Growing pumpkins

If you fancy growing pumpkins for autumn then now is the time to get growing! Vicki Cooke from Hampton Court Palace Kitchen Garden has some tips to get started.

Pumpkins drying in the glasshouse in autumn. Image: Vicki Cooke
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Don’t let the Halloween horrors put you off this magnificent vegetable. The insipid, watery things sold for carving are barely worth the bother of eating – so why not grow your own pumpkin that will taste as good as it looks.

Pumpkin is a word of European origin, used to describe the squashes, an Anglicized word of Native American origin. Grown for millennia by the Native Americans, the seeds came back with Columbus and soon found their way to England. Known as Pompions, they came in a range of shapes and sizes, though they seem to have been grown more for ornamental purposes for the first few hundred years. Carving faces in vegetables was an ancient UK tradition, first done with turnips or giant beets, so the giant, soft fleshed pumpkins were an ideal replacement.

Growing requirements

To grow these plants requires commitment – mostly of space. The vines can sprawl many metres in all directions, even vertically if there is something for them to scramble through or over. I have seen beautiful displays with the vines climbing over stout, hazel arches and the fruits hanging down. Their rampant habit makes them an excellent choice to grow if you want to cover a large area fast – they are great for people trying to clear a weedy allotment – cover the ground with a thick, light excluding mulch, then cut a hole through it to plant pumpkins, spacing them at least a metre apart in all directions. This way you will get a crop whilst dealing with the weeds at the same time. They like a lot of fertility in the soil, so be generous with the manure.

Different shapes and sizes

The variety of shapes, sizes, colours, flavours and textures will astound if all you are familiar with are the round orange ones. As you will be dedicating a large area of your garden to them, choose your variety wisely. The culinary squash most familiar to us now is the ‘Butternut’, but this is a newcomer, bred in America in the 1940s. Butternuts can be slow to ripen so choose a variety such as ‘Harrier’ or ‘Hunter’ which have been bred for cooler climates. Others worth trying are the small, speckled ‘Delicata’, which can be baked whole in it’s skin and with a flavour and texture reminiscent of sweet potato. My favourite all rounders are ‘Crown Prince’ and ‘Queensland Blue’ with their blue skins and dense, sweet orange flesh; these are pretty multipurpose but are ideal for roasting. ‘Potimarron’ has a pronounced chestnut flavour and is great puréed, the knobbled giants such as ‘Chicago Warted Hubbard’ and ‘Galeaux D’Eysines’ are great in soups and ‘Lady Godiva’ produces edible seeds as well as flesh.

After harvesting all pumpkins it is a good idea to leave them somewhere dry and sunny for a few weeks for their skins to harden. This also improves the flavour and longevity though makes many varieties impossibly hard to carve a face into! Different varieties have different storage potential, with the orange ‘Jack o’ Lantern’ types rarely lasting into December. Other varieties can easily be stored for a year if they are kept somewhere airy and with a steady temperature. We still have one ‘Crown Prince’ and one ‘Musquee de Provence’ still going from 2016.

Cooking tips

Once they are cut open though, they need using up within a week or so. However, when each fruit can easily weigh upwards of 4 kilos, a week of roasts, bakes, pies and soups barely make a dent in them. This is when I bring out one of my favourite recipe’s – the ‘I Can’t Believe it’s Not Mango’ chutney. Use the brightest orange fleshed variety that you can get hold of and amaze your friends with your homemade ‘mango’ chutney.

For every lb (450g) of cubed flesh you will need;

  • 2 chillis
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 cardamoms
  • Half a handful of nuts
  • One handful of chopped raisins or dates
  • 2 cups of vinegar
  • 2-3 cups of sugar

Cook the pumpkin, spices, nuts and dried fruits in an inch of water until the pumpkin starts to soften and turn translucent and the water has boiled off. Add the vinegar and sugar (more or less depending on how sweet you like it). Boil til chutney is thick – scrape a wooden spoon over the base of the pan – you should be able to see the bottom briefly before the chutney closes over again. Bottle in sterilised jars and wait at least a month before eating.

Vicki Cooke

About Vicki Cooke

After scrambling through some of the various branches of horticulture, Vicki realised that food production was where her heart is (or should that be stomach!). She spent six years growing traditional UK vegetable varieties for seed at Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library. In 2014 she began a new chapter at Hampton Court Palace, recreating a section of the original walled kitchen garden - so she can now grow historic favourites in an historic setting.
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