Zucchini (or courgettes as they are sometimes called) are a staple vegetable in the summer garden. They are very easy to grow. Almost too easy, most gardeners would agree. Zucchini are somewhat taken for granted in the garden. Indeed, the biggest problem you’ll probably have is working out what to do with your abundance! In previous years, we’ve always taken them for granted as a guaranteed summer crop. Normally, we’re foisting them off on our neighbours, friends and family by the bag full. But by a freak of nature we were cursed with a terrible season last summer and harvested very few zucchini as a consequence. I’ve therefore decided to do a bit more research into growing zucchini so I can work out where we went wrong.
Despite being so easy to grow, zucchini are hideously expensive in supermarkets, even in the summertime when they are supposedly in season. Zucchini range between $8-$10 per kilo and I simply can’t understand why this is the case. Homegrown zucchini taste so much fresher and nicer than store bought ones. I hope that with the help of information in this guide, you’ll be able to grow some of your own successfully this season.
Zucchini are very versatile in cooking. They don’t have a lot of flavour in themselves, but are great paired with herbs, spices and condiments such as olive oil and black cracked pepper, which really brings out their taste. Zucchini can be used in Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta and parmigiana, added to stir fries and curries, served grilled in sandwiches and antipasto platters or simply thrown onto the BBQ.
Traditionally, zucchini can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend (like a Bank Holiday in England). Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October. This year, Labour Weekend starts on 21 October. While it’s natural to want a head start on the season, my advice is to not be in a rush to plant out seedlings. There is often a dramatic difference between day and night time temperatures at this time of the year and the weather can still be quite temperamental. Young seedlings are particularly tender. Once they’ve been hit by a sudden cold snap or exposed to consistently low temperatures, they never really recover. It’s therefore a good idea to wait until the beginning of November to plant zucchini seedlings into your garden, when temperatures are warmer. This way, the seedlings you plant out will be a bit more established and strong enough to survive any setbacks along the way. In saying that, it does depend on where you live. New Zealand’s climate varies dramatically from region to region and I do have to remember that not all of my audience lives in Auckland or even New Zealand for that matter. My personal gardening experiences are limited to our urban homestead in the Auckland region, so please take this into account when considering my advice. On the same token, what grows well in my environment may not necessarily thrive in your own microclimate. So please don’t blame me if things go wrong and varieties I’ve recommended don’t grow well in your garden!
Sowing zucchini from seed
It’s much too early to think about planting zucchini outdoors. It’s still way too cold! However, I wanted to write a guide to growing zucchini now because you can start sowing zucchini under cover from seed. It’s really easy to grow zucchini from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres. It takes about six to eight weeks from the time of the germination of a zucchini seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside.
Zucchini can be started from seed indoors in October or even earlier if you live in a more temperate zone and have a hot house to protect them from the cold. Zucchini seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in punnets or egg cartons filled with seed raising mix from Gardn Gro. I like Gardn Gro’s seed raising mix as it is very fine in texture, enabling seeds to push through the mixture easily as they rise to the surface. I place the punnets and egg cartons inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water once daily or twice if the seed raising mixture is very dry. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment so they can germinate successfully.
How to care for zucchini seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their zucchini seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from September onwards. Palmers stock a great range of zucchini seedlings. Awapuni also sell high quality, large grade zucchini seedlings delivered direct to your door. If you order 7 or more bundles of seedlings, delivery is free.
I plan to sell a variety of different zucchini seedlings in my own boutique nursery later in the season. Keep an eye out for details in my newsletter, on Neighbourly and my Facebook page as to when they become available. During October and November, I will also circulate updated lists of available stock in my plant nursery to subscribers of my free weekly gardening newsletter. To be added to my mailing list and receive these notifications, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll probably be selling seedlings a bit later than stores because I’m merely a home gardener, germinating and caring for seedlings in our patio at home without the help of the horticultural technology that you would expect to find in a commercial operation. Without a hot house, I simply don’t have a head start on the season like large-scale nurseries. To compensate for this, I do try and offer seedling varieties which are unusual and can’t be found in garden centres or online retailers. This is a good thing as it enables me to collaborate with other businesses in the industry such as Palmers and Awapuni and promote their brands. You can achieve a lot by working with other people in the same field (no pun intended), as opposed to simply trying to compete with them. To read my further thoughts on this issue, please click here.
Whoever you decide to buy plants from, take care to keep plants undercover until early October as zucchini are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
If you’re planning to grow zucchini from seed, you’ll find that they come in an impressive array of shapes, colours and sizes. Traditionally, zucchini are long and dark green. There are a few different varieties on the market in New Zealand. This season I’m growing Milano di Nero (Franchi Seeds), Partenon F1 (Egmont Seeds) and Amanda F1 (Egmont Seeds). I’m also growing Fiorentino (Franchi Seeds), which is a long, ribbed, light green variety of zucchini. There is also Striato D'Italia (Franchi Seeds), a dark green variety with light green stripes and small ribbing. It is also possible to find yellow varieties which are incredibly prolific too. My favourite is Solar Flare F1 (Egmont Seeds). Used together with green-skinned varieties, yellow zucchini add a lovely burst of colour to dishes. Finally, you can also grow round zucchini (for example, Courgette Rond de Nice and Piccolo from Egmont Seeds) and scallopini, which are round with scalloped edges as the name suggests and come in a range of colours, including green, white and yellow (for example, Zucchino Custard White from Franchi Seeds and Patty Green Tint F1, Courgette Scallop Mix and Sunburst F1 from Egmont Seeds). If you’re having trouble getting your kids to eat vegetables, they may find these novelties appealing.
To order seeds from the very extensive Egmont Seeds range, visit http://www.egmontseeds.co.nz/.
To find stockists for Franchi Seeds or to order Franchi seeds directly from the New Zealand distributor Italian Seeds Pronto owned by Gillian Hurley-Gordon, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/.
How to care for zucchini plants
Zucchini need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting zucchini seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. I highly recommend Gardn Gro’s Wonder Nuggets, which are 100% organic and function as an excellent fertiliser. Rake the ground so that it is nice and level. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life.
Be sure to water plants every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Try not to get too much water on the leaves, otherwise your plants may develop powdery mildew. Liquid feed melons weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit after they have been pollinated.
Pollination of zucchini
Zucchini need to be pollinated in order to develop fruit. As the flowers on zucchini plants are quite large, you’ll find that bees will do all the work for you. Personally, I wouldn’t bother going to the effort of pollinating them by hand, unlike melons which benefit from hand-pollination, which I covered in a previous blog post.
Harvesting your zucchini
It can take what seems like forever for your first zucchini to be ready for picking but be patient! In early summer, it will usually be cooler so it might take awhile for them to grow to full size. You can pick zucchini at any stage. I prefer to pick them when they are smaller because they are sweeter and you can stay on top of your harvest, which can sometimes get out of control. Some people wait until their zucchini grow into marrows and serve them stuffed with breadcrumbs and mince. It’s a good idea to check your plants every day as they can swell up very quickly. One summer I remember checking our plants in the early morning and there were none ready to be harvested. We went away to the beach for the day. By the time we returned home in the evening I checked the garden again and five enormous marrows had suddenly developed!
Got a glut of zucchini that you can’t get through all at once? Zucchini can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks prior to consumption, or you can do what we do and give them away to family, friends and neighbours.