter).
Many of the articles cited in this article suggest various chemicals for controlling the squash bug and squash vine borer. In all situations, if you elect to follow the recommendations, whether it be a natural or synthetic chemical, timing is critical. Application should coincide with maximum egg hatch, because the nymph stage is most vulnerable to the pesticide. Waiting until the plant is damaged or infected is often too late. Timing can be judged by frequent and careful garden scouting trips searching for pest egg masses.
Unfortunately, the peak pest activity coincides with the bloom time and occurs just when the squash flowers need to be pollinated in order to bear fruit. Squash plants have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Pollen must be transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers by pollinators. Several of the sources cited below recommend applying insecticides late in the evening when the pollinating activity is reduced in order to prevent killing the pollinators.
Read the insecticide label and follow the law — yup, the directions on the label are the LAW! Also, be sure that the insecticide is specifically labeled for the plants you wish to protect and is effective against the pest you want to control. Always follow the recommended application rates and frequency of application. Heed all instructions on the label, as some insecticides are toxic to fish and by law cannot be used adjacent to bodies of water.
Zucchini is a very versatile vegetable and has an endless variety of uses in the kitchen. Therefore, the harvesting size may depend on your intended usage. The 5-8 inch lengths are excellent for raw snacks, for using on appetizer trays, for soufflés, and for adding to soups. The larger zucchini, especially if it has gotten tougher, seedier and less flavorful, will work best in recipes that call for stuffing or grated zucchini. Zucchini is a very fast growing squash, and left in the garden for even a few extra days will grow into 15 to 18 inches in length, so daily trips to the zucchini patch are a must if you wish to harvest tender zucchini in the 5-8 inch range.
Zucchini is not a long keeper and does not store well like winter squash. They may be kept a couple of days in the refrigerator; if they are kept longer, they may develop water spots and become soft. The recommended long storage method is freezing for, or caning as, pickles or relishes.
Scott and I finally arrived at the garden, and as we began harvesting the zucchini, I smiled. Scott was harvesting everything from 4 inches and up, even those baseball-bat-size zucchinis. Man, they can get big in a hurry; they were only 5-6 inches long a couple of days ago, and I knew from experience that the more you harvest, the more productive the plants. I figured we could drop the baseball bats off at the compost bin on the way back to the house. Well, Scott was doing a good job of keeping the large zucchinis separate from the “eatable” size, and that would make the composting easier.
Man, there were more zucchinis than I had expected to harvest, and we were running out of bags, so I needed to make another trip back to the house for more bags. To speed things up, I grabbed a couple of bags of the oversized zucchinis to drop them off at the compost bin. As I headed to the house, I was stopped in my tracks by a yell from Scott — “Just throw those bags in the back of the truck.” I slowly headed back to the garden to inform Scott that these huge zucchinis were useless, that they were dry, tough and had huge seeds. Scott absorbed that bit of information and responded, “Cool, just toss them in the back of the truck.” Now somewhat speechless, I asked meekly, “What are you going to do with those oversized zucchinis?” Scott replied, “They’ll be donated to those folks that didn’t buy zucchini insurance last spring.” I recall muttering, “Zucchini insurance?”
“Yep,” Scott replied, “zucchini insurance. Most gardeners plant too many zucchini plants, so they end up giving them to their friends and neighbors to the point that the neighbors run and hide when they see those bags of zucchinis coming. Last spring the food bank needed money, so we sold “zucchini insurance” to protect the folks from getting overwhelmed by generous gardeners, and those large zucchinis will be donated to those folks who didn’t support the food bank by buying zucchini insurance.”
Now in my many years of gardening, I had heard a lot of strange things — planting in the sign of the moon, planting tomatoes next to carrots, putting moth balls in the garden to repel rabbits and raccoons, and collecting hair from the barber shop to keep deer out of the garden — but this was the first time I had ever heard of zucchini insurance. But what the heck, it’s for a good cause.
We had a good harvest; we estimated we had about 4 bushels of eatable zucchini for the food bank and another 2 bushels of “insurance zucchinis.”
The morning after Scott’s visit, with coffee in hand, I headed out to pick up the morning paper. As I closed the screen door, I stopped dead in my tracks,. There on the porch were 2 bags of baseball-bat- size zucchinis. Ugh! Next year I will be cutting back on the number of zucchini plants (4-6), and I will be making a zucchini insurance purchase!
Thanks for joining us in The Garden Shed. Hope to see you next month, and in the meantime, happy gardening.
Murphy, Hugh, University of Kansas, “Food Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere – Squash,”ku.edu/foods/squash.html
University of Illinois Extension, “Zucchini” Illinois.edu/state/newsdetail.cfm?NewsID=13477
Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication ENTO-64NP, “Squash Bug” ext.vt.edu/ENTO/ENTO-64/ENTO-64.html
North Carolina State University, “Act Now to Protect Squash Plants from Vine Borer,” ncsu.edu/2012/05/act-now-to-protect-squash-plants-from-vine-borer
Clemson Cooperative Extension Publication HGIC 2207, “Squash, Mellon & Other Cucurbit Insect Pests,” clemson.edu/extension/hgic/pests