The French say courgettes, we say zucchini - whatever you call the versatile squash, now is its time to shine in the sun, writes Mat Pember.
October marks the start of spring proper, as we gardeners say, when plants really start to flourish and all vegetable growers greet it like the return of the messiah. Possibly the hardest thing about this time of year is not going overboard in terms of what to grow. While there's a smorgasbord of varieties to choose from, space limitations can narrow the options, but zucchini is one variety that passes muster for us. While they're somewhat space-greedy, one healthy bush will satisfy the demands of the most voracious zucchini-eater.
To grow zucchini, position them in an A-grade space that receives full sun and offers protection from the wind. As a large plant, it catches even moderate gusts, which can cause damage at the root zone.
In the absence of protection it requires staking. Prepare the soil with plenty of compost and chook manure before planting and ensure it's free draining.
When planting, space each plant 40 to 50 centimetres apart, then, if the zucchini take, thin them out to 80 to 100 centimetres. One healthy plant will produce more and better fruit than two in competition, so less really is more.
We like to pop our seedlings in small heaped piles of compost - around 20 centimetres in diameter and five centimetres high; the elevation allows good drainage while the compost provides the young plant with an extra boost of nitrogen that helps promote early plant growth.
Water them daily in the morning for the first few weeks and then three to four times a week as the plant begins to mature. If you give the plants an extra water on very hot, sunny days, avoid wetting the foliage as it can easily burn. If you're growing zucchini in pots, pay attention to what your plants are saying. If they're looking lifeless, you can be sure they're thirsty.
After four to six weeks, you'll notice flowers developing, signalling the start of the business end. This time of year is also usually when bees get busy, hopefully in a frenzy pollinating your flowers, but that's not always the case. Sometimes zucchini begin to form, but then shrivel up - a sign of poor pollination - so good old-fashioned hand pollination may be required. Hold no reservations about this task; it may be the only way to ensure zucchini develop as nature intended.
Once the fruit begins to form properly, zucchini can swell at a seemingly uncontrollable rate. In our experience, it's not uncommon to part with a normal-sized fruit on a Friday and come Sunday discover it has turned into a monster marrow.
The general rule of thumb is to pick early to ensure they're tender and juicy, rather than dry and hollow. When harvesting, use a small sharp knife or secateurs, and be careful when handling the plant; the bush has moderately annoying spikes all over, which become less moderate and more annoying around the neck - where you need to pick the fruit. When harvesting zucchini flowers for cooking, pick only male flowers, leaving one male per female flower to ensure pollination (see below for how to identify male and female flowers).
Picking zucchini regularly encourages the rest to develop, so avoid any long absences or laziness while the plant is producing. Each plant will offer up a glut of zucchini - for around two to three months - so gather some recipes and put them to good use.
As the weather cools down again, the annual bush will look like death. At this point let the last zucchini contribute to the new season's first ratatouille, then thank the plant for all its hard work before removing it and bidding it farewell.
One-minute skills: hand pollination
This tip is an opportunity to explain the birds and the bees. But some vegetables - pumpkin, zucchini and squash in particular - leave the birds and bees suitably unimpressed and have trouble attracting the right kind of attention, so they sometimes need a helping hand. Without pollination, there will be no fruit, and that's where the gardener comes in.
1 First you need to identify the male and female flowers on the plant. The male is connected to the plant by a long, thin stem, whereas the female has a miniature fruit growing in between the flower and the plant.
2 There are always plenty of male flowers to choose from and they're always up for hand-pollinating. The female, however, presents only windows of opportunity and are far fewer in numbers. But when her flower is opening, it's all on.
3 To hand-pollinate, simply break off a male flower, peel back the petals to reveal the stamen and rub it over the stigma of the female flower. Remember, you can't hand-pollinate a flower too much, so don't hold back.