Pumpkins are winter squashes that were first cultivated by native American peoples, who removed the flesh, dried the fruits and sliced their bodies in half to use as bowls. They also ate pumpkin seeds to kill intestinal worms.
Rambling through the autumn garden, these natural sculptures will bring immense pleasure to adults and children alike for both their sweet taste and fabulous colours.
They are of course most widely known for their use as Halloween lanterns. It was Irish immigrants to the Americas who first started using the fruits on Halloween as a substitute for the native turnips they had used back in the British Isles and it is only recently that the fashion has really caught on in the UK.
Eating the flesh of the plant has never seen much traction here either, but perhaps that should begin to change too, since there are many great culinary uses for the fruits. They are highly nutritious and make a fantastic spicy soup, they can be roasted as a sweet-potato substitute and of course can be used to make pumpkin cake (which is similar to carrot cake), and pumpkin pie, a sweet pudding.
Like most gourds, pumpkins are very easy to grow and even total beginners should be well rewarded for very little effort. They can reach humongous sizes and will grow all over Britain, but they do best in the south because they like a lot of sunshine.
Let’s look at some of the tried and tested varieties of pumpkin that can be grown in the UK:
A literally massive pumpkin variety that can grow as big as a man and is shown in competitions in America. It grows too large to be really great tasting, so should only be grown for fun, but kids will love it. When it’s done you can build them a house out of it, or make a gigantic garden lantern to impress guests at a Halloween party.
Jack of all Trades
A medium-sized pumpkin with excellent shape and flavour. It is good for pies, cakes, and soups, and makes excellent Halloween lanterns.
A very round and smooth variety that matures early, giving you perfectly shaped lanterns in time for Halloween.
Jack be Little
A miniature variety that makes tiny fruits that are great for stuffing and roasting whole.
A strange grey pumpkin. It has grey skin on the outside and normal orange flesh within. Definitely one to impress and looks great alongside normal orange pumpkins.
Pumpkins are grown from large pear shaped seeds. You can sow them from mid-April up to the beginning of May, but it is often a good idea to set them off early so that you can maximize your harvest.
Take some 15 cm (6”) pots and fill the bottom 2.5 cm (1”) with compost, then place a seed on its side in each pot. Fill the rest of the pot up with compost. Water well, then move the pot to a warm place like a windowsill or conservatory, or place in a propagator.
You will need to water your pumpkin seedlings once every few days. Allow the soil to dry off each time so that they do not get fungal infections.
In a few weeks the seedlings should be ready to go outside.
Planting in The Ground
Pumpkins are greedy for light, so they will need a site that gets lots of sunshine. They are also greedy for food, so having a lot of good compost on standby is a must if you want a great crop. The best compost to use is that from your own compost heap, even only partially rotted stuff will work well.
The time for planting out is determined not by the weather but by soil temperature, it should be neutral or slightly warm to the touch. If you like, you can test it the traditional way farmers do, by pulling your trousers and underwear down and sitting in the dirt; if it feels warm to your backside, then you are good to go.
Dig over your pumpkin patch and add in a lot of compost. Then create mounds of compost on your plot about 1 meter (3’) in diameter and at least 2 meters (6’) apart. Now make a shallow moat around each, just like building sandcastles on the beach.
Each mound will be able to support four or five pumpkins. Plant them at the top of your mounds with the maximum amount of space between each and water them in.
Mounds should be kept well-watered and free of weeds throughout the growing season. When the fruits arrive, you can feed the plants once per fortnight with a liquid feed made from sheep/pigs droppings and bonfire ash mixed with water.
Remove a few early fruits when they arrive so that the plants can direct their energy into making larger ones. When the fruits start getting really big you will need to put something under them to stop them sitting on damp ground and rotting. You can use wood, glass, brick or plastic for this.
Some plants may become infected with mildew, a grey powdery substance found on the leaves. If you are quick enough to cut off all effected leaves and dispose of them before the mildew spreads, then the plant may survive.
Planting in Containers
If you like, you can grow pumpkins in growbags or containers. There is no great science to this, just plant your pumpkins, one or two per growbag or container, and follow the same rules as discussed for planting in the ground.
Let the fruit mature on the plant until it is a deep colour. After that you can leave it as long as you like to get bigger, but remember that the smaller the fruit, the sweeter the flavour. You must however, pick them before the first frost comes in wintertime.
Cut fruits off with a sharp knife and let them sit in the sun for about a week. You can store them for up to six months in a cool, airy and dry place.