Growing Pumpkin and Squash
Pumpkins are instantly recognisable as an autumnal crop and, in the Northern Hemisphere, epitomise the season with their Halloween carvings, comforting pumpkin pies and pumpkin spiced lattes. Down here in the Southern Hemisphere, they don’t really share the same meaning since autumn falls around Easter which already has its traditions.
Having said that, the pumpkin is embraced as a comforting winter food, although for us, it is in more of a savoury capacity. You can’t beat it as a key ingredient in a Sunday roast. It needs to be pointed out though that pumpkin as well as squash, zucchini, cucumbers and melons are, scientifically speaking, fruit since they contain seeds.
While we are at it, let’s clear up another fact. The name pumpkin is actually more of a nickname that originated when a French explorer brought them back to Europe in the late 1500’s (although some suggest it was Christopher Columbus who first brought them back). They were called ‘Pompions’ in French which meant large melons and even the Greek called them ‘pepon’, They weren’t referred to as pumpkins until the 17th Century.
There are indications thought that they were in cultivation long before then. The oldest archaeological evidence suggests that they were domesticated at least 7000 years ago in Northern or Central America. Their ability to store well over the winter months, their thick flesh and how easily they grew, made them a reliable part of a sustainable diet. Originally, Europeans just fed them to pigs and other livestock; eventually, it became accepted as part of the human diet. They now can be found scattered to the four corners of the earth being cultivated everywhere except Antarctica.
While they are commonly known as pumpkin, this name does not have any official value; in scientific terms, they are gourds from the Cucurbitacae family. Another informal group name is Squash; this name comes from the Native American word ‘askutasquash’, which roughly translates to “eaten raw or uncooked’. This fact is interesting considering that, in this day and age, aside from melons and cucumbers, squash is rarely eaten.
To break it down even further, they are generally divided into two categories, summer and winter squash and this is generally based on when they are eaten in the season but is also down to how well they store. Summer squash are fast to grow, are often eaten whole as their skin is thin and the seeds immature and tend to be eaten soon after harvest as they don’t store well. Zucchini is a summer squash. Winter squash, on the other hand, are slow to mature and can take most of the growing season to become ready for harvest. If picked when fully ripe, they can keep for months, if stored correctly in a cool, dry and dark place. The skin and seeds are normally not eaten.
There are many, many different varieties out there; being very friendly plants, they will easily cross pollinate with a close relative resulting in a weird and wonderful offspring combining all the many genetic possibilities. Some can be surprisingly delicious, and others are best destined for the compost pile.
If you are growing more than one variety of squash in your garden and intend to save the seeds to grow again, it is best to take precautions. First thing in the morning, before the bees are out, and as the flowers are opening for the first time, take a soft paint brush and gently swish it about inside a male flower then take the brush to a female flower and give it a tickle to transfer the pollen. Then close the flower up so bees don’t have a chance to ruin your handy work. It is also a good idea to tie a ribbon or string to the stem closest to the flower, you will then know, months down the track, which one you pollinated.
All cucurbits are monoecious meaning they have both male and female flowers. The male flowers have skinny stems and often appear unaccompanied early in the season to attract the bees and then the female flowers make an entrance with their fat stems that will become the fruit. These male flowers can be eaten and are great stuffed with goat’s cheese, dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried!
Growing pumpkins is relatively easy as they are very low maintenance once you get them planted out. Be forewarned though that they need a lot of space; the bare minimum to allow would be at least a metre square, but with good fertile soil they can grow even further. If need be, you can re-direct their growth gently with the use of landscape staples on young stems that are heading off in undesirable directions. As the fruit forms, you could slip some thick cardboard underneath to prevent rotting from contact with the damp soil, this though is not necessary. They are at risk of powdery mildew in late summer which slows their growth, however you can reduce this risk by watering the soil and not the leaves.
To harvest a pumpkin, wait until all the leaves on the plant are brown and crispy, the stem is brown and corky, and you can’t leave a mark on the skin with your fingernail. Leave a long stem and don’t use it as a handle as it will easily break and won’t store well. Don’t leave harvesting too late since a heavy frost can ruin them. Clean them with a light bleach solution and leave them in the sun for a couple of weeks to cure and for their skins to strength. During this time, the flavour of the flesh will deepen, making them even more deliciously comforting in the dead of winter.