15 Common Problems With Garden Grown Zucchini Plants
Are you having problems with your garden grown zucchini this season? Zucchini can run into a few issues when being grown in the garden. In this article, organic gardening expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey walks through the most common zucchini problems, and what to do if you see them this season.
It’s hard to find a vegetable that is easier to grow than zucchini. This easygoing crop is eager to please even the most inexperienced growers. It grows incredibly rapidly and only needs to be planted once for vibrant squash production all summer long.
Better yet, zucchini typically requires very little maintenance except for harvesting (which can keep you busy in the peak of summer!) However, it can be alarming to notice your zucchini plants going downhill. Although these plants are very resilient, they aren’t entirely immune to problems.
Whether it’s failed germination, transplant shock, small disfigured fruits, or damage to the foliage, specific issues can quickly stop zucchini in its tracks. So, are you tired of seeing issues pop up with your garden grown zucchini plants? Let’s dig into the most common problems with zucchini and how to fix them!
Common Zucchini Problems
Zucchini is a member of the Cucurbit family, along with cucumbers, squash, and melons. All of these crops have similarly broad leaves and shallow root zones that pose their own unique challenges.
You may notice that problems with zucchini can also affect neighboring Cucurbit crops. Whether it’s a cultural issue or pressure from bugs and diseases, the key to overcoming these issues is proper identification and quick action. Here’s how:
Failed Seed Germination
Some zucchini plants are doomed from the start by improper seeding practices. Failed germination is most commonly due to the following:
- Cold soil: Zucchini is a warm-weather crop that cannot germinate in soils colder than 70°F.
- Seeding too deeply: When you plant seeds deeper than a few inches, they may struggle to find their way to the soil surface before exhausting the seed’s endosperm and die.
- Seeding too shallow: When seeds are sown too close to the surface, you risk them being displaced during watering or drying out in the harsh direct rays of the sun.
- Rodents eating the seeds: Cucurbit seeds are notoriously attractive for rodents. If you notice little holes dug out of your seedling trays, you may be dealing with a mouse or vole that’s hungry.
Fortunately, there are many ways to fix to overcoming failed zucchini seed germination. You haven’t yet invested a lot of time or space into the crop, and you can easily re-seed as soon as you create the right conditions:
A heating mat is the easiest way to ensure that zucchini seeds come up evenly and quickly. Use a soil temperature probe to ensure that the seedling mix remains 70-75°F. If you’re directly seeding in the garden, you typically need an ambient air temperature of 75 to 90°F. Most gardeners wait until 2-3 weeks after the estimated last frost date to direct sow squash seeds outdoors.
Sow squash seeds in a fine, loamy, well-drained soil mix that is rich in organic matter and fluffy aerating materials such as vermiculite and peat moss. For direct seeding, ensure that you have thoroughly loosened the garden soil, removed all weeds, and raked it smooth. Incorporate compost when necessary.
As a rule of thumb, most vegetable seeds should be planted at a depth that is twice their dimension. Zucchini seeds should be sown about ½” to 1” deep, depending on their size. Lightly tamper down the soil above seeds to ensure that they don’t float to the surface when watering.
To protect zucchini seeds from rodents, I often recommend covering seedling flats with a tarp and rocks until they start germinating. You can set baited mouse traps on top or nearby. In the garden, you can also use traps or invest in a quality garden cat. If the rodent pressure is strong, always transplant your zucchini plants and use row cover.
Seedlings Rot or Die
Sometimes zucchini does germinate, but it starts disintegrating or rotting from the base just as it emerges. Different types of fungi such as Pythium, Rhizoctonia, and Fusarium are responsible for a disease called damping off. The most apparent symptom is zucchini seedlings that have been “girdled at the base and fallen over.
The easiest way to prevent damping off is simply by installing a fan in your greenhouse nursery or ensuring proper airflow in your garden. You should also avoid overwatering zucchini seeds because soggy soils promote fungal growth.
Some growers prefer to use a light “topper” of vermiculite or perlite when seeding zucchini to promote extra drainage through the upper soil layers.
Once seeds have succumbed to damping off, there’s no saving them. Your best bet is throwing them away, sanitizing your tools, and restarting with an extra well-drained soil mix and more conscious watering techniques. And don’t underestimate the power of ventilation!
Plants Wilt After Planting
We all can feel a little unnerved when suddenly thrown into a new environment. Squash-family crops are infamous for their hatred of root disturbance and sudden temperature swings. Zucchini absolutely disdains rough transplanting and suffers when its delicate taproot is disrupted by rough handling, compacted soils, or nighttime cold snaps.
Common Signs of Transplant Shock
- Rapid wilting leaves on recent transplants
- Pale foliage
- Yellowing or brown, dead leaves
- Leaf rolling and curling
- Flimsy or rotten stems
To avoid transplant shock, be very careful when putting zucchini out in the garden. These little babies have never been exposed
Plants should have a strong root ball in their containers so that they are easily removed from their pots without dropping a lot of soil. You should use a trowel or Hori hori knife to thoroughly loosen the planting hole and carefully set the seedling inside. Never smoosh or force the roots into place.
Don’t forget to harden off your zucchini seedlings before setting them outside in the garden. This means slowly exposing them to cooler nighttime temperatures and reducing watering. If you buy starts from a nursery, check if they have been hardened off.
My favorite trick for preventing transplant shock is covering newly transplanted cucurbits with row cover. This adds extra warmth and moisture to protect them from extremes.
As an added bonus, this will keep squash bugs and beetles from attacking your young zucchini. You can also water zucchini in with a diluted kelp solution to help reduce the risk of transplant shock.
If your zucchini plants are producing a bunch of yellow flowers but no zucchini fruit, you’re likely dealing with a pollination issue. Like most of our favorite garden crops, zucchini requires bees to pollinate its blossoms and help it produce fruit.
Zucchini plants are considered monoecious, which means they produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Somehow, the pollen from the male flowers needs to get to the stigma of the female flowers. Bees are the most common
If you are losing potential zucchini plants at a rapid speed, you can always hand-pollinate the flowers. A clean paintbrush is the easiest way to move pollen and facilitate manual germination:
Manual Germination Steps
- Identify the male flowers by looking for blossoms that are on the end of a long stem.
- The stem won’t have any bulge in the base.
- In the mid-to-late morning, rub the paintbrush inside the flower.
- This will collect the yellow powdery pollen.
- Then, shake the brush around inside the female blooms.
- Female flowers will be closer to the base of the zucchini plant.
- They appear to have a ball-shaped baby fruit at the base.
- Continue re-applying the male pollen and shaking it onto the female stigmas.
- Avoid doing this in the heat of the afternoon.
For a longer-term solution, you simply need more pollinators in the garden to do the work for you. Magnetize more bees to your garden by planting pollinator-friendly zucchini companion plant flowers such as:
Alternatively, you can import pollinators by establishing your own honey bee hives or purchasing native bees from an insect biocontrol company. However, they will only stay where they feel welcome.
You will need plenty of insectary habitat established to keep them hanging out in your garden, which is why I always have an abundance of herbs and flowers planted around the perimeter of the garden.
Flowers Fall Off
Wilted or dead blossoms that have fallen to the ground can be pretty alarming. You need those flowers to turn into fruit! However, fallen flowers are not always a disastrous problem. In fact, sometimes, it’s just a natural part of the plant’s lifecycle.
When male flowers have already done their job (spreading pollen), they often wilt and fall off the vine. This is completely normal and to be expected. The only time you should be concerned about falling blossoms is when you aren’t noticing any squash production. This indicates yet another pollination issue.
If you see bees and butterflies regularly visiting your zucchini plants, then your issue with male blossom fall is probably part of the normal plant cycle. However, if plants are dropping female flowers and not producing any squash, they are probably ditching their old flowers to try again. Reference the hand-pollination techniques above to try to save them.
You may also be dealing with stressed-out plants that do not have enough fertility or water to support flower and fruit production. In this case, you may also notice symptoms like wilting and yellowing, which you should address with the guides below.
Zucchini is known for its incredible vigor. A single zucchini plant can produce up to 10 or more pounds of fruit in a single season! But when you’re not finding an abundance of green squash every couple of days, it may be a sign that your zucchini plant is unhappy.
The most common reasons for reduced zucchini yields are mistakes with spacing, fertility, temperature, pollination, or sunlight. Here’s how to fix them:
Thin zucchini plants to provide at least 2 to 3 square feet per plant. If plants are crammed too close together, it can cause stress and competition.
Zucchini requires a generous dose of nitrogen-rich all-purpose fertilizer to keep it cranking out fruits all summer long. Before planting, be sure to amend with rotted manure or compost to give it a boost. If you are already half-way through the season, consider weekly applications of diluted liquid fish and seaweed fertilizer to promote more squash production.
Cold nighttime temperatures below 40°F can cause zucchini some major stress and reduced yield potential. If you live in a cold region, consider creating low tunnels or using row cover to protect zucchini at night. Just remember to remove these covers during the day to allow bees to pollinate the flowers.
If your zucchini plants are all flower and no fruit, refer to the pollination section above to learn how to hand-pollinate or attract bees to your garden.
Zucchini is a sun-worshipping, heat-loving crop that absolutely needs 6-8 hours of full sun per day. Reduced yields may occur if the plant is getting shaded out by structures or other plants.
If you think all of these needs are being met, your yield loss may be due to one of the disease or pest problems described below.
Powdery Leaf Appearance
If your zucchini leaves look like somebody just dusted flour over their surface, you may be dealing with powdery mildew. This dreadful disease tends to attack gardens in mid or late summer when there are major fluctuations between warm, dry days and cool, humid nights.
The primary symptoms are dusty gray leaves, white blotches, fuzzy mildew-like stems, and yellowing or browning leaves. This can lead to wilting, rotting, and major yield losses. It can also spread rapidly to other plants.
However, sometimes it’s easy to confuse the natural white variegation on zucchini leaves for powdery mildew. To tell natural leaf markings from a disease, check that the variegation has a consistent pattern across multiple leaves and only appears on the upper surface. Powdery mildew will appear more irregular, fuzzy, and noticeable on all surfaces.
The easiest way to deal with powdery mildew is to improve air circulation, avoid overhead irrigation (to keep leaves dry), and apply a diluted neem oil solution to leaf surfaces. In the future, you may want to increase the spacing between plants and choose a PM-resistant seed variety such as ‘Sunglo’, ‘Success PM’, or ‘Dunja’.
Deformed or Curled Leaves
If zucchini leaves start to look curled or deformed, this can be another indicator of pests or a disease. Aphids are the most common cause of deformed leaves because their feeding habits suck the sap from leaves and cause stunted growth patterns.
The first indicator of aphids is often not the aphids themselves but the ants that follow them. As the tiny pear-shaped aphids (which can be white, yellow, brown, or green) feed on your zucchini foliage, they leave behind a sugary sap that magnetizes hungry ants in their wake.
The first step to get rid of aphids is simply blasting plants with a stream of water from the garden hose. This knocks aphids off the plants really quickly. However, if you live in a humid climate, this may make your plants more susceptible to diseases. Be sure to do this only in the morning before a hot, sunny day.
Your next best option is using a mixture of diluted dish soap, water, and neem oil sprayed on the leaves every day for a week or two. This viscous mixture quickly knocks out aphid populations and repels further colonization.
For a longer term solution, consider releasing lacewings or ladybugs for biocontrol. Better yet, plant companion flowers and herbs that attract beneficial aphid-eating insects to your zucchini patch.
The End of the Squash Rots
Blossom end rot is common in zucchini, tomatoes, and eggplants. While it looks a lot like a disease, it’s actually caused by a calcium deficiency, inconsistent watering, or both.
The symptoms of blossom end rot include:
- Black or brown ends of the zucchini.
- Mushy wilted flowers.
- Disintegrating zucchini flesh.
- Water-soaked “butts” of zucchini fruits.
Once blossom end rot starts eating away at your fruits, you have to remove them and wait for new flowers to be pollinated (thankfully, this doesn’t take long with zucchini!) In the meantime, you can amend the soil with a calcium source like ground oyster shells, crushed eggshells, gypsum, or dolomite lime.
You should also check that your irrigation is consistent. There shouldn’t be large fluctuations between ultra-dry soil and soggy, moist periods.
Use drip lines, irrigation timers, and regular soil moisture monitoring to ensure that the soil stays consistently watered. A well-drained soil rich in compost combined with a straw mulch can help moderate the extremes between droughts and heavy rainfalls.
The Part of the Squash on the Soil Rots
It’s a real shame to see zucchini fruits rapidly developing on the vines, only to pick it up and realize that the side of the squash touching the soil has totally rotted. Zucchini is one of those crops that, unfortunately, develop its yields really close to the ground.
This means that fruits can be vulnerable to decomposer organisms that hang out on the moist soil surface. Once you’ve ruled out blossom end rot, this issue can easily be alleviated with cultural practices.
To fix it, a generous addition of straw or dried chipped leaf mulch can quickly get rid of rotting issues. This will help keep squash off the soil surface and dry while it awaits harvest. You can also run drip irrigation or soaker hoses beneath the mulch surface to avoid adding excess moisture to the surface where the fruit is developing.
Leaves are Wilting
Wilting is a fairly generic symptom that can indicate a range of issues. The most obvious and easy-to-fix problem is underwatering. While they do excel in hot weather, zucchini plants are fairly thirsty and quickly wilt when they get dehydrated under ultra-hot conditions.
Keep in mind that slight wilting of leaves during a heat wave is normal. Everybody feels a little “weighed down” in abrasive sunlight. But when an entire plant starts to flop downward, you may need to take quick action to save it.
To fix it, give that zucchini plant a thorough watering! To prevent wilting issues, use a mulch to conserve soil moisture. Amend with plenty of compost or rotted manure before planting to improve soil water retention.
Regularly check your garden every 1-3 days to be sure that the soil hasn’t dried out. Be sure to water from the base or use drip irrigation to avoid causing disease issues on the foliage.
Leaves are Turning Yellow
Zucchini leaves should naturally be vibrant green with select white or silvery leaf patterns. A few yellowing old leaves may be normal. But, when large amounts of foliage start to turn yellow it may be a sign of nutrient deficiencies or a disease issue.
This can severely stunt your zucchini’s growth and yields because it means something is interfering with the plant’s ability to produce chlorophyll and photosynthesize.
Squash tend to be heavy feeders that need an abundance of minerals and organic matter to fuel their continuous production of fruits.
Deficiencies in micronutrients like sulfur, manganese, or iron often cause yellowing in younger leaves, especially between the veins of new foliage. Deficiencies of macronutrients like nitrogen affect the oldest leaves.
You can prune ultra-yellow leaves off the plant or wait until they fall naturally, then remove them. Amend with a nitrogen-rich or all-purpose fertilizer.
In the case of micronutrient deficiencies, you may opt for diluted kelp or fish emulsion application. Check that your soil moisture is consistent and you don’t see any signs of zucchini diseases or pests.
Holes in the Leaves
When you see holes in your zucchini leaves, it’s an obvious sign that something is eating away at the plant. Whether its a mild or severe infestation, you’ll want to deal with them as quickly as possible to preserve your plant’s vigor and health.
Different pests tend to have different patterns of eating, which makes it easier to identify the culprit(s):
- Squash bugs: These ugly brown bugs cause holes with a ripped appearance.
- Cucumber beetles: Whether striped or spotted, these pests attack the whole Cucurbit family.
- Flea beetles: A million tiny “shot” holes in the leaves a sure sign of flea beetles.
Diatomaceous earth, sticky traps, and neem oil are great organic options for dealing with these pests. You may also opt to cover young zucchini plants with a light row cover to protect them from damage, however this will need to be removed once they start flowering in order to ensure proper pollination.
Gummy or Weak Stems
Zucchini stems should be strong and vibrant, so if you notice a soft, mushy, rotten-looking stem it is definitely a reason for alarm.
These symptoms can also migrate to fruits and leaves. In ultra humid climates with moderate temperatures, a fungal disease called gummy stem blight is likely the culprit. Thankfully, most of the treatment and preventative measures are very similar to powder mildew.
Once it takes hold, you can’t save a plant from gummy stem blight. Your best bet is removing infected plants ASAP. Use a neem spray or organic bio-fungicide like Actinovate to protect nearby zucchini plants.
To prevent future issues, always clean up cucurbit crop residue from the garden so that the pathogen cannot overwinter and contaminate future crops.
Fruit is Lumpy or Misshapen
Glossy, smooth-skinned squash is the reason we grow zucchini in the first place! When fruits start to appear disfigured or lumpy, it’s a real bummer for your zucchini recipes.
The worst-case scenario is your plant has a virus. Zucchini yellow mosaic virus or cucumber mosaic virus are less common diseases, but they can still take hold in gardens throughout the U.S. Both viruses can be spread by infected seeds or by aphids.
The most common symptoms are:
- Raised, wart-like regions on the zucchini skin.
- Bumps on the fruit.
- Lumpy misshapen zucchini.
Unfortunately, virus-infected squash need to be removed immeditately. Luckily, it is unlikely to move frm plant-to-plant but it will destroy the infected plant. Be sure to sanitize all tools and hands after handling the virus-infected zucchini.
To prevent future problems, source seeds of virus-resistant varieties from a reputable source. Be sure that you prevent and protect from aphids with healthy soil, companion planting, and regular scouting.
Zucchini is one of the most laid-back plants in the garden, but it can still get fussy when it doesn’t have its needs met. These common zucchini problems are easily avoided by creating the ideal conditions for the plants and checking up on them every few days throughout the growing season.
Remember That Zucchini Loves:
- Warm weather above 50°F
- Full sunshine
- Consistent moisture
- 2-3 feet of space
- Fertile soil
- Lots of bees for pollination
By sticking to some common zucchini growing best practices, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of these problems each season. In no time, you’ll be enjoying an abundance of sautes, roasts, zucchini parmesan, or “zoodles” all summer long!