Along with cucumbers, summer squash are always a part our summer vegetable garden. I enjoy their reliability, their prolific nature, and the immense selection of varieties from which to choose each year. And I love to eat them, slicing a sweet nutty cousa zucchini into salads, shredding yellow crooknecks for breads and cakes, or stir-frying a sliced patty pan with potatoes and onions.
At the start, the task of recommending summer squash varieties for the coming garden season seemed formidable. The catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite sources, lists 30 different varieties of summer squash, all heirlooms, of course. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, another favorite source, lists 23 varieties, including 13 types of zucchini squash divided by fruit color into “dark green”, “medium/ light green”, “striped”, and “yellow”.
How does a gardener sort it all out?
I suggest that you focus your selection on heirloom summer squashes, varieties that have stood the taste tests of time. In the yellow crookneck group, Early Golden Summer Crookneck stands out as both easy to grow and good tasting. A lemon-yellow squash with a ribbed and pebbled skin, it is one of the oldest types, dating back to pre-Columbian times. In this country it became a favorite among Appalachian gardeners. The buttery-flavored fruits are meaty with a small crookneck and mature about 53 days after sowing. Like all summer squash, they are best picked when still young, about 6” long.
Among the patty-pan squashes (the fruits look like small flying saucers), Baker Creek’s catalog shows an intriguing photo of Gelber Englischer Custard, a lemon-yellow German patty-pan or scallop type with recurved edges – “impossible to describe”, according to the catalog copy. However you describe the shape, this variety is recommended for gardens in cool climates, an important consideration for Maine gardeners.
Zucchini lovers with small gardens will be interested in Golden, a bush-type heirloom zucchini with golden-yellow fruits, introduced in 1973 by the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company and now available from several seed houses. Plants grow only 4 to 5 feet wide. The flesh of this squash is pale cream in color and it is highly recommended for stir frying.
Keeping company with a dozen F1 hybrids in Johnny’s zucchini offerings is Costata Romanesco, described in their catalog copy as a “traditional Italian heirloom with the best flavor”. This would seem to say it all as far as flavor goes: the heirlooms are the best! The fruits of Costata Romanesco are medium gray-green in color with flecks of green and prominent ribs that give the cut slices a scalloped shape. Johnny’s catalog copy goes on to say that this zucchini is “clearly better textured, nutty, and delicious, raw or cooked.” High Mowing Organic Seeds says, “this Italian zucchini wins every taste test based on its unique, slightly nutty flavor and exceptional texture.” Perhaps Fedco’s catalog sums it up best, declaring Costata Romanesco as “the only summer squash worth bothering with, unless you’re just thirsty.”
Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden, would take issue with Fedco’s opinion. For 2013 gardens, Renee’s Garden is offering organic seeds of an heirloom zucchini squash, Ortolana di Fraenza, an Italian heirloom that yields nicely shaped, light green fruits on early bearing vines with marbled leaves. Renee describes the squash as meltingly tender, custardy and delicious –never watery or mushy. It starts to produce 48 days after planting. I like the looks of this squash (see photo). The shape and color remind me of
, a cousa type zucchini with superb flavor.
Clearly, if taste is the most important criterion, heirloom summer squash varieties are the best choices for the home garden. Taste seems to have taken a back seat to disease resistance and productivity in development of modern hybrid varieties of summer squash, but then the heirloom varieties must have some degree of disease resistance to have survived for generations in gardens around the globe.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com
Fedco Seeds, http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds.htm
High Mowing Organic Seeds, www.highmowingseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Johnnyseeds.com
The Cook’s Garden, www.cooksgarden.com
Renee’s Garden, www.reneesgarden.com