Zucchini, plant of horrors

Posted April 18, 2010, at 7 p.m.

Last week, Lindell and I went to Sprague’s Nursery on Union Street to pick out seeds for our second annual Smiley garden. As I spun the carousel of seed options, Lindell plucked packets from a different display across the room.

“How about these ones?” he asked, running toward me.

When I flipped the packet over and saw the picture on the front, my heart began to race. Zucchini. (Cue horrifying screeching sound.) “Not, not those, Lindell,” I said. “Hurry, put these back where you found them.”

Zucchini plants and I go way back to last year, when I first learned to garden. They are such innocent-looking seeds — flat and oval like the familiar pumpkin seed. But out of this deceptive, smooth exterior springs one of nature’s most angry and aggressive plants.

To be fair, all plants have their own personalities. Lettuce is the hard worker, consistently and inconspicuously creating layer upon layer of tasty leaves. Although prolific, lettuce has the good manners to keep to itself and, in some varieties, even to grow into a discreet, compact ball.

Sugar snap peas are the fragile, pretty ones that need constant attention. They delicately wrap themselves around a climbing pole and then sprout the most beautiful dainty white flowers, which you may never see unless you check on them daily. Just as soon as the flower bursts forth, it shrivels up and becomes a crinkly append-age, like a scrap piece of tissue paper. Still delicate and beautiful in its own way, but clearly pouting.

Corn is the showoff. It is like people who claim to eat candy bars and not gain weight. Tall and skinny, corn still somehow manages to cast a shadow on the rest of the garden, sometimes to the point of extinction for everything around it. Then it bears heavy ears of corn that seem impossible for such a lanky plant to lift. Just when you think the cornstalks can’t get any taller, you lose a child in it.

Green onions, which smell of onion even as they are growing, are the loner of the group that you suspect the other vegetables are making fun of.

And carrots? Well, they don’t believe in themselves. They cower in the corner, seemingly not producing much of anything at all, and then you pull them up and want to say, “You did this? You did this all by yourself?”

But zucchini — it is the angry, volatile vegetable with plans to take over the entire garden. Around the time that my zucchini plant from last year started growing prickly skin, its motives became obvious: Nothing — not me or my shovel — could stop it from growing over, around and under every neighboring plant. It would strangle the life out of its peers if needed. I doubt that a bottle of poison would have helped.

I became afraid of the zucchini. When I went to bed at night, the plant would have but one or two small green vegetables hanging from its vine. By morning, those would have tripled in size and become so deformed they looked like misshapen baseball bats. I thought the skin on them would burst, which reminded me of my fin-gers when I was nine months pregnant. This zucchini plant couldn’t possibly be normal. Or safe.

We started receiving phone calls with no caller on the other end. If I listened closely, I could almost hear the zucchini breathing through the receiver.

“Mrs. Smiley, we have traced the call and it is coming from … your garden.”

When I harvested the plant to use for dinner, I found myself chopping it aggressively with my kitchen knife. Sweat poured from my temples. I cleaned up all the juice and the evidence just in case the zucchini’s friends would want revenge.

I eventually decided to dig up the plant to protect my family. The vines clawed at my skin, and their fat tentacles were wrapped around the sugar snap peas and the fence posts like a boa constrictor. The roots seemed to be anchored to the very center of the Earth. When I was finished, I had dirt all over my face and body, and Dustin thought I had been in a fight. I had.

Unfortunately, I left the bag of zucchini plant parts near the garden. The next morning, one of the vines was reaching out of the black plastic and fastening itself to the wooden border of the garden. It was like the hand of a zombie coming out of the grave. I shoved it back into the bag and tied it tight.

Back at Sprague’s, Lindell wanted to know why we couldn’t buy zucchini seeds. This is like a child asking why they can’t play with a loaded gun. I told him we could get pumpkin seeds instead.

As I said earlier, however, pumpkin and zucchini seeds have unsettling similarities. So I’m keeping my eye on those guys, and I’ve left my shovel nearby just as a warning.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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