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The modern FI hybrid courgettes are the most likely to give high yields from compact plants, and hence are good for small gardens. Varieties such as 'El Greco', 'Venus', 'Elite' have all done well in this respect in recent trials. They are bred for the sort of fruit you see on the supermarket shelves -uniformly smooth, cylindrical and dark green - and for open, bushy plants which make harvesting easy. Some varieties such as 'Kojac' also have less spiny leaves than the norm, which you will appreciate if you are picking them in a short-sleeved T-shirt.

Older non-hybrid varieties such as 'All Green Bush' and 'Nero di Milan' have similar typical fruit and are worth considering where space is less critical. The seed is significantly cheaper and they will still produce a plentiful supply of good courgettes. However, there are also many unusual varieties to choose from. Most catalogues include two or three, but many more are listed by Suffolk Herbs, Simpsons and, particularly, Seeds of Italy -not surprising considering the strong association of this vegetable with Italian cuisine.

For different coloured fruit you could try the delicate green 'Genovese' or 'Clarion', or the sunny golden 'Jemmer' or 'Goldrush'. For different shapes, consider the round 'Rondo di Nizza' (pale green), 'Floridor' (yellow), 'Eight Ball' or 'Tondo di Piacenza' (both dark green). Alternatively the flying saucer shaped 'patty pans' can be picked small for use as courgettes - varieties such as 'Sunburst' (yellow) or 'Custard White'

(greeny white). Bake or barbecue them whole and they develop a crisp skin and a wonderfully creamy inside.

You can also find courgettes that are bulbous, curved or bumpy, or some combination of the three. My favourite is 'Romanesco', a variety which I discovered by accident and now grow without fail every year. Far from supermarket smoothness, the striped fruits have distinct ridges which make the slices look attractive and give them extra bite.

Sometimes you can buy mixed packets of seeds which offer a range of coloured fruit - for example 'Tristar' gives a mix of plants with cylindrical fruit in either light green, dark green or yellow, and 'Tricolour' gives a similar mix of round fruit. However, you cannot tell the fruit colour by looking at the seeds, so unless you have space to sow and plant the whole packet, there is no guarantee that you will get a mix of plants in the garden. Better to invest in separate packets of your chosen varieties, and share the seed with other gardeners or keep it for the following years. Courgette seeds store well, and can remain viable for around five years if kept in a cool dry place.

HOW MUCH SPACE?

Courgettes need a reasonably sheltered

What Soil You Need Grow Patty Pans

Harvest the fruit when young

Heavy-cropping 'Kojak' has relatively smooth leaves

Harvest the fruit when young

Heavy-cropping 'Kojak' has relatively smooth leaves

Plant out when all fear of frost has passed and the plants are well established
Mulching with well-rotted manure or straw helps reduce weed problems and water loss from the soil

sunny spot to do well - in strong winds the large leafy plants are easily damaged, and fruit may fail to set. You usually need to allow about Im (3ft 3in) square of bed for each plant. Prepare the site in spring by digging in plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost. This will help to retain moisture as well as providing nutrients.

Deciding how many plants to grow can be difficult. One Fl hybrid courgette is likely to produce about 20 fruits over the course of the summer, but you will get a greater proportion of these during hot weather in late summer when the plants are at their prime. You can help avoid the peaks of glut and famine by nurturing one or two plants under cover for an early harvest and pulling them up once the outdoor crop comes fully on line.

If you are short of space, a courgette plant can also give a worthwhile (although smaller) yield if grown in a patio tub. With its large bold leaves and bright yellow flowers it can be attractive, too. Use a large container - one that will hold at least 30 litres (53 pints) of potting compost. Another option for fitting a plant into a small garden is to find a trailing variety and grow it upwards, tying the stems to a trellis, arch or wigwam of canes. 'Black Forest' and 'Lunga Bianca' have typical shaped courgettes on trailing plants or you could try the bulbous-ended summer squash 'Tromba Albenga' which can be harvested young as a courgette.

WHEN TO SOW

Courgettes are best started off in pots in a greenhouse or cold frame, or on a warm windowsill, as the plants are very sensitive to the cold. Sow them four or five weeks before the likely last frost date in your area and they should be ready for planting out as soon as the weather permits. In my garden in the north midlands, I sow at the beginning of May for planting out in early June, but in milder areas you could start several weeks earlier.

Sow seeds singly or in pairs about Icm (Min) deep in fairly large pots - I usually use 9cm (3>2in) squat pots. Let one seedling per pot grow on and, once the roots have filled the pots, harden the plants off gradually by putting them outside during the day. This will make them tougher and sturdier. If the weather is still unfit for transplanting after a week or two, move them on into larger pots.

The alternative is to wait until the threat of cold nights has passed and sow directly outside. Use cloches (or simply large jam jars) over the sowing positions to warm the soil until the seeds emerge. The plants should establish well, but will start cropping later and have a shorter harvest period.

PLANTING TIPS

Windy days, cold nights and slugs are the main enemies of young courgette plants. Cloches can help beat the weather for a short time, but they will soon be bursting out. I usually surround my plants with a low fence of windbreak netting which stays up for several weeks, and on the odd really cold night I cover the plants with fleece.

Slugs tend to graze around the base of the young tender courgette stems, with fatal consequences, so be prepared to use all your usual slug control methods. Some gardeners find plastic slug collars (proprietary or home-made) or copper rings particularly appropriate for protecting courgette plants.

GROWING ON

The plants grow quickly and need little attention once established. I usually try to mulch them with old hay or straw which helps keep down weeds and keep in moisture, but there is only a short time to do this before they fill their allotted space.

Once flowering and fruiting starts, watering in dry spells will help keep up yields. On light dry soil give each plant roughly a 9 litre (2 gallon) watering can full every week. Plants in containers will need much more regular watering, and also extra feeding - a liquid tomato fertiliser used according to the manufacturer's instructions should suit them well.

HARVESTING

Courgette plants should start cropping in July and go on right into the autumn -either until the first frost kills the foliage or until conditions become too cold and wet for the fruit to develop.

Pick the fruits as soon as they reach courgette size - this should be about 7-I3cm (3-5in) long for typical cylindrical courgettes and between golf ball and tennis ball size for the round ones. This is the stage at which they have the best texture and flavour.

Check the plants regularly -at least every other day during the peak weeks of the season - and harvest fruit that is ready, whether you want courgettes for dinner or not. Once you let one or two grow large, the productivity of the plants will drop significantly. You can always give spare fruits away, make courgette pickle (you will be glad that you did come December), or as a last resort put them on the compost heap. There will always be more to pick tomorrow.

SQUASH, MARROW OR COURGETTE?

There is no real botanical difference between a squash, marrow or courgette - it is when you pick it and how you use it that counts.

A summer squash is one that is usually eaten fresh from the plant when its skin is still tender, as opposed to a winter squash or pumpkin that is 'cured' and stored for the winter.

A courgette is an immature summer squash - one that is good eaten when small, complete with skin and seeds. The most familiar varieties are smooth, cylindrical and green, but there are ones with fruit in other shapes and colours. These are listed with the summer squash in some catalogues.

A marrow is the name traditionally given to long cylindrical varieties of summer squash, and occasionally to fruit of other shapes.

VIRUS DISEASES

One of the most common courgette problems is cucumber mosaic virus (CMV). CMV causes yellowish areas between the leaf veins, and later distortion of the leaves and eventually of the fruit. The virus is most likely to be brought in by aphids (greenfly), which spread it from plant to plant as they feed, although you can also inadvertently transmit it by cutting fruit from healthy plants after handling infected ones. Weeds such as chickweed and groundsel, and even some perennial garden plants, can harbour the disease making it easy for it to perpetuate in the garden.

Pull up and compost badly affected plants. Try to limit the problem in future by controlling aphids in the greenhouse where courgette plants are raised, and by encouraging aphid predators in the garden. Try varieties such as 'Defender' and 'Dundoo' which have been bred to have some specific resistance to the CMV virus. Other varieties may show a lesser but more

Powdery mildew thrives in dry conditions

Cucumber mosaic virus is spread by aphids (greenfly)

Powdery mildew thrives in dry conditions

Cucumber mosaic virus is spread by aphids (greenfly)

Nigel Slater is the author of many best-selling cookery books including Real Fast Food and Real Cooking. He has written a long-running column for The Observer for more than 10 years and has won many prestigious awards including the Glenfiddich Award and the Andre Simon Memorial Prize.

Grilled zucchini salad with basil and lemon

We asked Nigel for his favourite method of preparing courgettes. He says of this recipe: "The flavours work splendidly with cold roast meats, grilled fish (especially bream and halibut) and mild, milky cheeses such as mozzarella or feta. A splendid antipasto, too."

SERVES 2

4 medium zucchini 1 lemon

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil a small bunch of basil leaves

1 Wipe the zucchini and slice thinly along their length. Each slice should be no thicker than a pound coin. Put the slices on the grill and let them brown in stripes on the underside. Turn them over and brown the other side.

2 Meanwhile, make the dressing. Grate the lemon into a mixing bowl. Do this finely and lightly, any white pith will make the dressing bitter. Beat the olive oil into the lemon juice, then add salt and black pepper. Roughly tear the basil leaves, depending on their size - I tend to leave small ones intact but lightly crushed in the hand to release the oils - then add them to the dressing.

3 As each slice of zucchini becomes ready, drop it into the dressing and mix gently so that the slices become completely soaked. Set aside for 10 minutes for the flavours to marry and the vegetables to soften.

Nigel Slater, from his book The Kitchen Diaries (Fourth Estate £25). ISBN: 0-00-719948-1

Our thanks to Seeds of Italy tel: 0208 427 5020. Visit www.seedsofitaly.com for a copy of its new 2006 seed catalogue.

general resistance to virus diseases -possibly because their leaves are less attractive to aphids; the more unusual ones (sometimes listed as summer squashes) may be worth a try.

POWDERY MILDEW

This often affects courgette plants later in the summer. It forms a powdery white coating on the leaves, which eventually become crisp and tattered and reduces the productivity of the plant. Hot dry conditions favour the spread of the disease spores. Avoid or delay severe damage by using a variety bred to be less susceptible such as 'Dundoo' or 'Sebring'. Good soil preparation and watering should help offset some of the effects. Clear up and compost affected debris in autumn.

GREY MOULD

In damp conditions, dying courgette flowers often become infected with this fungal disease and the rot can progress into the blossom end of the fruit. Avoid problems by maintaining a good airflow around and between plants - give them plenty of space and remove old leaves and other debris. Pick off and compost affected fruits.

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  • steffen
    What soil do you need to grow patty pans?
    8 years ago

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