Pumpkins can be more than just a Halloween treat
Growing your own pumpkin from seed is not only a cost-savvy, fun endeavour, it could keep you fed into March, writes Michael Kelly
As I write this, I am looking proudly up on top of the dresser in our kitchen and seeing a row of pumpkins and winter squashes – of all different sizes, shapes and colours. It's a beautiful seasonal display for the week that's in it.
But in fact, this is not a Halloween decoration (or at least, not deliberately so) – the top of the dresser in our kitchen is simply a good place to store these wonderful vegetables for use later in the year.
We always set out to leave the pumpkins and squashes alone until after Christmas, when there's very little else fresh to eat from the garden. That rarely works out, however – even though we really should be eating other more perishable things from the garden at the moment, they just look so delicious up there in the kitchen that it's hard to avoid eating them.
We had a great crop this year, producing about 30 or so in total – the fine summer seems to have helped them greatly. So, okay, let's call a spade a spade – you do need quite a bit of space to grow a decent quantity of pumpkins. They are unruly vine-like plants, aggressively exploring and on the lookout for space in which they can set their fruit.
Pumpkin plants need to be spaced about 2m apart from each other. In the high summer, the bed in which I sow them is a big, inaccessible, tangled mass of foliage – it's almost impossible to tell which plant is which, or even get near to the place the plant is rooted. But that's okay, apart from being rather cold sensitive at either end of the season, they are not a fussy plant.
Besides, on the flip side you can also grow lots of other stuff in the bed too, so it never feels like a waste of space. Pumpkins can be inter-planted with lettuce or annual spinach to make use of the space. I always grow my pumpkin and winter squash plants in the legume (bean and pea) part of the vegetable patch and it's the ideal combination – the peas and runner beans grow tall, while the pumpkins and squashes trail along the ground beneath them. If you're feeling ambitious, you can even throw the 'third sister', sweetcorn, into the same bed.
This year we grew two types of winter squash: the first, a blue-skinned variety called 'Crown Prince'. The yield is good on this one and it produces a nice nutty orange flesh. We also grew the beautiful, distinctive 'Delicata' – a long yellow-green squash that's easy to grow, and stores exceptionally well. If, like me, you find butternut squash rather tough to peel, then 'Delicata' is for you – its neat cylindrical shape makes it a sinch to get in to. It can even be eaten with the skin on, after baking and has a lovely sweet flavour and delicate flesh.
For pumpkins this year we grew the attractive and poshly-named 'Rouge Vif d'Etamps', a stunning bright red, ribbed-skinned variety that combines good looks and great flavour. These will be our Halloween carving pumpkins – with the flesh scooped out and used in the kitchen for a soup or stew.
If those large pumpkin varieties are somewhat of an indulgence, then the variety 'Baby Bear' is a more practical affair. I am a huge fan of this variety, which produces five to six small, delicious pumpkins on each plant, with perfectly smooth orange skin and solid dark green stems. It's an ideal variety for the kids to get involved in harvesting. It's also just about the perfect size in the kitchen with each one weighing in at about 700g or so, compared with perhaps 4kg for the 'Crown Prince' squash and maybe double that again for the larger 'Rouge Vif d'Etamps' pumpkins.
So really for the latter, if you're opening it up, you want to be cooking up a big batch of soup or something, while the 'Baby Bear' pumpkin is the perfect size for a single meal.
They are also incredibly good value for money. A packet of 'Baby Bear' seeds will cost you €2 and the five seeds inside will eventually result in 25 pumpkins which would cost you anything between €75 and €100 to buy in the supermarket. That's pretty phenomenal when you think about it.
In reality, it's unlikely that you will be able to buy these varieties in the supermarket at all. In fact, it always amazes me that supermarkets (and we as consumers) have such a short-lived obsession with pumpkins, typically only providing them at Halloween time and focusing on one or two varieties – usually the very large orange ones for use as Halloween decorations.
This is a pity on many levels – good and all as they are with a ghoulish face carved into them, they are even better cooked up in the kitchen. I view squash and pumpkin as interchangeable in recipes – yet, strangely, you will always find squash in the supermarket, but rarely pumpkins.
This is particularly odd when one considers how well they store. The pumpkins and squash up on the dresser would happily sit there until March or so courtesy of their tough skins.
So, why are we not seeing more Irish pumpkins on the supermarket shelves from January to March, instead of imported butternut squash? It doesn't seem to make sense to me, but perhaps I am missing something.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm',
and is founder of GIY.