If you’re after a non-fuss crop that will cover a multitude of sins in a relatively quick period and will produce an abundance of produce for very little effort, then pumpkins have to be at the top of the list or pretty near to it. How many times have you found pumpkin seedlings popping up in your compost heap? Or in the chicken run? With the seeds being so easy to germinate, not even a slightly green finger is required to get them underway.
One of the joys about living in the country is that space isn’t an issue, so I have room to plant plenty of pumpkins, although I do have a limiting factor and that is water. Pumpkins, like me, enjoy a good drink and a deep watering session once a week is ideal, more frequently when it’s exceptionally hot. Aim to give each plant two buckets of water – grey water from the washing machine is fine and lugging the buckets around is always a good bit of exercise. For the ones I plant out to cover the ugly macrocarpa stumps behind the main vegetable garden, I lug the water out of the water trough.
November and December are the key pumpkin planting months. Seedlings and young plants are frost tender, so if you start too early you will need to nestle them somewhere nice and cosy. The seeds are huge, and easy to handle in your fingers, either plant in situ where you want them to grow or sow them in shallow trays or egg cartons. The seeds readily germinate in about 10 days with the two big felt-like leaves bursting from the soil first. Once the first leaves appear they rapidly begin to grow and need to be transplanted before they get too big. Allow 2-3m between plants and plant one plant per person in the family. Each plant should produce between three and five pumpkins depending on the variety and growing season. Pumpkins take about four months to grow from start to finish, so a bit of patience is required.
The great thing about sowing the seeds in trays is that it allows you some time to prepare the ground where they are going to grow. Pumpkins are greedy beggars (gross feeders) and the more manure and compost you can get into the soil prior to planting the better your crop will be. Any animal manure is good, just make sure it is mature and not too fresh. If it has a strong aroma, leave it to one side to rot down and add it to the soil after planting. Dig a big hole and work in the manure and loosen up the soil so the pumpkin’s roots will easily anchor into the soil, make a small mound where the plant will go, then put a little moat around that, so the water can pool in and around the root zone.
Once planted and under way, the plants will quickly put out tendrils and begin to literally run across the ground. It is at this point you can begin to train your edible pumpkins (not the giant ones) up a wall, trellis or over a structure like the garden or wood shed. The tendrils are easy to pick up and move off the lawn, they naturally wander, and put down little white feeding and anchoring roots, feel free to move them or cut those unwanted arms off. Eating pumpkins are easier to contain, whereas giant pumpkins need plenty of room to move.
As the pumpkins begin to form, remove excess leaves to aid ripening, but don’t rip off too many as it will limit the amount the plant can photosynthesise, restricting growth and potential harvest. Water in the morning where possible and avoid getting water on the foliage. Lifting pumpkins up onto beds of straw keeps the skin clean and blemish free and prevents them from rotting in wet periods. Mildew can be an issue, so remove affected material as soon as it appears or spray with a mixture of baking soda and milk.
When harvesting, leave the fruits on the vine until a few frosts have passed. This sweetens up the flesh and hardens the skin enabling it to store for a longer period. Leave a handle on the pumpkin, not to carry it with, but to prevent air getting into the centre of the pumpkin, prolonging shelf life.
Kids love them
Have you ever struggled to get a child to eat pumpkin as a vegetable on their plate? No matter how many aeroplane noises and bribes of dessert or games of snap, my darling friend’s daughter would not go near pumpkin – until she grew her own giant pumpkin. Her interest in anything pumpkin is now quite amazing and when I visit we head off down to the pumpkin patch to check out where her plant is going to be growing this season. We haven’t mentioned to her that the giant pumpkin she grew wasn’t really suitable for eating as it has little flavour and cooks down to a pile of mush not even a well-seasoned soup pot would breathe life into. However, we have converted her to eating it and that’s all that matters.
Pumpkins are great crops for kids; the seeds are big and easy to handle, making them easy to plant; they germinate quickly; and once they are planted out in the ground, the vines quickly scramble over the ground, which maintains the kid’s interest. Flowers appear once the tendrils start to run over the ground and bees then begin the pollination process. As the pumpkins fatten up, names and designs can be carved into the skin, and as the pumpkin grows so does the carving.
Pumpkins – what to grow
Sweet to eat
Butternut – creamy orange skin and dark- orange flesh, with a soft texture, and much-loved flavour. Popular in warmer regions.
Crown – one of the most widely grown grey pumpkins, with thick orange sweet flesh. Prolific habit and reliable in a wide range of conditions. ‘
Kumi kumi or kamo kamo – is a smallish, dark-green, ribbed pumpkin, favoured by Polynesians and Maori cultures. Very quick growing and looks a little like a ribbed marrow. Heavy cropping, producing 10-15 fruits per vine. Ideal for stuffing and baking.
‘Queensland Blue’ – large crown pumpkin. Bright orange flesh, sweet and long keeping.
‘Triamble’ – heirloom variety with three distinctive segments in its iron-like, ribbed flesh. Good flavour, and ideal for training up a tree or trellis. Excellent storing variety.
‘Whangaparoa Crown’ – an excellent tasting and storing grey pumpkin, often sold as individual plants in the shops.
Land of the giants
For those who have their eye on the prize of giant pumpkin growing, make sure you plant seeds as early as possible. Sow the same as above, and as the pumpkin begin to develop, remove all but one of two pumpkins to force the plant to put all its energy into growing the big one. Water daily and ideally in the morning during the heat of summer.
‘Atlantic Giant’ – a massive, pale-orange pumpkin grown more for it’s rather large girth; can grow up to 200kg.
‘Big Boy’ – giant pumpkin, widely grown for competitions, flesh edible, but relatively tasteless.
I have recently become addicted to gourds. These miniature, multi-coloured ornamental members of the pumpkin family are fun and very easy to grow.
Gourds have a tough hard skin, which enables them to store for a long time, not just months, in some cases years depending on the variety. Centuries ago some of the larger gourds were hollowed out and used as drinking vessels and to carry water. Others were used as storage containers for grains and seeds.
These days the home gardener typically grows them for ornamental purposes. With a sprawling vine like habit they can be grown along the ground or up frames and trellis or over a pergola. When grown vertically the fruits hang down adding to their old world charm.
Please be aware the pumpkin varieties available, will vary by Mitre 10 store.