Courgettes and a summer squash
Courgettes/ zucchini and summer squash are some of the easiest, and most productive, vegetables you can grow in the garden. All you need is a sunny spot, a square metre of soil or a big container, and plenty of water! And then there’s the small matter of choosing which, of what seems like hundreds of varieties, you want to grow.
The classic courgette is a torpedo-shaped fruit with dark green skin, effectively a juvenile version of a marrow. They’re great for slicing and grilling, picked young and eaten fresh. They tend to grow on compact plants that don’t spread (although they can grow very large). There are variations in skin colour, ranging from subtle stripes through to bright yellow, but the end result is much the same.
Courgette ‘Rugosa fruilana’, the ugly sister
I enjoy growing a variety called ‘Rugosa friulana’, which is fiendishly ugly. The fruits are a pale yellow colour, and warty. They’re used in the same way as regular courgettes, but they tend to have a firmer texture, rather than a watery middle, and a lovely flavour.
Then there are the round courgettes, which come in green or yellow, and are best harvested before they get much larger than a tennis ball. They’re the same vegetable with a different shape, and are good for stuffing.
Summer squash are grown in the same manner, but then to come on trailing plants – like pumpkins – which can take up more space. But you can also train them, or circle them around on themselves, and prune them to keep them under control. Here you get a wider variety in the kinds of fruit. One of the nicest is the ‘patty pan’ or ‘flying saucer’ shape – harvested young they’re firm and slice nicely, and they’re always a big hit with the kids!
Whichever variety you choose, remember that these are frost-tender plants, which can’t live outside until after the last frost date in your garden. You can sow seeds indoors, in pots of compost, in late spring (April in the UK). Pop in one seed per small pot (which is easy, because the seeds are large) and keep them warm and moist for a week or so until the seedlings start to appear. A propagator helps keep things humid; you can also pop a mini cloche over the top of each pot, or encase it in a plastic bag. Once the seedlings are through they’ll benefit from more air flow, and won’t mind a slightly cooler temperature.
[You can skip the seed sowing part, and buy a courgette plant from the garden centre. There’s a reasonable selection of varieties these days, and they’re available from early spring onwards. Once you’ve brought your plants home, care for them as if you’d grown them yourself….]
Keep your seedlings somewhere frost-free and sunny. They grow rapidly, and on warm days will wilt if they don’t have plenty of water. Standing the pots in a tray of water is a good idea if you have to be somewhere else on sunny days.
A newly-planted summer squash, with slug collar
As the last frost date approaches, accustom your seedlings to the outside world. This process, called hardening off, is a simple matter of taking them outside for a short time on a nice day, and then bringing them back in. Gradually leave them outside for longer and longer, always bringing them back inside at night. This toughens them up, with exposure to the sun, the wind, and cooler temperatures. If you have a cold frame or a greenhouse then that can speed the process up, but remember to check they’ve got water and ventilation on sunny days. [In May, you can sow courgette seeds directly outside, which bypasses this faff completely, but leaves your seedlings at the mercy of slugs.]
Once the risk of frost has past, your courgettes can be planted outside. In the ground and in a pot are both fine. I tend to fill my pots with potting compost; a mixture of soil and compost also works well. Courgettes are hungry plants, so they will need feeding if they’re growing in a pot, once they begin to flower. And water, plenty of water.
Courgettes have silvery designs on their leaves – it’s perfectly normal and not (as I thought when I first saw it) a sign of disease. Summer squash have plain green leaves.
A mature courgette plant, showing its silvery leaf markings
Courgettes grow separate male and female flowers. Female flowers have a tiny fruit behind them, which will begin to swell if they flower is pollinated. It’s not unusual for a plant to only grow male flowers to begin with – don’t panic, the female flowers will arrive in time. In the meantime, remember that courgette flowers are edible 🙂
You can harvest your fruits as soon as they reach a size you want to eat – when they’re tiny with the flowers still attached right through to giant marrows (although that’s not recommended, they’re far nicer small!). Picking the fruit will encourage the plant to grow more, so don’t worry that you’re reducing your harvest by picking it very young. They will keep coming!
Keep plants well watered, especially when the weather is hot. Plants in containers may well need watering twice a day. And they’ll need feeding – a high potash tomato feed is a good bet. A simple way to do both at once is to dilute the liquid feed more than the instructions recommend, and use it every time you water the plant. Alternatively, feed every two weeks according to the pack instructions.
If you’re going away on holiday, either get a neighbour to pop in and harvest your courgettes for you, or pick off all the fruits and all of the flowers before you leave. Otherwise, when you come back in two weeks all you’ll have is overgrown marrows, and no fresh fruit for a couple of weeks after that.
By late summer your plants are likely to be so productive that you’re sick of courgettes, and trying to give them away to your neighbours. If you don’t want to freeze any (they don’t freeze whole, but are fine frozen in cooked dishes like ratatouille), then it’s OK to pull the plants up!. You don’t have to keep them going just for the sake of it. Compost them and plant something else, for a change.
Even if you love courgettes, one or two plants would be plenty for a small household. You could add one or two more if you’re feeding several people, but the trick here is to plant more than one variety, so you can ring the changes. You can also stagger your seed sowing by a week or two, so that the plants are different ages, and start producing earlier or later in the season.
Frost brings and end to courgette season
Once the frosts return in the autumn, the courgette season is over. By this time the tired plants may well have succumbed to downy mildew, and look very sad, anyway.
Have you got a favourite variety of courgette/ summer squash? Or a growing tip you’d like to share?
Have you tried my five-spiced courgette recipe for a simple summer supper? Click on the picture to be transported to it! Or try naked BBQ courgettes if you’re in more of an outdoor mood. If you’re interested in more gardening advice and ‘how to’ articles, check out the Basics page.