I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about pumpkins I love the most. Obviously there’s the flavour and the pile of different ways you can cook with them, but there is more to it. I love their short, fat, round, wobbly shapes and the way they will just grow and fit in anywhere really, rambling over the ground, up trees, through open windows, undeterred. The rainbow of colours, from burnt oranges and limes through to greys, creams and greens to almost black, yellow and blends of all of the above, simply adds to the appeal.
I think, though, the best aspect of all is simply how easy they are to grow. An absolute lowstress crop (unless you are growing the giant ones and then it’s all about winning the local giant pumpkin competition), rarely do they fail to deliver. It is as simple as sowing the seeds, firing them a bit of food and water, and walking away – if only all crops were so easy! Often seedlings pop up in the compost bin and, if left to their own devices, they happily nestle in and grow there for a season.
Now, it may seem strange to be waxing lyrical about these generous vegetables so early on in the season, but if you plan a little more, this crop will reward you with a bigger and better harvest. And in upcoming months, tomatoes and the like will steal the limelight.
Where and when to plant
Full sun is ideal, however, they do cope with a smidge of shade as long as there is plenty of air movement. They will cope with only half a day’s sunshine.
Pumpkins prefer rich soil – that’s why they often pop up in the compost heap. Prepare any new area by digging in a wheelbarrow load of compost or well-rotted manure, water it liberally and fork the area over to provide a loose base for the seedling to establish itself into.
They are a long-term crop, taking four to six months to develop. Pinch out the tips once the stems are 3m long to encourage more lateral stems, and flowers, which will give you a heavier crop of fruit.
Removing excess foliage does aid the ripening and curing of the pumpkin, but don’t be tempted to remove too many leaves as this will reduce the amount the plant can photosynthesise, almost stunting its growth.
Depending on where you live, seeds should be sown in mid or late spring. Generally your location will govern when to sow them. Plants are readily available in the shops from October, but seeds are so easy to germinate if you have your own, they are pretty much cost-free. The seedlings and plants are sensitive to frost, so germinate them indoors if you want to get a head start, or wait until the frosts pack up for the season.
As the plants begin to hit their straps, the tendrils will grow fairly fast. To keep them flourishing give them a deep watering every week, roughly about two bucketfuls (i.e. 20 litres) per plant. Consider using the greywater from your washing machine or the run-off from the shower. Once the fruit start developing in mid-summer button back on the watering, down to half this amount, to encourage the flesh to become more dense, which improves both flavour and storage ability. Liquid drenches of seaweed or liquid fertiliser will boost them, too.
Did you know pumpkin flowers are edible? They have a very mild and delicious flavour similar to zucchini flowers, and can be cooked and used in the same way. Try to pick the flowers in the morning, when the petals have maximum turgidity. Rinse gently and pat dry and then seal in an air-tight zip-lock bag until you are ready to cook with them. They last about two days when prepared this way. Only pick the male flowers; as they don’t have much use after they have shared their pollen with the female flowers. These are easy to spot as the female ones have tiny pumpkins at the base of the flower stalk once they have been pollinated.
Save the seeds
If you have a tasty pumpkin you are eating at the moment, save the seeds of it ready to sow in spring. Simply wash the seeds carefully and place on a paper towel to dry, this may take a fortnight or so, but once the seeds get a paper look to them, they are ready to store in preparation for sowing.
Stalk for storage
At harvest time, always leave the stalk on the pumpkin. Try not to use it as a handle, as these readily snap, especially if the pumpkins are large. Its main use is to prevent any moisture or rot getting into the pumpkin flesh, thus extending its shelf life and storage capacity.
Carve it up
If you are a creative type, or want to encourage kids to get a bit more involved in the garden, let them have a go at engraving pumpkins. Halfway through the season, in February or early March, when the pumpkin is maturing and actively growing, take a pencil or ballpoint pen and draw a name or design into the top layer of the skin. As the pumpkin swells and gets bigger the name and/or design increasing in size. The more the plant is watered the bigger the name or design gets, making this easy activity a fun way to engage kids with food and the garden.
Which ones to grow
These good old-fashioned pumpkins – the grey to pale green ones you see the most in the supermarket – take a bit of beating. ‘Whangaparaoa Crown’ is a large flat one, which keeps well, although you may like to try ‘Queensland Blue’, which is an oldie but a goodie.
Gourmet or smaller pumpkins
‘Baby Bear’ is a wee ripper. It’s a small melonsized bright-orange variety, and a neat one for kids. ‘Butternut’ is adored by many for its wonderful shape, texture and fruiting capacity. This one grows well on a fence or trellis to save space. It is a good keeper if fully mature when harvested. ‘Gold Nugget’ has a bushy habit more like a courgette, so it’s a good option for smaller areas. One of the smallest ones is ‘Wee B Little’. This award-winning variety produces masses of large fist-sized bright-orange fruits, which make it a neat one to try in a small patch. Maori kamo kamo is often eaten whole, seeds and all, when fruits are pudding bowl-sized, but before the skin hardens up.
Vintage and heirloom types
‘Galeux d’Eysines’, or the peanut pumpkin, is a French heirloom variety, with a lovely flavour and wart-like mottled skin that is always a talking point. ‘Marina di Chioggia’ is a tough-nut ironbark pumpkin, with a thick skin, brilliant flavour and excellent shelf life. For something rather attractive and tasty, try the smoothskinned old French mainstay ‘Musquee de Provence’. It has an intense flavour and comes in shades of peach and salmon. ‘Triamble’, another hard-skinned type, has three to four distinctive ribbed sections and is excellent for storing.
Land of the Giants
Giant pumpkins are fun to grow and engage people is a way few other vegetables can.
Did you know you can eat giant pumpkins? But, as they are mostly water and do not taste of much at all, you’re better off sticking to something smaller. However, pigs and chickens love them!
Two main varieties are available. ‘Atlantic Giant’ is orange-yellow, while ‘Show Winner’ is a pale green-grey colour. To get the biggest pumpkins, remove all but one pumpkin from the vine and feed the heck out of it. They are gross feeders and the more you can pump into the root zone the better the outcome will be.
What you need to know
When to sow/plant
Warm climates Sow seed in September and plant out seedlings in October. Temperate climates Sow seed in October and plant out seedlings in November. Cold climates Sow seeds early November and plant out seedlings towards the end of the month. Where to plant Full sun. The vine will cope with a little shade, but for maximum flower production full sun is best.
Allow 2-3 metres per plant.
Time to maturity
Where to buy
Seeds are available online and in the shops and garden centres. For the best range of seeds look at the online seed catalogues. Seedlings appear in the shops from early October and are a good option if you forget to sow seeds or decide at the last minute to plant some.