Growing Pumpkins: Hallowe’en favourite

Traditional symbols of the harvest season, pumpkins make a colourful and delicious alternative to the vegetable marrow.

Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, close relatives of marrows and cultivated in much the same way. There are two sorts of pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo and C. mixta, usually referred to as Cumshaw pumpkin. Cucurbita pepo is actually a sort of winter squash, and it is this type which is usually grown. These pumpkins are round and bright orange, perfect for Halloween jack-o-lanterns and as centrepieces for the harvest festival display. Pumpkins can grow to enormous sizes; fruit weighing 75 kg (165 lb) have been recorded, although the ones in your garden are more likely to weigh about 5 kg (12 lb) or less.

If you want to grow pumpkins, remember that they are only half-hardy plants and not very tolerant of the cool conditions usually found in temperate climates. They need a long growing season and they must have summer heat to ripen successfully. This means they really should be started in a cool greenhouse or in a heated frame. Remember also that pumpkins take up a lot of room in the garden in proportion to the amount of fruit they produce.

Obviously not a good choice for a small garden, but an interesting and unusual crop to try if you have the space.

Pumpkins need a well-drained soil that is very rich in organic matter. Like marrows, they were grown at one time on rubbish heaps, and they can still be grown on a compost heap. However, it is better to choose a sunny, open site with a rich, well-drained soil. In the autumn before planting, dig in plenty of well- rotted garden compost or farmyard manure.

Ideally, pumpkins should be started off in early spring in a heated greenhouse. Sow in trays of good quality seed compost or sow singly in 7.5 cm (3”) pots. The temperature required for germination is quite high—a minimum of 21°C (70°F). Seed should germinate in one to two weeks.

If you live in a warm area, or if your garden is very sheltered, you could delay sowing until late spring and then sow the seed in the open ground, protected by cloches. However, you must expect germination to take longer and your final results will probably not be as successful as greenhouse sowings, as the growing season will be shorter.

Your plants will need potting into larger pots quite soon after germination, using 12.5 cm (5”) pots and a good potting compost. Transplant them into the open ground in late spring and protect with cloches or tunnels until all danger of frost is past. In cold areas, planting is best delayed until early summer. The plants must be at least cm (3’) apart in all directions and you could allow 1.2 m (4’) if you have the room.

You can also transplant the pumpkins into a cold frame; this is a particularly good idea if you do not live in an area blessed with warm summers. Set the frame over a compost heap or over rich, well-drained soil. Only two plants will grow successfully in an average-sized frame, but this should be sufficient for most people’s needs.

Immediately after planting, mulch the surrounding area with well-rotted garden compost to help retain moisture, supply nutrients and keep down weeds. This is not necessary for plants grown on a compost heap. Pumpkins need plenty of water and nutrients to grow, so be sure to water frequently and repeat the mulch in mid-summer. Keep down weeds, as they can absorb some of the moisture and nutrients, but be careful when hoeing not to disturb the shallow roots. Pumpkins grow into large, hairy plants which take up a great deal of space. A well-rooted plant can send out stems 3.5-4.5 m (12-15’) long if left to grow untrained. Therefore, it is a good idea to pinch out the tips of the vines when between two and four fruit have formed; this will control the size of the plant and concentrate growth on the fruit. Pinching out is essential with plants grown in frames.

Pollination by hand is usually necessary, and by doing this you can control the number of fruits a plant produces. Any which set in excess of your requirements should be removed; those remaining should all be about the same size, otherwise one can develop at the expense of the others.

Part of the fun of growing pumpkins is to try and produce a single enormous fruit, either for exhibition or for a harvest festival. If you would like to try this, then limit each plant to a single fruit, and feed every week with a dilute solution of liquid manure. If you are lucky, and if the weather is warm enough, your pumpkin should reach at least 10 kg (22 lb) by harvest time.

As the pumpkins begin to grow, place a tile or a piece of stiff card under each fruit to keep them off the ground and prevent them rotting. Pumpkins must be allowed to ripen on the plant. This can present a problem in years of early autumn frosts, for frost damage may prevent further ripening. Be sure to cloche the fruit if frost threatens.

A ripe pumpkin has a hard, shiny orange outer skin. You should not be able to pierce any part of the skin with a fingernail. Cut ripe pumpkins, leaving about 7.5 cm (3”) of stem on the fruit, using a sharp knife. Pumpkins will store well for several months if kept in a dry, airy, frost-proof place. Do not allow them to touch each other, or they may rot. In any case, check occasionally for any signs of rotting, and use any pumpkins which begin to feel soft.

Pumpkins can be substituted in any recipe for vegetable marrow. Or you can try making the traditional American pumpkin pie, spiced with cinnamon, and sweetened with brown sugar.

01. September 2013 by admin
Categories: Fruit Gardening, Uncategorized, Vegetable Gardening | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Growing Pumpkins: Hallowe’en favourite

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