I’m not sure if I’ve confessed this before on the blog, but for most of my life, I’ve been what gardeners would call a Black Thumb. In other words, plants tend to die around me.
My brother Craig was always a green thumb. He’d sneak a few exposed Amaryllis bulbs from the side of the road and within the year turn our sideyard into a veritable Amaryllis forest. Orchids? Bonsai? No sweat. Meanwhile, I was trying to help out by uprooting “weeds,” aka strawberries. (Even my mother, who for most of her life has been on a strict meat-and-potatoes diet, had successfully identified and purposefully left the “volunteer” strawberries in our flower-dominated garden in San Diego.)
And then there was the time I was digging with a hand-trowel, helping my mother and brother transplant some new seedlings from the nursery. While digging, I came across an earthworm that–in some strange wormy gymnastic maneuver– managed to hurl itself up in the air way too close to me for comfort.
I let out a loud shriek and with considerable force threw aforementioned trowel across the garden, where it landed frighteningly close to Craig’s fingers. A loud “JESUS, LYNDIE!” could be heard across the neighborhood as Craig quickly retracted his nearly-severed fingers. (Oops, sorry.)
So for this post (and probably some future posts), I’ve decided to toss off my I’m-so-earthy-and-I’ve-always-been-this-way hat and give you the straight-up city girl’s guide to growing. Truth is, I still cringe slightly whenever husking an ear of wormy corn. (Never in front of customers: only at home.) Crusted poop on chick-butts no longer phases me, and there are a lot of things on the farm that I haven’t managed to kill — in fact, there are many things that have actually benefited from my thumb, whatever shade of green/brown/black it might be. Clearly, I’m making progress, but for now I’m going to tell you what I really think about summer squash — from the perspective of a currently opinionated, formerly suburban black thumb.
You only have so much space in your garden. All summer long, zucchini will be a dime a dozen at the local supermarket. Recipes will flood local magazines and newspapers offering you 101 ways to get rid of your excess zucchini. (Hint: it does wonders for chocolate cake.) So, is it really worth your effort to plant zucchini — or any summer squash, for that matter?
My answer: yes and no.
No to green zucchini. Yes to yellow, zephyr (which I haven’t personally grown, but which is absolutely gorgeous and a number of farmers marketers have had good success with it), crookneck squash, and “patty pans,” aka flying saucers.
Emmett says I’m biased against green zucchini. I am. First of all, it’s boring, and the grocery store is absolutely 100% guaranteed to have it — while the grocery store might not carry yellow, and probably won’t carry zephyrs, crooknecks, or flying saucers.
Second of all, sometimes green zucchini can harbor a distinctive bitterness in the skin, especially as they get bigger. I find this flavor is less likely to occur in the yellow or zephyr zuchs. And thirdly, harvesting green zucchini is a royal pain in the you-know-what.
OK, fine, harvesting any zucchini is somewhat of a pain. The plants are monsters, festooned with tiny sharp glassy thorns, and the zucchini grows right in the plant’s heart. They’re not like apples, hung out on branches for you to pluck, or root crops like carrots, beets, or radishes, which require a quick simple pinched-finger tug. No, harvesting zucchini is a whole-body (or at least whole-arm) endeavor, requiring you to get right up close and personal with the plant. A plant that’s designed to prevent critters from getting up close and personal with it. A plant that gives me an itchy rash which lasts for a couple of days and stings like the dickens if I try and put soothing lotion on it. (Hint: wear long sleeves and gloves, and carry a big knife. And maybe a stick, too, like Teddy said.)
Which is why I don’t like harvesting something that is the exact same color as the monster plant. In my sweaty, itchy harvesting angst, I’m way more likely to miss a zucchini that blends in perfectly with its surroundings. Missing a zucchini just once means we end up with humongous, bitter, seedy green zucchinis — they grow several inches per day, I swear — which slow the plantss production and end up in the compost pile.
Emmett, of course, thinks I’m silly to hate on green zucchinis so much. I think I’m busy, and don’t have time to be hunting around for stupid boring green zucchinis when their bright yellow neighbors are so kindly, fluorescently shouting “PICK ME! PICK ME!” (Thanks to the lovely contrast between fruit and leaves, I never miss a yellow zuch.)
If you’re busy, and don’t like spending time in prickly bushes, trust me. Next year, plant yellows. And crookneck squash, which are by far our most prolific summer squash. The heart of the plant almost looks like a snake’s den — brimming with curved, interlocked yellow babies. Harvested when young, crooknecks tasty in most dishes that call for zucchini — substitute away! They also make gorgeous aperitifs: slice them lengthwise so they look like cute little whales, place a sliced tomato on top, sprinkle with basil, garlic, olive oil, and a dash of balsalmic, bake in oven until slightly dehydrated and serve. They’re every bit as classy as cucumber sandwiches, so be sure to hold your pinky out when you eat them.
And finally: flying saucers. These are heaven’s gift to people who don’t want to go digging around in prickly zucchini plants. They don’t all cluster at the heart of the plant: later in the season you’re apt to find them practically hung out on branches like apples. And they’re beautiful, so beautiful you’ll be tempted to save some just to put out on the table as decoration. Note: in my experience, these are the least productive of the zucchinis, so be sure to put in a couple of plants if you’re looking to have enough for your own consumption (and maybe the neighbor’s.)
Oh yeah, and did I mention that I didn’t manage to kill any of these plants — green, yellow, or patty-pan? The seeds are nice and big, which means you’ll be dealing with a fairly robust seedling, not a little wisp of a thing like lettuce or leeks. Give ’em some compost and plenty of water — and barring some strange disease (more on that when I discuss winter squash later), these plants should take off, and in fact just might take over your garden. Give them space, and come well-armored when it’s time to do battle with them!