Let’s talk about zucchini
21 Nov 2021
Zucchini plants in this area tend to be rather…disappointing. Needing plenty of molly coddling and not lasting very long, we can do better. There are choices! With a bit more of an open mind, we can embrace vegetables that cook and taste very similar to zucchini and will grow in a more self sufficient manner.
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Zucchini / courgette and button squash
Now some of you are going to object but the fact of the matter is that zucchinis are not suited to this climate. They are a Mediterranean plant. They do not like our humidity. And compared to the growing experience in drier climates….
In Victoria you plant zuccs after the last frost in early November. Shortly thereafter the zucchinis arrive for eating. And they keep coming. Within weeks you have a wheelbarrow full of zucchinis to eat your way through. Ha ha! You try and give some away. Your neighbours all have wheelbarrows full of zucchinis. Past christmas, past new year and on and on into March or April, the zucchinis keep coming. From the same plants. You become expert at zucchini loaf, zucchini fritters, zucchini quiche, zucchini bake, pickles and chips and soup. You start sneaking them into cakes and muffins. In desperation you start stuffing them into the dog’s meal and straight out feeding them to the chickens. You know things have gone too far when the dog eyes you suspiciously as you place her food bowl down and the chooks flat out walk away.
You will not have this experience here.
Yes, they can be grown here. They are not a good choice for food resilience.
The best advice for growing zucchini here is to keep sowing to replace the plants every 4 – 6 weeks. Or use sulphur sprays regularly, possibly weekly. Sulphur is a natural element that is toxic to funguses and essential for plant health. Arrangements that allow great airflow will be a huge help in moving moist air away that encourages fungus. Super healthy soil is essential as the plants need all the help they can get. Don’t bother with growing them over December and January as this is the worst time for humidity. Don’t expect to get more than a few flushes of vegetable from each plant.
They tend to succumb to powdery mildew. It’s not an if, it’s a when.
But you probably want to have a crack at them anyway?
Button squash can be a safer bet. Because the fruit are smaller they are ready quicker. You’re more likely to get something before the plant dies. Zucchini is a warm season plant that can’t cope with frost. Sow seeds 1.5 – 3cm deep. They are adored by mice, so it’s best to sow in protected trays and transplant. Mice will steal them out of trays if they can. Ideal soil temperature for germination is 25 – 28°C at which it takes up to three days.
Plant out once they have 3 true leaves into a deep soil of at least 25cm. They’re not fussy about sandy loam vs clay, but the heavier the soil the later the fruit will mature. They prefer a slightly acid soil, pH 6.0 to 6.5. Good drainage is essential. They need at least 60cm between plants.
Zucchini like plenty of water and nitrogen from a young age and then need later potassium for good fruit. N P K of 8:9:8 is recommended. Give them a feed at first fruit set. Repeat every 2 weeks. Molybdenum deficiency is common. They also need good calcium, copper and silicone. A weekly foliar feed of seaweed is a good idea. Enough water is vital at flowering, fruit setting and early fruit filling. Flowers and fruit will be dropped if not enough water is available.
Zucchini rely on plenty of bees for pollination. If there aren’t enough around, the baby zucchinis turn yellow and wither. This means they weren’t pollinated. It’s easy enough to hand pollinate if you need to. Excess male flowers can be picked for eating as stuffed zucchini flowers, and they store longer than the female ones. You probably want to keep the female flowers for the fruit anyway.
6 weeks after planting you should be starting to get zucchinis and, all going well, this will last up to 12 weeks. Regular picking will increase the amount of fruit created. You may need to pick every couple of days to catch zucchinis at their best, when they are small.
To save seed from zucchini, let it grow and grow and grow to its full size until it stops. It will be about the size of a plump dachshund, minus the legs. They are really not very nice eating at this size. Zucchinis will cross with pumpkins.
My advice is to move on from zucchini. Find something more suitable to grow that’s much less needy and just as good in the kitchen.
Tromboncino / zucchetta rampicante
Tromboncino is actually THE zucchini plant to be growing in this area. Tromboncino is resistant to powdery mildew and can be perennial. It is so much easier to grow, standing up to wind, heat and our rains and drought; and is far more generous over many months with fruit, about 20 per plant, in this climate than zucchini. The taste is pleasingly similar to zucchini and the entire long neck is entirely seed free. Cooking is the same. The main difference is that when cooked the tromboncino retains some firmness and shape instead of turning mushy like zucchini.
The other rather noticeable difference is the size. This is a baseball bat of a vegetable who grows on a vine. It can be eaten at any size. When small, preferably zucchini size, or even when large and still immature with soft green skin, it is eaten as zucchini. When large and a metre long and the skin has hardened and turned orange, store and use as a mild flavoured butternut pumpkin.
If you’re paying attention to the Latin names, yes, this is indeed a pumpkin in the same family as Jap / Kent, Butternut, Grammas, Pimply Squash, and Musquee de Provence. So I don’t need to repeat how to grow this. Read the pumpkin article, follow those directions but grow tromboncino up a trellis. The fruit curl into all sorts of crazy spirals if left to grow on the ground but will tend to grow straight under the weight of gravity if hanging from a trellis. Also, it’s a vigorous vine. Save space by growing it upwards. Like the Jap /Kent pumpkin this can also be a perennial here if it has a frost free spot. It will die down in winter and resprout.
The biggest downside to growing tromboncino is that it will cross with any pumpkins you have growing at the same time. This can make seed saving for next year a bit tricky.
New guinea bean / cucuzza
Almost as good and very similar in so many ways to the tromboncino is new guinea bean. It’s rather stupidly named being neither from New Guinea nor a bean. It’s an edible gourd from Africa whose parent is the bottle gourd. It’s enormously popular in Sicily where it is known as cucuzza and there are street parades featuring this vegetable. You have to google this! The flavour of cucuzza is not as highly regarded as tromboncino by those who have grown and eaten both here, though it’s still good. It’s big advantage is that it will NOT cross with your pumpkins which makes seed saving easy.
Like tromboncino this is a vigorous and generous vine that is better on a trellis. The fruit grow in curls on the ground and grow straight, mostly, when hanging. They also grow to the size of a baseball bat and should be eaten much smaller. Cucuzza too, holds it’s firmness when cooked. The young leaves are edible.
Unlike tromboncino this must be skinned before cooking, your tastebuds will thank you. As it gets larger, the flavour becomes blander and it fills with seeds. While you can deseed and eat it at baseball bat size, as is typical for many vegetables, cucuzza is best picked when young. In this case, at zucchini size or even up to two foot long, max.
‘Vigourous vine to 6m,’ I was told. Uh huh, sure. The missing info is ‘…minimum and in every direction including an attempt onto the roof of a two storey house.’ What can I say? It goes ballistic and thrives in our hot wet weather. Grow as for pumpkins, but it’s really not fussy. I wonder if there is detailed growing advice available in Italian as the English language guides are scant and inaccurate. For instance, the cucuzza is not primarily pollinated by bees. The female flowers open at night and close early morning. They are pollinated by moths and flies. I have found that once the height of summer heat has past, these pollinators are not around so much, and hand pollinating may be a good idea.
A number of wild cards for you to consider. Each of these can be eaten as zucchini when they are small.
Loofah / luffa
Luffa aegyptiaca (smooth loofah) and Luffa acutangula (angled loofah)
I’ll cover loofah properly in a later article on soaps and scrubbers, but for now it is worth pointing out that young loofahs at zucchini size are edible as zucchinis AND they usually get the thumbs up from those who have tried them. Another name for them is silk squash due to their silky succulent eating texture and juiciness. As long as they still feel spongy, like pressing on a pillow, they should still be edible. The taste is said to be slightly sweet with a texture like marshmallow. Some people eat the skin, some peel them. You will get far too many loofahs to use as scrubbers anyway, so why not eat some?
Loofah is a very vigorous vine, that will need a trellis or a tree to clamber over. They like full sun. They are very hardy. If you have a frost free spot for them they will die back in winter and resprout when the weather is reliably warm again in late spring or early summer. Yes, they can be perennial! Generally speaking, grow them like pumpkins.
Chilacayote / shark fin melon (Cucurbita ficifolia) is known to grow well in this area.
Tatume / calabacita (Cucurbita pepo) grows well in the Brisbane area.
Snake gourd / guada bean (Trichosanthes cucumerina).
Choko / chayote (Sechium edule) has been known to grow here but isn’t common, possibly as people insist on eating it when it’s huge and past its best, possibly as it prefers sandier soils.
Each of these plants are vigorous and generous warm season vines, with the young fruit edible much like a zucchini when they are small. Chilacayote and tatume in particular may be worth experimenting with.
Big thanks to:
Tom of The Mandarin Bend, Ian of The Gourmet Garden School and Camilla of Autarky Farm.
And also to: Carole & Phil Helman, Nick Radford, Michele Morozumi, John Vernon, Nicola Fraser, Kathleen Hannah, Yasmin Kellner, Kevin Evans, Angelle Hughes.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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