By Jill Bong
With so many things to take care of on the homestead, we try to grow as many “frugal” crops as we can. These are crops that are easy to grow, fairly low maintenance, produce good crop yields, are versatile for cooking, and can be preserved.
Most squashes are easy to grow, but zucchini fits the bill for one of our food crops. We learned how to grow zucchini early on and have been happy with this source of organic produce. It is very productive and low maintenance. However, there are some zucchini squash growing tips we wish we had known before our first crop.
As annuals, they usually grow and fruit within a short time frame. Two to three plants will produce a lot of food for a family of four. Your yield will depend on your planting zone. You may want to add a few more plants if you want to preserve your zucchini. Unused seeds will stay viable for about four to five years.
The following zucchini squash growing tips will almost guarantee a strong zucchini harvest this year!
Tips for Planting Zucchini
Zucchini does not transplant well, so start your zucchini from seed outdoors about a week after the last spring frost, when the soil reaches at least 60°F.
Zucchini needs a lot of nutrients, so plant your seeds in well-draining soil amended with a lot of compost. Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep, 4 feet apart in rows that are 10 feet apart to give your plants enough space to grow. If you have limited space, you can trellis your plants to help keep them in check.
Zucchini and other squashes will cross-pollinate over long distances, so if you want to save pure seeds, different varieties have to be grown at least 1/2 a mile apart. This is not always possible, so the alternative is to plant different varieties in different years, or in succession.
After planting your seeds, water the area well so that the top 6 inches of soil feels moist after watering. Subsequently, water the plants once a week or twice weekly if you live in a dry area. The seeds should sprout within two weeks. Young plants are very tender, so be prepared to protect them from any cold temperatures. Mature plants will tolerate some cold.
Fertilize your plants two weeks after the first true set (the second pair) of leaves appear on the seedlings. Keep your soil consistently moist, but water from the bottom (at the soil level, not pouring down on the leaves) to prevent problems with disease. Mulch around the plant to deter weeds. Fertilize again when the first flowers appear and when the plant starts to fruit.
Zucchini squashes will produce both male and female flowers. The male blossoms usually appear about six weeks after germination, and they will precede the female blossoms. Male flowers have a stamen covered with pollen while female blossoms will have a pistil. If you do not have enough pollinators like bees in your garden, you will need to fertilize the female blossoms by hand. Otherwise, the female blooms will fall off and die if not fertilized.
How to Self-fertilize
The flowers normally bloom in the morning, and the males will only stay in bloom for a short duration. Moreover, the blooming times may not coincide. However, you might still be able to fertilize the female blooms by collecting the pollen from male flowers that have already withered. To collect the pollen, you can swirl a cotton swab around the stamen before swirling the swab around the female pistil(s). You can also remove the petals from the male blossom and swirl the stamen directly onto the pistils. Squash blossoms can be battered and fried to make a delicious snack or meal.
As the zucchini begins to fruit, keep the fruit away from the ground by placing a board under the fruit. If you have problems with chipmunks taking a bite out of the zucchinis, you can wrap them in cloth or socks. If you have a problem with squash bugs, which are greyish-brown bugs that can grow up to 3/4 inches long, you can hand pick them and kill them by dropping them into soapy water.
Destroy any red-brown egg clusters that grow on the underside of the leaves. You can also trap adult bugs by laying boards down on the soil at night. The bugs will congregate there overnight, allowing you to collect and kill them in the morning.
Harvesting Zucchini Squash Tips
Overly large, mature zucchinis do not make for good eating, so harvest them when they reach 4-6 inches long. Frequent harvesting also encourages the plant to produce more fruit rather than to focus its energy on growing a few large fruits. Cover the fruit if rain or frost threatens, then remove the covering once the threat has passed.
Harvest all the fruit when nights become consistently frosty, and store them in a warm place, between 50 and 70°F. If possible, choose a dry day to harvest the zucchini. To harvest, clip off its stem with shears or a sharp knife. Leave about 3 inches of stem on the fruit. Do not pull the fruit off the stem as this may damage the zucchini and invite rot. Clean your knife between cuts to prevent the spread of disease.
Zucchini Storage Tips
Do not wet your zucchinis before storing. They will keep fresh in the fridge for about a week. Keep them separated from each other, allowing air to circulate between each squash.
If you store them in a pile, mold may spread quickly. Check your squashes regularly and remove any fruit that have developed mold, bruises, or soft spots. You can extend its storage life by drying, canning, or freezing zucchini.
Zucchini Seed Saving
Save seeds from fully mature fruit. The easiest way to harvest seeds for the next season will be to leave the zucchini on the vine to ripen until the outer shell hardens. Allow it to cure for about three to four weeks, making sure the fruit do not touch each other. To process the zucchini for seeds, chop them open and scoop out the seeds. Leave the seeds to dry on a clean, dry kitchen towel. Store the fully dried seeds in a cool dark, dry place.
Follow these zucchini squash growing tips and let me know how your crop turns out this year!
Jill is the inventor and co-founder of the affordable Chicken Armor hen saddles (http://chickenarmor.com). She is a homesteader, homeschooling mom, and author of over a dozen homesteading and home business books.