Gad Zukes!

THE REAL DIRT

May 10, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I've hatched a brilliant gardening scheme that should make me the hit of the neighborhood.

My plan is this: I'm not going to plant any zucchini this year. Instead, I'll use the garden space for other crops, and sponge off of people who are flooded with zukes and desperate to get rid of the excess. The neighbors will love me for that, as well as for the fact that there'll be one less zucchini peddler on the block.

Zucchini are as difficult to find homes for as kittens, except there's a new litter of zukes every week. Why should I bother raising a vegetable that someone puts on my doorstep daily?

Anyway, by not growing zucchini, I'll gain a great swath of garden space and many new friends. And the more zucchini I don't grow, the more popular I'll become. Someday I'll choose not to grow a whole yardful of zucchini. Then I'll run for public office.

What a great plan! Or so I thought, until my wife squashed it.

"It won't work," she said. "What if everyone else gets the same idea and nobody grows zucchini? Then the whole neighborhood will be in a pickle. It'll be just like what happened last year, when an electrical storm knocked the power out, and everyone assumed someone else called to report it but nobody did, and we all sat around in the dark for three hours like stooges."

She was right, of course. Not grow zucchini? I must have been out of my gourd.

Zukes are the pride of the vegetable patch. In drought-stricken years, when other crops fail, there is always zucchini. It is the heavy hitter in the home garden and I nearly removed it from my lineup.

What is summer without squash? After work we go home, grab a few z's and fix them for supper. Sauteed one day, steamed the next. Still, they multiply like rabbits. On August weekends, we take zucchini to the mall and place them on people's windshields. They won't fit under the wipers.

The zucchini is "a vegetable version of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice,' " writes garden author Rebecca Rupp. Given fertile soil, ample sun and lots of water, one plant can easily produce 10 pounds of fruit. The biggest zuke on record weighed 36 pounds, nearly 20 times heavier than its look-alike, the baseball bat.

Zucchini may grow more than an inch a day, hidden beneath prickly, deeply lobed leaves on fountain-shaped bushes. Harvest the fruits at 6 to 8 inches, their succulent best.

Zukes have inspired whole cookbooks extolling their use in everything from soups to salads and from crepes to cakes. Even the large yellow flowers are edible, particularly the male blossoms, when stuffed with ricotta cheese and chives or dipped in batter and fried.

(Picking a few flowers won't affect pollination. Try eating the first early blossoms, which are predominately male and can't produce fruits anyway.)

Most gardeners grow the plants on slightly raised mounds resembling meatloaves, to which ample compost or aged manure has been added. Zucchini are big eaters. For variety, plant several types in the same hill. The fruits may be black, golden or striped. Some zukes are even round.

The zucchini has only one real enemy, but it's a doozy. The squash vine borer, an ugly wrinkled white larva, can turn a robust plant into mush overnight. One day the leaves look fine; the next, they're limp dishrags held up by hollow stems. At the base of the plant is a telltale pile of yellow sawdust, or frass. The borers entered there. Alas, the symptoms appear too late to save the plant. Basically, the zukes are doomed.

Prevention is the best cure against borers. I've dusted the stems with plant-derived poisons like rotenone and pyrethrum, which affect pests but not people. I've even injected the stems with organic antidotes via a drugstore syringe, feeling foolish all the // while.

But the easiest and most effective deterrent is an agricultural cloth, or floating row cover, thrown over the young plants like a tarpaulin until flowering begins. Then the cloth is removed. Usually, the plants are now healthy enough to withstand a siege.

If not, leave a note on the doorstep for the zuke fairy.

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