Zucchini picked a day too late (pen for scale). (ERIN O’MARA PHOTO)
My gardening strategy used to be to plant a few things, throw fertilizer over my left shoulder, and hope for the right mix of sun and rain.
Vegetables had been around doing what vegetables do long before I started a garden, so I figured the best thing I could do was to plant and get out of the way. I tried a few things and whatever grew got planted again the next year. Some — I’m looking at you, garlic — never rose to the challenge. Zucchini, more than anything I’ve ever planted, is stalwart.
It delivered in my first garden and every year since. My target for planting is Memorial Day weekend, since this is Maine and we have to wait out the frost and snow. But here I am, the days creeping into June, staring at my zucchini seeds that just won’t pop. The starts should already be in the ground, the baby vines quietly plotting a garden takeover.
I know they’re not sprouting because the seeds are neatly folded into a single layer of wet paper towel, delicately placed in a plastic bag and taped to a south-facing window. Though gardening techniques at my house have evolved over time, mainly because my partner does most of the work now, the operation remains unfussy and usually effective. Lettuce, tomatoes and kale quickly burst with life. Basil and cilantro followed. But zucchini, the historic star of the garden, remains still, the seeds stubbornly the same.
I didn’t grow up loving zucchini. I remember a dinner when I was very young, maybe preschool age, and my mother served up zucchini casserole. My father took one bite and declared it inedible. My brother and I went from dejected to elated. We cheered. I think we got to order a pizza that night, so it was a double win.
My mom grew zucchini, my neighbors grow it and I’ve never heard of anyone having to coax zucchini into being. When I harvested my very first zucchini from my very first garden, a friend told me that in Maine, you must keep your car doors locked over the summer unless you want to find a bushel of zucchini waiting for you in the back seat. I love the idea of neighbors sneaking around under the cover of darkness to ensure I have enough folate in my diet. I want my zucchini crop to be so overwhelming that I bump into someone at midnight, both of us looking for a way to offload an armload.
I love that even when my garden wasn’t fenced in, I had a plentiful zucchini crop. Local animals munched on a few blossoms but never bellied up to the all-you-can-eat zucchini buffet. I love that a zucchini can be just barely too small to pick one day and, on the very next day, be 3 feet long. I like that zucchini is tricky. Easily camouflaged by its vines, it grows with little fear that I’ll find and pluck it.
I love that making it taste good is to celebrate the undercover essence of zucchini. It thrives in disguise.
Roast it on pizza with a ton of Gruyere, saute zucchini matchsticks and tent the pile with sheets of Parmesan or transform it into savory fritters. And then there’s the double disguise: bread that’s really cake fortified with stealth zucchini. Chocolate chip, double chocolate, gluten-free, banana, regular or everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bread. The zucchini shreds seem to melt into the batter. Even the pickiest eater might never know that along with chocolate chips, they’re getting a serving of vegetable.
Mostly, I love that year after year, from planting to growing to picking, zucchini is steady and reliable.
My partner caught me staring at our zucchini incubation system and said, “You know, I think the seeds are starting to puff up.” My first thought was, “Rot makes things puff up too.”
My second thought, and the one I went with because I am, at heart, an optimist, was of hope.
Maybe these seeds are slow to start because they’re gaining strength and will turn into the heartiest crop in history? I’ll have so much that I’ll be in the kitchen disguising zucchini throughout July and August.
If my seeds fail, it could be a lesson about the dangers of taking anything for granted and I’ll learn and improve my growing game for next year. Or maybe the lesson that will come out of this failure is the importance of having a Plan B.
Dear neighbors: The car is out front and unlocked.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the board of Harpswell News.