Hints for growing great pumpkins and squash
Pumpkins (or squash in some parts of the world) are easy to grow and can yield amazing amounts of food in a very small space. Filled with loads of dietary fibre and low in fat too, pumpkins can help stretch your summer produce well into autumn and winter if stored correctly. Loaded with goodness, they are full of Vitamin E, Thiamine, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium and Magnesium, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Potassium and Manganese. Pumpkins are a member of the gourd family (with squash, marrow and zucchini or courgette), originating from South America.
Roasted, mashed, steamed or turned into delicious soup, pumpkins are versatile and filling for those long, cold winter days ahead. Growing them is easy if you know how.
Choose a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden for your pumpkins. They will tolerate some partial shade if that is your best option. Before you plant the seeds directly into the ground where they are to grow, add lots of compost, well-rotted manure or other organic matter as they are quite heavy feeders. They need good drainage and will tolerate a range of soil conditions.
Most gardening sites will tell you that you will need a fair bit of room as the vines tend to wander. However, you can set up a trellis for the to grow vertically if you are a little limited for space, or you can grow them under your fruit trees as a ground cover, allowing that space to do double duty. Good vine pumpkins include Butternut and Jap. If you want to win the local Biggest Pumpkin competition, then try Atlantic Giant.
Alternatively you could try a bush or miniature variety. Bush, semibush or miniature pumpkins are smaller, and their sugars are often more concentrated than those of larger pumpkins. This results in a sweeter flesh that is ideal for pies and other baked goods. Varieties to look for include Jackpot, a 6-10kg round pumpkin, Bushkin or Spirit, that grow to a weight of 4-6kg. Baby Bear, New England Pie and Sugar Treat are smaller varieties that grow to 1-2kg. Miniature varieties produce fruit weighing less than 1 kg and include Jack-Be-Little, Golden Nugget and Sweetie Pie.
You may need to search seed catalogues to find some of these varieties but they are well worth the hunt. Once you have the seeds and you have grown them for one year, you can save the seeds for the next year’s produce – you only have to buy them once and saving the seeds is very simple.
Pumpkins need soil temperature of around 20˚C for germination and don’t like frost, so wait until the last frost has passed. Once you have selected the variety you want to grow, sourced the seeds, prepared your bed and checked the soil temperature, you are ready to plant. Follow the instructions on the packet for planting distances, but be aware that those that sprawl will really sprawl! They can cover up to around 10m2 if they are not contained and will run over whatever gets in their way. I grew one a couple of years ago that took over a significant portion of my back yard and threatened to take over the beehive that I had in the middle of the garden – I had to keep chopping that tendril back so the bees could get home each night after their foraging trips! Having said that, I got amazing levels of pollination that year as pumpkins need bees for pollination, so if you are hoping for a bumper crop of pumpkins, make sure you plant some bee friendly companions around your pumpkin patch to attract these workers to do the right thing for you.
After planting, the vine will begin to grow and it will keep growing for several weeks. As flowers form you can tip-prune the vines to slow their growth and force the existing flowers and buds to form fruit. Personally I just let mine sprawl and put plenty of water onto them once the buds have formed to make sure those growing babies can get enough hydration. Even if you have to pay for water, it is much cheaper than having to buy pumpkins all year round!
Pumpkins produce short-lived male and female flowers that can close by mid-morning on warm days. Female flowers open above the swollen, distinctive fruit and male flowers produce the pollen for fertilising the female flowers. While bees are normally able to complete pollination, sometimes ants harvest pollen before this occurs and you may need to intervene by hand pollinating the female fruit. To do this, pick the male flowers and remove the petal, then dab the pollen on the stigma of female flowers. Squeezing female flowers can help pollination in wet weather. High summer temperatures over 30˚C can affect fruit formation. So pollinate early in the morning, when the forecast shows a run of mild summer temperatures which will give the fruit the best chance of setting.
Your pumpkins will be very happy with a regular application of compost tea, fish emulsion or other liquid fertiliser during the growing season. Pumpkins are pretty resilient, but can suffer from powdery mildew if you have a damp summer or they don’t have enough sunlight or good air circulation.
If you want to enter the Biggest Pumpkin competition, experts recommend allowing only one fruit to develop per vine. You will know when it is time to harvest them, as their stalks will go dry and shrivel a little. Leave the pumpkin on the vine for as long as possible, but not past the first frost. By this time their skin will be hardening and the vine may well be withering too. Use your secateurs to separate them from the vine and leave a good length of stalk attached to the fruit – this allows them to store for longer periods. If you want to store them over winter, ’cure’ them first by exposing the skin to the sun for a few days and allowing it to dry out completely. Then store them in a single layer on cardboard, straw or paper so they can breathe and get plenty of air flow around them.
When you find your ideal pumpkin – the flavour that you love plus the one that is suited to your situation – you will be wise to save their seeds. This is easy to do as they are quite large. After you have chopped up the pumpkin, remove the seeds and run them under cold water until the flesh of the pumpkin which often attaches to the seed has been washed off. Then separate and dry the seeds on a piece of paper towelling for a couple of days in a dark place (inside a kitchen cupboard works well). Once they are dry, store them in a paper envelope, remembering to write what they are on the outside, because if you’re like me, you think you will remember next you but you probably won’t! Store them in a dark dry place and wait for the last frost next year and warming soil to plant them and enjoy again.
If you’re looking for ideas for what to do with all your pumpkins, you can try my Simple, Delicious Pumpkin Soup with a Twist – great on a cold winter’s day for lunch served with some hot bread or grated hazelnuts.