Summer Squash in My Garden

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Some plants are so prolific that to grow them you just toss a few seeds in the general direction of the ground and run for your life. Even someone with a black thumb can grow them. Summer squash, generally speaking, are at the top of the list in that respect. Zucchini could easily feed the world if we planted it in the Midwest the way they now plant corn and soybeans. I had a friend many years back who once planted a whole packet of zucchini seeds – and she was an experienced gardener who should have known better. Everybody in town avoided her that summer because she couldn’t stand to let all that squash go to waste and tried to give it away. Had I known then what I know now, I would have suggested she get a pig or some chickens. Any excess zucchini around here becomes pork chops or scrambled eggs. Actually, my cows like it, too. There are some exceptions in the summer squash realm, however. Open-pollinated yellow pattypan squash have never performed well for me. They tend to be late germinating, grow slowly compared to their peers and don’t produce as well as other summer squash of any sort. Although they taste good, there are plenty of other summer squashes out there, so I quit bothering with them.

A Bit of History

This plant was originally cultivated in Central America, sent back to Europe after Columbus got through “discovering” a world that had gotten along just fine without him, and then tinkered with (primarily by the Italians and French) until it became what we now call summer squash. You can tell when a plant is popular and easy to grow by whether it has lots of names: courgette (French); zucchini (Italian); marrow (English); seemai sorakki (Indian) and cymling (America South). Summer squash are kind of like tomatoes, in that they come in various sizes, shapes and colors. For example, you can grow dark green sticks, warty yellow crook-necks, ivory pattypans, green striped balls and the three-foot long cucuzzi, which needs a good stout trellis.

Generally described as a bush plant, summer squashes have different interpretations of the term ‘bush.’ Among them are: “Grow like a vine but be sneaky about it,” “I bet I can get to the other end of the garden if I do it slowly,” and “Even a zucchini can circumnavigate the world if he lives long enough.” The tip of a summer squash invariably winds up several feet (like three or four, in my experience) away from where you originally planted it. Since the blossoms typically occur on the growing end, you don’t want to whack it off to keep it short. I plant summer squash fairly close together and let them grow into each other. Shading the ground helps to keep it moist and discourages weeds.

Prolific and Useful

In all cases, summer squash should be harvested small for steaming or sautéing, medium size for roasting as cut-up chunks and large for stuffing or shredding to make relish, fritters and zucchini bread. They can also be turned into fermented pickles, which is a quick, easy way to deal with a bountiful harvest. Some summer squashes will turn into winter squash if you let them go long enough, but they don’t necessarily taste all that good or store well. If you have some that got away from you, you could always experiment. Even if you don’t like them, your animals probably won’t turn up their noses/beaks.

Any variety of summer squash is a plant where you really don’t need much in the way of instructions. They will grow in almost any soil. They’re definitely a warm-season vegetable, and it’s a waste of time to stick the seeds in the ground until the soil is good and warm, usually about two or three weeks after the last frost. If you use a permanent mulch in your garden, pull the mulch away from the soil in those areas where you want to plant squash and other heat lovers to let the soil warm up faster. Although they don’t really like to be transplanted, you can get away with it if you grow them one plant to a container. Transplant them to their permanent position by the time they’re three or four weeks old. They may still sulk for a week or two, but their drive to grow is so strong that almost nothing short of a Mack truck will slow them down. The one absolute with these is don’t short them on water. Those big leaves transpire a lot of moisture, and if they can’t pull it out of the ground, they’ll wilt and die.

Summer Squash Varieties

My preferences are:

  • Black Zucchini – it’s not really black, but very dark green. This is one that can easily hide in the shadow of a leaf and spring out at you on a dark night with a rebel yell, just to show you who’s boss. If you catch it small – no longer than 8 inches – the skin will be tender and the flavor excellent. It’s a youngster among heirlooms, first offered in 1957, and of the various summer squashes, is less likely to try and take over the garden. It also tends to grow in a circle rather than a straight line.
  • Early Prolific Straightneck – a variation on the old classic yellow crookneck. It’s been around since 1938. Crookneck is harder to cook because the curve in the neck makes it difficult to slice evenly or to stuff. This one is easier to slice and tastes just as good. In my experience, the skin doesn’t get tough as quickly, either, and it takes longer to develop those warty protrusions that indicate crookneck’s gourd heritage. It really is prolific; I’ve counted a dozen squash on one plant. One big advantage of yellow summer squash, by the way, is that because of their visibility among the leaves it’s much less easy for the plant to sequester them under a leaf until they’re the size of Manhattan Island.
  • Cocozelle – this is an Italian heirloom, with alternating dark and pale green stripes. It grows straight sticks of fruit like a zucchini and stays tender until fairly large. Also has a really nice delicate flavor. Mentioned in an 1885 catalog by Vilmorin, one of the premier French seed companies of the day. Unlike Black Zucchini, this one travels quite a bit. It also tends to branch, which most summer squash don’t. The branching habit increases the number of blossoms on the plant, which may be why it’s a little more prolific than Black Zucchini.

Those three are my regulars, but I have on occasion grown and liked:

  • Ronde de Nice – as the name would suggest, this is a French variety. It has a good flavor and tender skin, and is best harvested when quite small – say golf-ball size. If you want to let it get a bit bigger, you can slice it in half, hollow it out and stuff it, then bake. The one disadvantage of this squash is that the round shape makes it a little more difficult to cut evenly.
  • Bennings’ Green Tint – this pattypan is at least 100 years old, having been introduced in 1914. Again, good flavor and thin skin when young. It’s usually a pale green in color, very pretty. Pattypans, like Ronde de Nice, are harder to slice and best roasted whole while still small or cut in quarters if you don’t catch them in time.
  • Tromboncino or Cucuzzi – another Italian heirloom, and unlike most summer squash, this one is a true vine. It’s extremely vigorous and should be grown on a stout trellis. The fruits will grow three or four feet long and eventually become more like a winter squash if not harvested when young. Tromboncino is a little more insect-resistant than other squash, although I can’t say I’ve ever had major insect problems with any squash.
  • Yellow Crookneck – this is an oldie; it’s been around since at least 1700. The narrow, curved neck and bulbous body make it awkward to cut, and it’s a squash that you want to harvest young, as the skin toughens quickly. It makes a good decorative item if you do let it grow to full maturity, as it’s very gourd-like.

If I had to choose just one summer squash, it would be either Cocozelle or Early Prolific Straight Neck. The latter might be a little more productive, but I think Cocozelle has a better flavor. Neither seems to have any pests to speak of. Early Prolific doesn’t allow you quite as much latitude in harvesting, as it starts to get warty like a crookneck, but Cocozelle stays tender up to quite large sizes. On the other hand, Early Prolific is a nice bright yellow, which makes for a pretty contrast to the many green vegetables in the garden.

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