Winter squash come in a vast array of sizes, shapes and colours and are relatively easy to grow. They are a member of the curcurbit family that includes cucumber, melon, marrow and courgettes. There a predominately two types of plants – bushes and trailing; both requiring lots of space to grow. Growing the plant vertically is a great way of addressing this issue. I have had much success this year with growing a small onion type squash over an archway on the entrance to my garden and up metal frameworks! They prefer to be grown in full sun and love a rich, well-drained soil. Some people actually grow them on top of their compost heap, allowing them to trail to their heart’s content!
Pumpkins can be grown for their flesh as well as their seeds. Simply scrape the seeds away from the flesh and pith and gently roast in a hot oven. Delicious!
After watching an episode of BBC’s Gardeners World, the presenter Monty Don, also mentioned that the leaves of the plant can also be eaten too. Apparently, you would cook these in the same way that you cook spinach! That may be something I have to try next year.
Sow each seed in 3″ pots in April or May under cover, with an ideal temperature of 18c – 21c (64f – 70f). Germination is normally relatively quick, about 7-14 days and these can be transplanted in as little as 3 weeks or when they are about 4″ high. Protect all seedlings from cold by keeping them indoors until the weather warms up around late May or June. They don’t do well in the cold and frost will definitely kill them.
Pumpkins and squash are extremely greedy plants in terms of space, water and food. Plant the transplants into soil that has been well fertilised with manure, 3ft (1m) apart in all directions. If manure is hard to get hold of use a general fertiliser. Mulch the plants well and water regularly. Lack of water results in the fruit failing to set and towards the end of the growing season, fails to swell the final fruit. Never allow the plant to dry out, especially during dry spells.
Fertilising the fruits to ensure a good crop is really easy and very advantageous. Bees and other pollinating insects perform this task well, but in the event of a poor supply of these insects due to bad weather, it’s good to know how to do this for yourself.
The plant produces both male and female flowers. The female flowers, the ones that eventually turn into the fruit, have a swollen base behind the flower and the male ones do not. Simply wait until both flowers are present and open, (normally this occurs first thing in the morning) remove the male flower from the plant and rub the inside of the flower onto the insides of the female flower. That is generally all that is needed. Apparently, the cooler the weather, the more male flowers are produced!.
When growing large varieties of pumpkins, pinch out the growing tips to only allow a maximum of two fruits per plant. This encourages the plant to concentrate all of its energy into helping the remaining fruits to thrive rather than producing more foliage and flowers.
Aim for the following amount of fruit per plant dependant on overall fruit size:
Small pumpkins and small/ medium squash – 4/5 fruits
Medium pumpkins and large squash – 3/4 fruits
Large pumpkins – 1/2 fruits
Winter squash are grown in the summer and harvested in the late summer and early autumn, before any hard frosts. The growing period is normally anything between 75 – 90 days to harvest. There are various indicators that will tell you if the fruits are ripe enough to harvest. Try to pierce the skin with a fingernail and if this is easily achieved then the fruit is still unripe. If the colour looks fully formed, check the stalk. If the stalk has a dry appearance then that would indicate a ripe fruit. Cut the stems with a sharp knife or secateurs rather than pulling and tearing the fruit from the plant. Make sure that a good section of the stalk is cut from the plant with the fruit to prevent rot from setting in.
Store the fruit in a warm place to finish ripening, then store in a dark frost-free place for up to a year. Because of their hard skin, they keep for a long period of time if stored correctly. Treat the fruit very carefully in storage, trying not to knock together with other fruit. Although their outer skin is very hard, they bruise easily and bruised fruits will not store well. Winter squash can be kept up to a year if stored at 10 to 15°C in a dark, well-ventilated place. Check the fruits regularly so that any damaged ones do not spoil the remaining crop.
Pest, Diseases and Problems
Pumpkins and squash can suffer from a form of fungal infection called powdery mildew. This can be prevented by growing resistant varieties. Ensure that the soil is kept moist and remove any badly affected leaves.
The undersides of fruit can rot easily after being grown directly on the soil. Place a bed of straw, an old tile or piece of wood underneath the forming fruits.
Fruits that rot and wither then die are caused by lack of pollination. Easily rectified by hand pollinated where possible.
Yellow leaves on the plant could denote a lack in nutrients or possibly the warning sign of the squash vine borers. These are a pest similar looking to the wasp. The larvae bore into the vines of pumpkins and squash, feeding on the tissue and preventing the water and nutrients reaching the vital areas of the plant; resulting in the vine completely dying off.
More information about growing pumpkins can be found here.
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