A Guide to Growing Zucchini

Growing zucchini (Cucurbita pepo) in your garden is a simple way to enjoy its health benefits, knowing they're free from insecticides and pesticides. Zucchini easily flourish in the ground or in containers, but require plenty of water and full sun.

Zucchini, a summer squash , is an amazingly prolific producer once the plants are established. The seeds germinate quickly and the plant matures rapidly, so you may even be able to plant seeds in August for a fall harvest. While fruitful, your zucchini harvest will benefit from additional help from the gardener.

What Is Zucchini?

Zucchini is a member of the gourd family and native to Central America and Mexico. There are drawings in caves dating 8000 B.C. showing squash. According to Mother Earth News, it was grown extensively by Native Americans as part of the "Three Sisters Garden," which included squash, corn and beans. 1

Italian immigrants brought the vegetable to the U.S. in the 1920s. The zucchini can grow to massive size, but the best-tasting are smaller and tender. Look for specimens that are 6 to 8 inches long.

Although treated as a vegetable, botanically it is a fruit. Like others in the family, zucchini can contain toxins, cucurbitacins, to help defend the plant against predators. Although the toxin has a bitter taste, cultivated zucchinis have low levels of the toxin. There have been reports of people eating bitter tasting gourds who go on to experience food poisoning and massive hair loss. 2

The plants grow as annuals in nearly every climate during the warm months of the year. It takes only one or two plants to produce enough squash for one family. Zucchini seeds can survive for up to four years when stored in a cool dry place. 3

Like fruits, vegetables are important for good health. Experts suggest 5-9 servings of fruits/vegetables a day, but unfortunately it may be difficult at times. However, when you can, include foods like kidney beans, black beans, asparagus, long beans, green beans, and carrots. Think about your favorite vegetables and how you can include more of them in your diet every day, and pick bright-colored foods. Fruits and vegetables with bright colors are good for health because they remove the things in our body that damage our cells. So, get your fill of fruits/vegetables of different colors: White (Bananas, Mushroom), Yellow (Pineapples, Mango), Orange (Orange, Papaya), Red (Apple, Strawberries, Tomatoes, Watermelon), Green (Guava, Avocados, Cucumber, Lettuce, Celery), Purple/Blue (Blackberries, Eggplant, Prunes).

Growing Zucchini in Your Garden or Containers

If garden space is in short supply, consider growing zucchini in containers. You'll want to use a container with a diameter of at least 24 inches and a depth of 12 inches. Look for one with at least one good drainage hole at the bottom. You can even use a large plastic storage container in which you drill drainage holes.

Fill the container with lightweight, well-draining soil, but avoid regular garden soil that may contain pests and weed seeds. Zucchini can be planted in the ground or in the pot about two weeks after the last frost in your area. Place two or three seeds at a depth of about 1 inch, allowing a couple of inches of space between each seed. 4

Once the seedlings are established, add mulch around the plants to keep the ground temperature stable and retain water. These two simple things will help your zucchini have an earlier and larger crop. Zucchinis do well when planted on a hill or a raised mound. Plant two to three close together on a mound so the squash flowers are easily pollinated to provide you with plenty of produce.

If you're planting in containers you can move two containers close to each other for pollination. Each flower is open for one day so if it's not pollinated, you won't have zucchini. If you plant zucchini close to each other, you'll have flowers opening on any given day, which improves your chances of pollination and an abundant crop.

Grate or puree squash, cauliflower, broccoli and other veggies to make them taste differently, freeze better, and get more nutrition per bite.

You need male and female flowers open at the same time for pollination as only female flowers will develop fruit. At first, the new plant will tend to bloom only male flowers. Once the plant really starts growing, flowers of both sexes will appear. 5

Female flowers have tiny fruit directly behind the base of the flower. You can pollinate your own female flowers by removing the male flowers and dusting pollen into the female flowers. 6

Growing zucchini enjoy at least 2 inches of water a week, so if there isn't enough rainfall you'll need to supplement. If possible, use a soaker hose to water the plants below the leaves and reduce the chance for powdery mildew. 7

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Harvest Zucchini on Time and Store It to Keep It Fresh

Since they grow quickly, harvesting zucchini may happen just 40 days after planting. If you want a large crop, try succession planting zucchini, during which you start new plants two to three times during the season. However, since they don't tolerate frost well, either wait until the last frost or use row covers to protect your plants at night when the temperatures dip near 65 degrees.

Harvest zucchini fruit when they are 6 to 8 inches in length. If the fruit is misshapen, they may not have received enough water or fertilizer. Once you start harvesting, fertilize the plants occasionally to improve your yield.

Check your plants every day for new fruit, as they grow quickly. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears to cut the fruit off the vine rather than breaking or pulling them off. If you miss one or two, remove any overripe squash as soon as possible to reduce the nutrient demand on the plant. 8

Once picked, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. Keep the zucchini whole, dry and unwashed in a paper bag with one end open to encourage air circulation. 9 If you'd like to store it for up to three months for use during the winter, consider freezing. Wash the zucchini and slice them into half-inch rounds.

Avoid pesticides in your food, your home and your yard.

Blanch them to stop enzyme activity, which causes texture change and nutrient loss. Blanch the fruit by bringing a large pot of water to a boil and lightly salt it. Set up another large bowl of ice water nearby.

When the water boils, place your zucchini slices in for one to two minutes, immediately drain them and transfer to the ice bath to stop cooking. After the slices have cooled, drain them and pack them in freezer containers. 10

Enjoy These Health Benefits of Zucchini

There are numerous health benefits of zucchini and an appreciable number of ways to enjoy them in your meals. With only 17 calories per 100 grams, zucchini are high in fiber, have no cholesterol and are rich in flavonoids antioxidants, such as zeaxanthin, beta carotene and lutein. 11 Each nutrient plays a significant role in slowing aging and preventing disease. 12 , 13

Most of the antioxidants and fiber are in the skin of the zucchini, so it's best to keep it on when serving. The antioxidants help protect eye health by fighting free radicals and reducing the risk of developing age-related eye conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts. 14 You can also consider using zucchini to treat puffy eyes by placing raw slices over your eyelids for 30 minutes.

Fiber helps improve digestion and reduces the incidence of constipation and other digestive issues. It also helps to feed your beneficial bacteria in your gut. Zucchini is also a great source of potassium, a heart-healthy nutrient to help moderate blood pressure on counter the effects of too much sodium.

Increase your energy, naturally. I know that sounds simple, but I read recently that only 6 percent of Americans get the recommended five to six servings of vegetables daily. Make it a goal to add at least one more vegetable into your day and just watch your energy levels soar.

Below are three recipes for zucchini that can be used with fresh-from-the-garden fruit or blanched zucchini.

  • Zucchini Egg Omelet With Mushrooms Whether you like omelets for breakfast or for dinner, this low-calorie, high-fiber recipe pairs well with fresh fruit or organic protein.
  • Zingy Zucchini Noodles With Creamy Avocado Pesto Pesto is a type of pasta sauce traditionally made with basil, crushed garlic and pine nuts, then blended with olive oil and parmesan cheese. This recipe is a unique twist on an Italian dish, blending a creamy and mildly sweet avocado pesto with zucchini noodles that are both easy to make and tasty.
  • Scrumptious Baked Zucchini Tots If you're looking for an alternative to bite-size tater tots, you're going to love this combination of zucchini and cheddar cheese that are sure to be a hit with your family.