Kids and growing pumpkins go together. Especially at Halloween. The carved pumpkin outside the front door or being carried house to house as a lantern is an established tradition that you as a parent miss out on at your own peril!
But nutritionally too pumpkins are great. Who hasn't heard of pumpkin pie? Some of the pumpkins seeds are also edible and delicious when dry roasted with a sprinkling of salt. Interestingly, it isn't just the fruit itself which can be eaten, but the shoots and young leaves can be cooked and eaten, and the flowers are edible either raw or cooked.
Pumpkins vary tremendously in shape, size and colour, and it is interesting and fun to experiment with different varieties just to add colour and something a little unusual to the garden.
Pumpkins belong to the gourd family, which also includes marrows, courgettes and squashes. Most varieties grow very large and have trailing vines along which the fruit grows. They are not hardy and need a lot of sunshine and a lot of water to stay healthy and produce a decent crop. For most families, one or two plants will be more than adequate.
Pumpkins need protection from high winds, a sheltered warm spot is the best place to grow them, either allowing plenty of space for the vines to grow or providing some form of trellising and training them along it as they grow. Some people also use twine to train the vines into spirals, which not only takes up less space, but also looks pretty!
Pumpkins get one well with nasturtiums and borage, but their growth is hindered by potatoes and vice versa.
Traditionally, pumpkins have been grown together with corn and runner (pole) beans by the native American Indians. This method is called the 'three sisters' and is beneficial for all of them: the corn provides a good pole for the beans to grow up, the beans trap nitrogen in the soil which benefits the pumpkins, and the pumpkins provide a dense foliage and ground cover to suppress weeds and keep pest such as racoons away from the corn.
The main enemies of pumpkins are slugs and snails in the early stages of growth - they can completely devour an emerging plant and kill it before it has a chance - if planting straight outside, it is a good idea to protect the young plants with cloches from before the seedlings even germinate ... as experience has taught us!
In later stages the cucumber mosaic virus poses a threat to the plant. The virus is usually transmitted via sap-sucking aphids and is very contagious and incurable. The best protection you can provide is to try to keep the aphids at bay. Watering the roots rather than the leaves will also help, as will growing pumpkins apart from members of the same family.
The usual way to prepare the ground for growing pumpkins is to dig a hole about 18 inches deep and 24 inches wide. Fill this with a layer of well-rotted manure (horse or chicken is best) then heap the removed soil back on top to create a mound. If your soil is mainly clay, incorporate some more organic matter.
Soak the seeds in water overnight to encourage germination. Germination should take anywhere between 8 to 14 days.
If growing pumpkins outside, you can sow them directly into the prepared mound at a depth of about 1 1/2 inches as from late May (well after the last frosts). Ensure the seeds are on their side to avoid them getting waterlogged or air being trapped beneath them. Insert a cane into the ground where the seed has been planted to ensure you water the right spot!
If starting the seeds off in the greenhouse or cold frame, the seeds can be sown in 4-5 inch pots in April, then slowly hardened off during the end of May to be planted out at the beginning of June. Leave 6-10 ft (= 2-3 m) between plants depending on the variety - check your seed packet for specific details.
Protecting, watering and fertilising the crop:
As soon as the young plants appear (if not before!) protect them from slug attack by placing a cloche or jam jar on top of them, especially at night.
The young plants will benefit from additional fertiliser very soon after planting. A general fertiliser is fine, bearing in mind that they have a medium to high need for nitrogen.
Growing pumpkins are fairly thirsty, especially once the fruit has started to ripen, so watering during prolonged dry periods is important. They tend to be deep-rooted, so to ensure the water actually reaches the roots, it is a common practice to plant an upside-down plastic bottle with the base cut off in the mound next to the plant when either sowing the seed or transplanting the young plant. This then enables you to pour the water into the bottle and ensures it gets to the roots.
If you only require a few fruit, you can remove any surplus pumpkins growing early on and pinch out the growing tips of the vines. This will ensure the strength goes to the fruit you have chosen to keep.
To help the pumpkins ripen evenly, remove any large leaves which are shading them and turn them very gently, ensuring you don't damage the stalk. It is also advisable to place some wood or matting under the fruit to keep it from getting too wet on the ground or being attacked by pests.
You can expect your pumpkins to be ready to harvest anything between 12 to 20 weeks after sowing, depending on the variety. Be sure to pick them before the first frost arrives.
You will know when the pumpkin is ripe because the stem starts to crack and the outer skin gets harder. Cut through the stalk a few of inches above the top of the pumpkin and if you want to store it, leave in the sun for another week or so if possible, to give the skin time to harden further - this is called curing the pumpkin.
We tend to always grow a few spare pumpkins in pots in the greenhouse in case of severe slug attack on the seeds planted outside - it saves disappointed children in October!
Don't grow pumpkins near cucumbers, courgettes, marrows or squash, as these are all susceptible to cucumber mosaic virus. Keeping them well apart in the garden helps to prevent cross-infection.
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Recommended Retailers and Varieties:
Fun and educational, the Giant Pumpkin Competition Blister Pack from Suttons Fun To Grow Range comes complete with two types of pumpkin seeds and a tape measure!
Also from the same Fun To Grow range comes the massive Patty Pumpkin Hundredweight - perfect for kids, this pumpkin is everything it should be!
Organic and great for carving at Halloween, Alan Titchmarsh's Ghostrider pumkin provides fun and nutrition.
The Eden Project have teamed together with Suttons to provide a really cute little Baby Pumpkin, great for younger kids, as it is small (!) and tastes wonderfully sweet, but is still fun to carve.
You simply cannot go wrong with this great Pumpkin Pack from Suttons' Fun To Grow range. The seeds come complete in a container with 'magic' compost to start off on a windowsill, and include fun facts for children. At less than a pound, what are you waiting for?
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