Site and soil | Varieties | Sowing | Planting out | Aftercare | Picking | Troubles
Pumpkins are more used for Halloween decoration than for eating, and winter squashes are hardly known at all for this purpose. But they are an interesting and tasty addition to the standard range of vegetables and offer many uses in cookery. Winter squashes, and pumpkins are quite easy to grow and need no great expertise for success.
Pumpkins and winter squashes, or storage squashes, differ from summer squashes in that they can be stored for use. The summer squashes are best used soon after picking, like courgettes or marrows. The two groups are derived from different parent species. The groups are grown somewhat differently as the objective is to get the pumpkins and winter squashes to ripen fully.
Site and soil
Pumpkins and, to a lesser extent, winter squashes are very heavy-feeding plants. They grow extremely quickly and use large amounts of nutrients and water in the process. Failure to provide the right conditions results in poor size, low yields or even failure to crop. The ideal site is fully open to sunshine with good shelter to improve air temperature levels, but some air movement is necessary. The soil should be very rich, well supplied with well-rotted organic material. The soil should retain moisture but have a light open structure.
There are lots of varieties to choose from. ‘Hundredweight' is a popular large-growing pumpkin, or for a monster try ‘Dill's Atlantic Giant'. ‘Becky' is a neat small-sized pumpkin, perfect for Halloween carving and cooking. The blue pumpkin ‘Crown Prince' is greyish-blue, small and good for storage and eating. The winter squashes offer a tremendous range fo varieties. There are many kinds, such as turban squash, acorn squash, banana squash, butternut and hubbard squash. ‘Butternut' has marrow-like stripes. ‘Cobnut' is a butternut type, pale orange in colour and shaped like a bottle gourd. ‘Harrier' is similar. ‘Celebration Mixed' is a mix of acorn types, so-called because of their shape. ‘Jaspee de Vendée' is almost round, melon-shaped and is sweet enough to be eaten raw, like a melon. While ‘Turk's Turban' is often grown for its decorative red, green and cream striping, it can be cooked. There are many other kinds to try.
Pumpkins and winter squashes are sown in late April or early May, under protection, in a greenhouse, conservatory or window sill indoors. These plants cannot tolerate frost. The seeds can be sown directly where they are to grow outdoors in the second half of May, but the four or five weeks indoors gives them a head-start going into the short Irish summer. Sow one seed, on its edge, in a good-sized pot to avoid potting on. Be careful not to over-water at sowing as wet, airless compost can cause the seed to rot. Allow the compost to dry a little before watering, but do not delay watering.
Harden off the seedlings towards the end of May or early June and plant outside after a few days of warm weather. The planting site can have been prepared earlier, digging in lots of well-rotted compost or manure. Some general fertilizer can be incorporated at that stage too. Set the plant on a slight mound with the top of the compost rootball about two centimetres out of the soil. Make a little moat around the mound, about 25 centimetres from the plant to allow for watering later. If the plant is a bit floppy, a light cane can be used to secure it against wind damage.
Allow the plant to settle and do not water until it has hardened off fully and settled. A liquid feed at that stage is useful in getting the plant growing out into the surrounding soil. If the weather is a little dull or cool, the plant often ‘sits' and does not grow, but this can change rapidly when a warm spell comes. Watch for slug and snail damage.
When the plant begins to grow, it will grow rapidly. Flowers will be produced but the plant will not set these if it is growing well. There is no need for concern about pollination as bees and flies will carry this out and the plant itself will set fruit when the time is right. The plant may throw out many long shoots and cover several square metres. If you want a big pumpkin, wait until it is evident which fruit is going to be biggest - it will be the one that is growing fastest, not always the first to form - and take off the others.
Allow the pumpkins and squashes to continue to ripen into October, when they will start to colour. Taken off the plant and placed in a warm place, such as a greenhouse, the colour will develop in the last couple of weeks before Halloween. Stored fruits continue to develop colour in storage and they can be cooked over many months. Hard frost can damage the fruit, but this is rare as early as October, but they can be damaged in storage too.
Generally trouble-free, but watch for snails. Sometimes greenflies attack too. Mildew is the main disease trouble but rich ground and watering will keep that at bay and many plants show a touch of mildew late on without much effect.