Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Courgette Cornucopia

A few years ago, a friend of ours started to behave strangely. Towards the end of the summer term, she would hover around the gates at school pick-up time searching out faces she knew and then thrusting packages into their hands. We would often open our front door to find these packages left, unbidden, on our doorstep. In the summer holidays, even our kids would return from playing at her house with her children, laden down. We would catch sight of her in the village 'cooeeing' friends from a distance as they scuttled into homes and shops. People started avoiding her. We started avoiding her. The thing is, you can only have so many courgettes - and we had enough of our own. What our friend had done was start a vegetable garden at home and, being a novice, plant twelve - yes, twelve - courgette plants. Unable to keep up with the courgette cornucopia, she had been pushed to the brink in trying to find good homes for her produce.

It is a familiar feeling for even experienced home or allotment vegetable growers. A glut is always a risk in a good growing year and courgettes, in particular, have become something of a standing joke. However, getting the plants up and running is not always straightforward. Courgettes can sometimes suffer from germination problems but, providing seeds are not too old and are not subjected to extremes of temperature or moisture, it's hard to fail at this stage. So already there are too many plants and the temptation is to plant out more than are needed to insure against failure. Poor weather, especially high winds in May, can damage young plants and dry spells present difficulties, too: courgettes require plenty of water as well as sunshine to succeed. Pollination can also be a problem when honeybees are not as active in bad weather. One year, I had to hand-pollinate my courgette plants by rubbing the pollen-bearing anthers of a male flower into the centre of a female flower; I didn't know where to look.

This year, we may think we are having a rubbish summer because of the poor weather of the past few weeks but we had a warm May and a flaming June and above average rainfall in both and, as a result, courgette plants are thriving: we currently have a continuous crop from the three plants in our vegetable garden that is just about right for a family of five - but it still feels like we are eating a lot of courgettes. Regular harvesting and consuming is the key and, to get the full benefit of the fruit's flavour, courgettes should be picked when they are not much bigger than a Mars bar. We stumbled across a recipe book by Elaine Borish a few years ago called, What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes?, which has proved invaluable. At the moment, we are eating a lot of vegetable curry, which utilises the courgettes and some of our second early potatoes and also takes care of that other glut we are trying to manage: runner beans.

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