How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Zucchini in Your Garden
Zucchini can make a wonderful addition to just about any garden. It's uses are practically endless, and they are very easy to grow and care for. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through each step you'll need to follow in order to plant, grow, and care for Zucchini.
Whether you love zucchini bread, veggie sautees, or trendy “zoodles,” zucchini is an essential crop for every home garden and kitchen. It is arguably one of the easiest vegetables to grow and is truly a gift that keeps on giving, and there are many Zucchini varieties, no matter your type of garden or climate.
Zucchini is a tender summer squash that you plant once and harvest all summer long. These fast-growing plants are perfect for beginners. They have large seeds that are easy to plant, germinate, and tend to. Each plant is ultra-vigorous and capable of producing dozens and dozens of tasty squash throughout the season. Plus, they have large leaves to outcompete weeds and big flowers that are very popular with the bees.
If you give zucchini plants enough sunlight, fertility, and water, these overachievers will shock you with abundant yields that are, admittedly, sometimes hard to keep up with. Next thing you know, you’ll be eating, preserving, and even giving away heaps of delicious zucchinis to your neighbors.
Zucchini Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual
Species Cucurbita pepo
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-10
Season Late Spring and Early Summer
Plant Height 2-4 feet (bush) or 6-10 feet (vine)
Fertility Needs Moderate
Temperature Above 60 degrees
Plant With Calendula, White Alyssum, Clover
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Plant Spacing 24-36 inches per plant
Watering Needs Moderate
Soil Type Fertile, Well-drained, Slightly Acidic
Days to Maturity 40-60 days
Pests Aphids, Cucumber Beetles
Diseases Powdery Mildew and Wilt
History and Cultivation
This oblong green squash has a rich and delicious history that has garnered it a vital role in cuisines from all over the world.
As a garden crop, zucchini is extraordinarily generous and forgiving. It simply grows and grows without much effort from the gardener. In the kitchen, zucchini is versatile enough to use in just about any recipe, sweet or savory, breakfast or dinner, and even desserts (zucchini bread muffins anyone?)
Archeologists have discovered squash seeds in Mexico that date back to 9000 B.C. or earlier. Excavations in the western slopes of the Peruvian Andes have also revealed squash seeds that are almost 10,000 years old!
In fact, ancient squash seeds have led to scientists redefining the exact origins of agriculture. While we used to believe that the Middle East was the birthplace of prehistoric agriculture, squash seeds serve as evidence that farming also developed in the Americas around the same time.
Needless to say, ancestors of our common zucchini squash have been around for a long time before “zoodles” and zucchini parm.
What is Zucchini?
Zucchini is a well-known summer squash variety of the species Cucurbita pepo. It is botanically a fruit, but most commonly considered a vegetable in the kitchen. Most varieties are oblong, dark green fruits with a ribbed stem and soft flesh. They are harvested at an immature stage under 8 inches in length to ensure tenderness and small seeds.
A member of the Cucurbitaceae, or squash family, the zucchini plant has large palmate leaves, bright yellow flowers, and an affinity for warm weather. Zucchini plants are fast-growing annual crops that typically grow with a bushy habit, but may also grow as vines. They require bees to pollinate their flowers and continuously produce fruits in great abundance.
Zucchini can be grown throughout most tropical and temperate regions. However, they are extremely sensitive to frost and must be planted exclusively during the frost-free season.
In fact, some farmers and gardeners have trouble trying to slow down the ecstatic production from their zucchini plants. To decrease their harvest work, some growers also harvest zucchini flowers for high-end restaurants or make recipes such as stuffed squash blossoms or squash blossom quesadillas.
Summer Squash vs. Winter Squash
Both summer squash and winter squash varieties belong to the Cucurbita genus. Summer squash is harvested immature and tender enough to eat the skin. However, winter squash is typically harvested fully mature with a hard skin that is cured for storage.
Zucchini, pattypan, and crookneck squash are all summer squash, whereas butternut, pumpkins, and spaghetti squash are winter squash types. There are a few exceptions to the rule, such as delicata and acorn squash, which are winter squash with edible skins when cooked.
The confusion comes when you realize that all of these squash are actually grown in the summer and harvested into fall. None of these varieties are able to withstand temperatures below freezing. Most winter squash grow as rambling vines, whereas summer squash are often more compact bushes. All of these squash are grown very similarly in the garden.
Where Does Zucchini Originate?
Native peoples of modern-day Mexico and the southern United States cultivated many types of squash relatives in traditional milpa gardens some 7,000 years ago. These diverse plantings of corn, beans, and squash are often called “the three sisters” and remain a popular interplanting combo to this day.
When Europeans began colonizing the Americas in the 15th century, they collected many seeds and brought them back over the pond. The first refined zucchini cultivars were likely developed by Italian plant breeders and gardeners in the 19th century. The word zucchini came from the Italian word “zucca,” which means squash. The French call zucchini “courgette,” a diminutive of the word “courge” that means gourd.
By the 1920s, zucchini made its way back to America via Italian immigrants to California. This is where the green summer squash gained popularity amongst gardeners, farmers, and eaters. Today, zucchini is used in cultures all over the world, from Latin American cuisine to Southeast Asian recipes to French, Italian, British, and beyond. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous for its neutral flavor, delicious tender texture, and exceptional nutrient profile.
Zucchini is an underrated vegetable (technically a fruit) that is often overlooked for its superb health benefits. This verdant squash is loaded with vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and zinc.
Interestingly, many of the nutrients in zucchini are more bioavailable to your body after it is cooked. Raw zucchini is safe to eat, but occasionally a zucchini is born extra bitter, which means it has high concentrations of cucurbitacins and should not be eaten.
This veggie also boasts high antioxidant levels that protect your body from cancer, free radicals, and heart disease. Research has shown that the antioxidants are mostly found in the skin, which is why I never peel my zucchini!
Zucchini also has a nice dose of lutein and beta-carotene to support your skin, eyes, and heart. These carotenoids are found in the highest concentrations in yellow zucchinis, however, they are present in light green squash as well.
When it comes to digestion, zucchini is a superfood in its own right. These oblong fruits are very hydrating and contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which reduce risks of constipation and support regularity.
This popular veggie also provides fuel for all those beneficial bacteria and microorganisms in your gut microbiome. Specifically, it is the short-chain fatty acids found in them that help reduce gut inflammation and can even alleviate symptoms of IBS, Crohn’s, and colitis.
If you’re looking for the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to garden space, yields, and nutrition, zucchini definitely won’t disappoint. Best of all, this nutrient-dense crop is super easy to propagate and grow!
Like most cucurbits, zucchini has large eye-shaped seeds that are easy to handle and sow. These plants prefer to be directly seeded in the garden, but they can also be transplanted from indoor-grown seedlings if you live in a colder climate or have a lot of garden pests. Unfortunately, cucurbit seeds can be very popular amongst rodents and birds, so protect your garden accordingly!
How to Direct Seed Zucchini
Zucchini squash really like the heat. The ideal soil temperature for seed germination is between 70 and 90°F. This means you often need to wait for your garden beds to thoroughly warm up in late spring or early summer after the risk of frost has passed. Raised garden beds or the use of plastic, low tunnels, or row cover can help speed up the soil warming process so that you can plant seeds earlier.
Use a soil temperature probe to determine the best time to seed zucchini. Their seeds are remarkably resilient and long-lasting (they stay viable for up to 6 years!), however, they will not germinate in soils colder than 60°F.
Once all danger of frost has passed, prepare your garden beds by raking the surface smooth and amending with sieved compost if needed.
Seed Depth, Germination, and Spacing
Sow their seeds about ½” to 1” deep about 12 to 18” apart in all directions. It helps to seed a few extra plants and then thin out the weakest ones after germination.
Ultimately, successful plants should be about 24-36” apart or 2-3 square feet per plant. Don’t worry, the garden space will be well worth it once you realize how much a single plant can yield!
Zucchini seeds take around 7 to 10 days to germinate when the soil temperatures are 85°F or warmer. Colder soil means slower or more erratic germination. Consider using a low tunnel greenhouse or row cover to add some extra heat to the emerging baby squash.
How to Start Zucchini Indoors
Summer squash can be finicky about transplanting, but it is still recommended to start planting zucchini seeds indoors in USDA growing zones 5 or colder. This will help you get a head start on the season and have big, healthy plants ready to plant into the garden as soon as the weather is warm enough.
Start zucchini seeds in a greenhouse or under grow lights about 3 to 4 weeks before planting out. I often time this based on a planting date 1-2 weeks after the expected last frost.
Squash is super cold-sensitive, so there’s no need to risk losing your whole crop to one cold night. They grow fast enough that you might as well wait until the garden soil temperature is consistently above 70°F.
Sow the seeds in 3” pots and germinate on a heat mat, if available. The ambient temperature should be 80 to 90°F. Once germinated, seedlings can be grown at 70-75°F until they are big enough to transplant.
Wiggle the seedling from the base and slightly pull out of the container to check the roots about 3 weeks after seeding. The roots should thoroughly fill out the container to ensure that there is minimum disturbance at the time of planting.
It’s very important to remember to harden off your squash seedlings by slowly acclimating them to outdoor temperature fluctuations during the week prior to planting. Row cover is also a great option to add extra protection once in the garden.
Squash plants in general are known for how much they hate root disturbance. These plants do best when directly seeded, but sometimes cold climates, short seasons, and pesky rodents mean that we have to start them early indoors and transplant them out once the weather is pleasant. Transplanting eliminates the risks associated with direct seeding.
How to Transplant Zucchini
Transplanting zucchini is simple and straightforward as long as you take the utmost care not to disturb those tender roots. Whether you are using your own seed starts or seedlings purchased from a local nursery or garden store, the planting process is the same.
Start with vigorous, healthy starts that have been acclimated to the outdoors. Rake your garden beds smooth and then use a tape measure to mark your planting holes. Zucchini should be planted 24-36” apart in all directions. This ends up being about 2-3 square feet per plant.
Use a trowel or hori hori garden knife to make a generously sized hole just a little bigger than the root ball of your seedlings. Wiggle the plant out of its container very gently and place it in the hole so the soil surface remains at the same level. Burying the plant stem too deep can result in damping-off or rotting at the base.
Lightly backfill your seedlings, avoiding any tamping or pressure on the soil. Zucchini roots like plenty of aeration and space to grow. Thoroughly water them in with a diluted kelp solution to reduce transplant shock Cover with row fabric or low tunnel hoops until the time of flowering. This will exclude insects and add extra warmth.
Bush-type zucchini plants typically require 2-3 square feet per plant, however, there are more compact options (discussed below) that are available for small spaces or container gardens. If you want to grow several zucchini plants, some gardeners prefer to plant them in rows at least 5-6 feet apart so that harvesting is easier. For vining types, this is a necessity.
Remember, zucchini plants have fairly spiky, itchy leaves that grow up to 4 feet tall. You have to be able to find all your precious squash fruits down near the base of the plant. If zucchini is planted too close together, yields will be reduced and it will be very difficult to dig through the tangle of itchy foliage to find the fruits.
How to Grow Zucchini
Growing summer squashes like zucchini is remarkably simple once they’re established. These plants give and give, asking very little in return except ample sunlight and water. Zucchini is a low-cost, high-return investment that over-delivers nearly every time. With a few simple steps, you’ll have more than you know what to do with!
Zucchini is a heat-loving, sun-worshiping crop that thrives in full direct sunlight. These squash need at least 6-8 hours of full sun per day. Avoid planting them anywhere that gets shaded out by trees or other structures.
When it comes to watering zucchini, drip irrigation or soaker hoses are always the best options. This plant is especially prone to powdery mildew, damping off, and other fungal diseases that result from too much moisture on the leaf surface. You should always avoid overhead watering your zucchini and instead, water from the base of the plant.
Because these plants are fairly shallow-rooted, they do require consistent watering. Keep your zucchini happy with 1-3 inches of water per week. Adequate moisture is very important during germination or transplant establishment.
Irrigate generously in extra hot or dry weather. The plants will tell you if they are thirsty (wilted leaves or blossom end rot fruits), so be sure to keep an eye on any signs of water stress. Steady moisture is the key to high production. Consider using straw or leaf mulch to retain moisture in the root zone, with the added benefit of cutting down on weeds.
Zucchini loves a fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of compost or other organic matter. A slightly acidic pH between 5.8 and 6.8 is ideal, but the plants are not too picky. I always amend zucchini beds with a generous heaping of aged compost or sometimes a bit of peat moss to slightly decrease the soil pH.
If you are growing in a container, be sure that it is at least 12” deep. The plants cannot sprawl shallow roots as far as they would in the ground, so it’s important they have enough depth to anchor their roots and support their big, wobbly tops.
Climate and Temperature
Zucchini is without a doubt a warm-weather crop. It can only handle down to 40°F, but it prefers temperatures between 60°F and 85°F.
You can grow zucchini in USDA zones 3-10, as long as you have at least 50 frost-free days and temperatures don’t get above 110°F. Ideally, they should be grown in a drier climate because excess humidity often leads to fungal diseases. If you live in a humid area, consider spacing your plants farther apart for sufficient airflow.
Zucchini is a moderate feeder that really enjoys a generous dose of organic all-purpose fertilizer or diluted fish emulsion around the time the first flowers appear. If your garden has plenty of organic matter, biological activity, and rich soil, you may not need to fertilize your zucchini at all. Compost and aged manure are also great to incorporate 3-4 weeks before planting to provide a season-long source of valuable nutrients.
Maintenance and Harvest
Believe it or not, harvesting is actually the most time-intensive part of maintaining a zucchini crop. Because the fruit grows so quickly, you will need to check the plants every few days to grab them before they get too large. Typically, the best zucchini is between 4” to 8” in length. It’s important to regularly harvest the plants to keep them producing new flowers and fruit.
Oversized zucchini are still edible, but they are often tougher, more bitter, and have larger seeds. If you accidentally wait too long to harvest, you can shred oversized zucchini into zucchini bread or just toss them in the compost and wait for the next round of tender, young squash.
Low pollination rates will result in mutated, small zucchini fruits with stubby blossom-ends. New fruit may also just dry up and wither away.
Once vibrant yellow zucchini flowers finally open in early-to-mid summer, bees should be buzzing with activity. If you have had any problems with pollination in the past, it is recommended that you plant insectary plants such as white alyssum, calendula, clover, phacelia, and sunflowers.
If this doesn’t work, you can hand-pollinate your plants as a last resort. In the early morning, clip off a male flower (the ones on short stems near the center of the plant) and remove the petals. Touch or roll the male pollen into the female flowers. You can also use a clean paintbrush or cotton swab to transfer the pollen.
Basically, you are acting like a bee and facilitating the pollinator-mediated plant sex that is vital for growing 80% of our food. However, protecting and preserving bees is far easier because they do the hard work for you.
Best Varieties of Zucchini
There are many different shapes, sizes, and types of zucchini. From yellow to striped to stout fruits, you can try many unique types of zucchini that you can’t find in stores. There are even spineless and open-growth habit plants to make harvesting a breeze. They are all grown in the same way.
Diverse zucchini are beautiful in the garden and on your plate, however, they do cross-pollinate with each other, so it’s best to select only one or two types unless you want to play zucchini roulette and see what unique squash you end up with!
Best Early Zucchini
- ‘Black Beauty’: Productive, easy to grow variety that produces early and yields dark green zucchini with tender white flesh, firm texture, and mild flavor. (50 days to maturity)
- ‘Dunja’: An early high-yielding cultivar that is resistant to powdery mildew. Short, open plants are easy to harvest and set fruit even with low bee activity. Glossy dark green fruits are consistent and delicious. (47 days)
- ‘Green Machine’: An extra-early zucchini that yields abundantly all summer long. Dark green and shiny fruits have a mild nutty flavor and dense texture, and grow on an open plant with wide branch spacing. Impressive disease resistance. (45 days)
Best Spineless Zucchini Varieties
- ‘Spineless Perfection’: Straight, uniform green fruits are borne on an open, spineless plant that is very pleasant to harvest. Impressive disease resistance and consistent yields throughout the growing season. (45 days)
- ‘Spineless Beauty’: No itchiness here! This hybrid zucchini variety is completely spineless and yields gorgeous dark green fruits. (46 days)
Best Yellow and Unique Zucchini
- ‘Golden Glory’: A bright yellow zucchini with high yields and spineless leaves for an easy harvest. Some resistance to powdery mildew and mosaic viruses, and very productive over long seasons of growth. (50 days)
- ‘Yellowfin’: Semi-open plants yield cylindrical golden zucchini that are uniform and abundant. Intermediate disease resistance and low spines. (50 days).
- ‘Magda’: a Middle-Eastern style zucchini that yields blocky, pale-green fruits with a tapered shape and nutty flavor, best harvested around 3-4” long. Produces high yields all season long and great for pickling. (48 days)
- ‘Safari’: Gorgeous glossy green-and-white striped zucchini are a stunner in Italian recipes. They grow on a mostly spineless plant for ease of harvest. (50 days)
- ‘Cocozelle’: A popular Italian heirloom, these open-pollinated striped zucchini have a rich flavor and graceful, slender growth habit. Easy to harvest and best enjoyed on the small side. (53 days)
Best Zucchini for Small Spaces
- ‘Black Forest’: A popular F1 hybrid, this cultivar is a climbing zucchini (as opposed to the more common bush types) that is perfect for small spaces. Use a trellis to vine it upwards from a large pot or raised bed, saving ground space for other veggies. (51 to 60 days)
- ‘Eight Ball’: This unique round zucchini is classy, bold, and forest green in color. They taste nutty and delicious, growing from compact vines that can be trellised upwards to save space. (55 days)
- ‘Raven’: Deep green, cylindrical fruits with mellow flesh that grow high up on a compact bush with few spines and an open growth habit. (43 days)
- ‘Sungreen’: A bush-type that needs about 18-24” of space, this variety yields long, straight medium green zucchini that are best harvested at around 8” in length. (51 to 60 days)
Pests and Diseases
Zucchini are very vigorous plants that thrive under the protection of row cover to exclude pests in the early stages. But when peak summer comes around, aphids, cucumber beetles, and squash bugs can cause some major damage, especially if your zucchini plants are water-stressed.
There are a few major plant diseases that attack squash as well, especially during rainy and humid spring or fall seasons. Luckily, there are plenty of simple, organic ways to prevent and deal with zucchini pests and diseases.
Most gardeners know by now that these dang little sap-sucking bugs will eat just about anything in the garden. Zucchini is no exception. Find white, green, yellow, or pink aphids on the undersides of zucchini plants, causing tiny holes and leaving behind a sappy, sugary mess. Aphid-infested zucchini may be stunted, yellowed, dried out, moldy. It may even have signs of ants that are attracted by the sugary aphid residues.
To get rid of aphids, spray the undersides of leaves with water to knock them off. Next, use a diluted neem solution sprayed or gently wiped on the leaf surfaces. This will kill and repel the aphids. Neem can be applied every 2 weeks if the issue persists.
To prevent aphids, plant anise, bee balm, fennel, yarrow, cilantro, and Queen Anne’s lace to attract beneficial predatory insects.
These annoying striped or spotted beetles are the bane of any squash gardener’s existence. Both types are yellow and black, causing big holes in leaves, stems, and flowers. They can even defoliate a zucchini plant if their populations get out of hand!
The easiest way to prevent cucumber beetles is to keep your plants safe beneath row cover until the time of flowering. At this point, you will need to remove row covers to allow for pollination. It is also helpful to use landscaping fabric around the plants and keep any beetle-attracting weeds at bay. Because cucumber beetles overwinter in the soil, you should also practice crop rotation. This will ensure that Cucurbits are not planted in the same part of the garden year after year.
Squash bugs are a major problem for zucchini gardeners, but thankfully I’ve never personally encountered them in my garden. Aphids and cucumber beetles are far more common.
But if you suspect you have squash bugs in your zucchini patch, the most important step is to scout for them. You may notice holey leaves and clusters of eggs in a “V” shape near the veins of the plant. Wipe these away with gloves coated in alcohol or neem solution, or just squash them (no pun intended).
Crop rotation and row cover are also important preventative methods to keep these ugly greyish round bugs at bay.
Powdery mildew is a dreadful fungal infection that attacks all cucurbits, but especially loves zucchini. It looks exactly like it sounds: a powdery, mold-looking, fungal growth that coats leaves and stems. Symptoms begin in late summer and persist into fall, especially during humid weather.
Fortunately, there are lots of powdery mildew-resistant zucchini varieties that have been bred in recent years. Proper air circulation between plants is key to preventing infection. Don’t plant zucchini too close together or let weeds get out of hand. You can also use diluted neem solution misted on the plants as a preventative strategy in early summer. Scout and remove any leaves that appear to be infected.
This is another generalist fungus that can attack hundreds of different plants, but often loves your zucchini (go figure!) To make matters worse, the fungus attacks plants in cool weather but the symptoms may not appear until mid-summer. Squash plants may look wilted, mutated, and yellow.
Unfortunately, once a plant is infected there is nothing you can do. The most important preventative measure is selecting resistant cultivars and practicing crop rotation. You should also regularly sanitize any tools used to cut zucchini.
Zucchini is a popular food crop that is often considered a vegetable but is technically a fruit. Both the flowers and fruit are edible in a variety of recipes. Zucchini can be enjoyed raw, but it has the most nutrient bioavailability and flavor when cooked.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you grow zucchini for beginners?
Zucchini is one of the best beginner-friendly crops because it has big seeds that are easy to sow and it grows very quickly. Plant seeds ½” to 1” deep in rich garden soil after the danger of frost has passed.
Provide consistent moisture and ensure the plants have full sunlight. Thin to 24-36” between plants and rows. Consider covering with row fabric to exclude pests and keep zucchini extra warm. Regularly harvest the fruits to ensure a continuous harvest of small, tender squash.
How long does it take to grow zucchini?
Zucchini plants are perfect for impatient gardeners. They begin yielding just 45 to 55 days from seeding.
Is zucchini easy to grow?
Zucchini squash is one of the easiest garden crops to grow. If you give it full sunlight, warmth, and plenty of water, it will yield generously all season long.
How many zucchini do you get from one plant?
Zucchini plants are fun to grow because you plant them once and continuously harvest them throughout the summer. If properly maintained, one zucchini plant can yield 6-10 pounds of squash or more! It is important to regularly harvest the squash to ensure a continuous supply of tender, immature fruits.
Nothing says summer like garden-fresh zucchini. With so many varieties to choose from and such an easygoing attitude, you really can’t go wrong with this tasty summer squash. Just remember to provide it with full sunlight, cozy warmth, and consistent moisture.