Wednesday 20 June 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Pumpkin patch

They're the essential Halloween decoration - and here's how to grow your own

Pumpkins
Pumpkins

Diarmuid Gavin

Halloween is celebrated in great style through the cities, towns and suburbs of the United States. This time last year, I wandered around Brooklyn and virtually every house was adorned with collections of pumpkins on the doorstep. Some were carved, others just resplendent in their orangey hue. Size didn't matter. The big ones looked plentiful, the small gathered at their base looked cute.

Displaying pumpkins, and using their flesh and seeds in the kitchen, is a tradition that is gaining much ground at home.

Last year, thousands gathered for the Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Cavan and its twilight pumpkin parade. The popular festival is taking a break this year, but promises to be back and even bigger in 2018. In the meantime, there's a spellbinding display of pumpkins and other autumn produce to be found at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

The notion of carving hollows out of vegetables and making them into lanterns started here in Ireland. Turnips or swedes were used as lanterns to celebrate Halloween and it was emigrants who brought the notion to the New World where pumpkins were deemed a wonderful alternative for marking All Hallows' Eve.

But are they a fruit or vegetable? Botanists classify a fruit as the part of the plant that develops from a flower and contains seeds; the other parts (stems and leaves) are considered vegetables. So pumpkins are fruits, and are also members of the gourd family - which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons and cantaloupe. Gourds are native to Central America and Mexico. They're also a member of the squash family, along with cucumbers, courgettes and watermelons.

In America, Halloween enthusiasts can visit a pumpkin farm to pick out the perfect specimen. We - perhaps less romantically - go to the supermarket to find ours.

Alternatively, they are easy enough to grow but they do need a lot of care. Pumpkins are particular about where they grow - they want space, plenty of sunshine, and rich, moist soil.

The moisture hasn't been a problem this year, but the sunshine has.

You can plant seeds outdoors in the ground from late May to early June when there is no fear of frost, as they are tender. Or you can get started earlier indoors from mid-April; cover with a plastic or glass cloche to encourage germination. If planting seedlings in situ, space 10ft apart to allow sufficient growing room.

Adequate water is essential through the growing season as they are prone to powdery mildew if they suffer water stress. Mulching will help conserve water through a dry period. Feed them fortnightly with a high potash formula such as tomato liquid feed when they are forming their fruit. If you want larger fruit, thin out to two or three fruits per plant so all the energy is directed to these ones.

As the fruit develops, don't let them lie on the soil - place a layer of straw like you would with strawberries or even a piece of wood or plastic to separate them from the earth.

You will need to harvest before frost and when cutting the fruit from the vine, keep as long a stem as possible as this will help prevent rotting.

Wandering through a small garden festival last year, I came across some fascinating planting. Green beans were climbing up through corn. If you add pumpkins to the mix, you have a wonderful folksy native American planting scheme called the Three Sisters - pumpkin at the base, corn shoots up in the centre and beans climbing through.

Everything is planted on a mound and the three sisters support each other - the pumpkin shades the roots of the corn and keep pests away, the corn supports the beans which in turn anchor the corn and fix nitrogen in the soil for her siblings.

This ancient intercropping system allows for maximum yield from a smaller space. Sometimes the old ideas really are the best!

TOP PICKS

Now is the time to order some seed for sowing next spring. 'Jack of All Trades' is a good-sized Halloween pumpkin but if you want to grow monster-sized, you could try 'Dill's Atlantic Giant'. On the other end of the scale, 'Jack be Little' are fun-sized small ones that kids will love. They'll also adore 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes', also known as the Cinderella pumpkin - this is straight from the storybooks, a beautiful variety in red-orange with deep ribs that you could well imagine turning into a fairytale coach.

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