Building a Garden: Anatomy of a Summer Squash

How to plant and pick one of summer's marquee idols

Zucchini
Matt Taylor-Gross

Urban farmer Shawn Connell is standing in the hot sun of the GrowNYC teaching garden on Governors Island in New York City, and he's telling me all about zucchini penises.

Well, not really, but we are talking about boy zucchini and girl zucchini and how you tell the difference. You see, it matters. Which I’m totally flabbergasted to learn.

When a zucchini plant starts flowering, for the first week or so those flowers are male flowers, Shawn explains. Those are the ones you want to pick and use for frying. Once the female flowers start coming in, those are the ones from which fruit will grow. So you don't want to pick them, because then you won't get any zucchini.

Zucchini
Matt Taylor-Gross

Zucchini are bit of a problem child for Shawn. He loves them, no doubt, but when they grow they like to take up a lot of room. You want to plant them in their own bed, or far away from other plants; otherwise their leaves may shoot up and cover whatever is growing next to them.

Shawn has also learned that zucchini like a lot of compost—he uses a combination of 40% compost and 60% soil when he plants them, a much higher percentage of compost than for other vegetables.

Zucchini
Matt Taylor-Gross

Lastly, you should pick zucchini when they are 6 to 8 inches long. If you wait any longer—trying to win some giant produce contest or something—the plant will slow down production and you won’t get as high a yield.

And lest you be confused by the weather: Now is the time to start planting your winter squash! Shawn threw me that curveball and then explained: The difference between summer squash and winter squash is basically that winter squash are mature—they are bigger, with tougher exteriors. Like grownups. Therefore, they need a very long time to grow, so start planting your butternuts now to have a great crop for roasting and soups come October and November.

In the meantime, find some of our favorite summer squash recipes here.