The Halloween season is upon us and the undoubted stars from the garden at this time of year are the pumpkins.
Pumpkins are hard-skinned winter squashes. There are varieties favoured by chefs, such as the grey-blue skinned ‘Crown Prince’ and the orange ‘Potimarron’, a French variety with a flavour of chestnuts.
The variety most commonly grown for carving is ‘Connecticut Field’, a North American heirloom from around 1700. Its fruits are about 14ins/35cm in diameter, and although not especially uniform in shape, it produces a hard, deep gold-orange shell, which is thin and ideal for carving. The flesh is sweet, coarse, dry and orange-yellow in colour. One of its progeny is ‘Jack-O-Lantern’, whose skin is an even brighter orange, fruits are smaller, at around 10ins/25cm in diameter, whilst the orange ‘Jack be Little’ is smallest of all at 3ins/8cm.
The basic technique for sowing pumpkins is to sow seed directly into prepared soil, sowing two to three seeds about 1 inch/2.5cm deep towards the end of May. Allow 2ft/60cm between bush varieties and about 4ft/1.2m between trailing forms. Under glass, seed may be sown into a 3 1⁄2 inch/9cm pot in late April, gradually hardened off by exposing the seedling to cooler outdoor temperatures, and planted into its permanent position in early June, after the danger of frosts, which would damage the tender, young seedling.
Pumpkins need four things to grow well - a sunny spot, sheltered from strong winds; a rich, well-drained soil which has been prepared by adding manure or compost; regular watering in hot, dry weather and a feed every fortnight with a fertiliser high in potassium. If a giant, record-breaking pumpkin is your aim, ‘Atlantic Giant’ which has a yellow to orange shell that tends to flatten at the base or ‘Hundredweight’ (sometimes listed as ‘Mammoth’) are the varieties to choose.