Originally from South America, where they have been part of the staple diet for centuries, pumpkins are extremely popular in North America, and it is from there that their recent revival in Britain has come. They are, in fact, winter squashes but are frequently separated from the other members of the family simply on grounds of their size and uses. The distinctive name of pumpkin is usually given to the large, round winter squashes.
Some people consider pumpkins rather too large for consumption, but not all pumpkins need be big. The smaller ones, no more than 30cm/12in across, have usually been bred for taste rather than appearance and there is plenty of flesh on them for most purposes. Similarly, not all are the golden color of Halloween and show-bench pumpkins. ‘Crown Prince’ for example, has a bluish-grey skin and is only 30cm/12in across. The dense flesh, a deep old-gold color, tastes delicious when cooked, and ‘Crown Prince’ will store much better than its big brash cousins.
Although pumpkins take time and patience, they are good plants with which to encourage young gardeners. The prospect of growing a huge vegetable that will weigh several hundred pounds – so heavy that even their parents can’t lift it ¡ª seems to appeal to children, although what the cook does with so much pumpkin flesh defies thought – there is a limit to the amount of pumpkin soup and pies one can consume.
Pumpkins need a sunny site that is open and yet protected from strong winds, which can soon tear the large leaves to shreds. The soil should be rich in well-rotted organic material, not only to feed the pumpkins but also to hold plenty of moisture in the soil. At each site, dig a pit 45cm/18in deep and 60cm/24in square and half-fill it with manure before replacing the top soil. In late spring start the pumpkins off in the greenhouse in modules or fibre pots. They do not need such a high temperature as cucumbers – a gentle heat of 15-18¡ãC/59-64¡ãF will be adequate. You can speed up germination by soaking the seed in water overnight.
When the threat of frost is passed, plant in the prepared ground at distances of 1.8m/6ft or further apart for more vigorous varieties. Keep the plant within bounds by training the stems in a spiral around the plant, pinning them down with wire pegs. If you want to grow giant specimens, reduce the number of young fruit to between one and three. Water regularly and apply a high-potash liquid feed at least once every two weeks and more frequently for giant fruit. Towards the end of summer, pinch out the tips of the shoots. Stop watering and feeding once the fruit is mature.
Harvest the pumpkins when they have reached their mature color: deep orange or blue-grey. A good indicator that they are ready is that the stems begin to split. Cut them with a stem of about 5cm/2in. Make sure that they are all picked before the first frosts. Place them in a sunny position for about a week so that the skins fully harden.
Orange-skinned pumpkins will store for several weeks in a frost-free position. Blue-grey ones will last much longer, sometimes up to several months.
Pests and diseases
On the whole, pumpkins are trouble free. Slugs are probably the most severe problem and will eat right through the stem if not checked.