There is a wide variety of fruits and vegetables you can grow with little effort in most places. Whatever the conditions of your soil, or the weather it is subjected to, there is something out there that will flourish. Putting your own food on the table is always satisfying and it can save you a lot of money, too. One fun crop you can grow is the pumpkin.
Pumpkins have long been grown in domestic gardens – seeds as much as 9,000 years old have been found in Mexico – and their bulbous orange fruits are a delicious addition to your diet. They also make something fun for us to carve faces into come Hallowe’en. They make great project plants for kids and there is something wonderfully satisfying about heaving vast fruits from the ground that you have nurtured to maturity yourself.
There are many different ways of growing pumpkins, and a quick scan of the internet will give you a wide selection of different advice. Getting started doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated, or even particularly hard work; what it needs most is patience, a little knowledge of your weather and soil, and enough space for the long vines to spread out.
It is important to note that pumpkins do not like the cold, so if spring is frosty where you live then the best place to start is inside. That will give the seeds an easy, warm start before introducing them to the great outdoors. Alternatively a row cover may be used if you would prefer the entire process to happen outside. If your climate is cooler then the best time to plant in order for it to be ready by Hallowe’en is late May; in warmer regions you can leave it until mid-July. The important thing is to ensure they do not suffer frost.
There are a great many different varieties of pumpkin, ranging in size from small ones that fit snugly in your palm to true giants that would defeat the strongest of gardeners – some giant pumpkins can reach a ton. Choose a variety whose size suits both you and your garden. Two of the most common cultivars for carving are Howden and Connecticut Fields.
If you are starting inside then you’re going to need a propagator in a warm place. Place seeds in pairs and on their sides into rich compost, so that as they start to grow you can remove the weaker of the two. Ensure the seeds and plants do not become saturated but are kept well-watered. If you are looking to take only one plant into your garden then keep removing the weakest ones until you are left with one strong seedling. Ensure it has good light and warmth. If the seedling is transplanted outside before the ground has had a chance to warm up its chances of survival aren’t high. Look to plant out or start the process when the days have settled at around 70°F or higher.
If you are planting the seed straight out into your garden then the next steps are the same as transplanting. Choose a spot that gets plenty of sun, as this will speed up growth. Do not select anywhere that is prone to flooding. The soil needs to be well drained; your pumpkin with object strongly to sitting in water and will rot. A good tip is to dig an empty pot with holes in the bottom into the soil alongside your seed/seedling – rather than watering directly onto the soil you can pour water into this pot, and it will be delivered straight to the roots of the pumpkin plant as it grows. This will ensure that no water collects around the base of the plant.
Whichever variety you choose, be careful to check the space it will need to grow. Some pumpkin plants can need more than 20 feet of space to grow into.
Prepare the ground well with compost, then decide if you want to plant on mounds or directly into the soil. There are benefits to planting into a mound if you are in a particularly wet area, as it keeps the base of the plant away from any standing water that could cause problems later. It also allows more warmth to get to the seed/seedling if you are in a cooler area. If, however, you are in a dry, hot area then the seeds can be placed directly into the ground in long, shallow troughs and covered over.
It is fair to say that pumpkins are mostly water, so they require a lot whilst growing. However the key is not to water constantly. If the soil is looking dry then use the submerged pot to give the roots a long and deep drink. It is better for the plant to be watered infrequently but very well. Using the pot method also prevent water getting onto the leaves, which can cause damage and fungal diseases. As with many plants it is better to water early in the morning rather later in the day. This will help prevent against disease and also stops any burning of the leaves in the midday sun.
When you start to see flowers you may notice that many fall off without doing much. Don’t worry about this – the first round of flowers are usually male only. When the female flowers appear they are short-lived, and can be easily identified by a fleshy bulb beneath the petals. The scent of the male flowers draws bees to the plant and these should pollinate the female flowers, which many only survive a few hours. If you are concerned they are not being pollinated you can help the process along; either snip a few male flowers and brush them lightlyagainst the female, or get a soft paint brush and manually transfer the pollen.
Now you just have to wait, occupying yourself with keeping the area weeded and clear of any debris. You can easily tell when your fruits are ready to be harvested; the shells will have hardened and the stem of the fruit will have started to twist, dry and crack. Don’t try to pull it off, as this can damage the stem close to the pumpkin and leave the fruit vulnerable to rot. Use some good garden shears and cut it from the plant, leaving a good woody stem, and then pick the pumpkin up bodily rather than by using the stem. However much it might look like a handle, it isn’t one.
And there you have it; your very own home-grown pumpkin, ready for carving or cooking – and packed with seeds to begin the process again next year.