‘He cut his pump­kin in half and rowed it across a lake’

If you’ve got de­signs on the heav­i­est pump­kin prize at the flower show or im­press­ing the neigh­bours come Hal­lowe’en, now is the time to sow seeds. Steven Des­mond ad­vises

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

WHEN Carl Lin­naeus, the pride of Swe­den, set out to name ev­ery liv­ing thing on Earth ac­cord­ing to a ra­tio­nal sys­tem in the mid 18th cen­tury, he got into dif­fi­culty here and there. One of the plant fam­i­lies that gave him a lin­ger­ing headache was the one he named the Cu­cur­bitaceae, al­ways a good one for a spell­ing bee. This is the fam­ily that con­tains mar­rows, cu­cum­bers, cour­gettes, mel­ons, squashes, pump­kins, gourds and all that sort of thing. They tend to be wandering plants, with distinctively hand­some flow­ers that grad­u­ally turn into dra­matic-look­ing fruits.

The rea­son Lin­naeus found these plants so hard to cat­a­logue is that, by the time Euro­pean botanists got to Latin Amer­ica, where most of them orig­i­nate, the na­tives had been in­ter­breed­ing them for cen­turies. They had there­fore ac­quired both ge­netic diver­sity and hy­brid vigour. To­day, we salute the achieve­ments of these pre-columbian peo­ple in a way we didn’t at the time.

The legacy of all this plant breed­ing is ob­vi­ous to­day as we open the pages of a seed cat­a­logue in search of some­thing in­ter­est­ing to grow. We never used to con­sider the pump­kin very much, but things have changed. We now live in a world of Hal­lowe’en fever, one ma­jor as­pect of which is the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion in vil­lage halls across the land to win the prize for the heav­i­est pump­kin. Now, any show cat­e­gory for the big­gest or heav­i­est is bound to be at the less se­ri­ous end of the show sched­ule, but as a way of get­ting peo­ple in­ter­ested in grow­ing and com­pet­ing, it’s un­beat­able.

Those who wish to win the heav­i­est pump­kin prize, pay at­ten­tion: I shall say this only once. First, get the right seeds. There are sev­eral po­ten­tial best kinds, of which the fol­low­ing come well rec­om­mended. Matt’s Mon­ster is one hero, grown to 95 stone by Matt Oliver of RHS Hyde Hall in Es­sex. Af­ter his tri­umph, Matt later hol­lowed out his pump­kin, cut it in half and rowed it across a lake. The world record is presently held by Matthias Willemi­jns of Bel­gium, whose cham­pion ef­fort reached 187 stone.

Other po­ten­tial front-run­ners in­clude Dill’s At­lantic Gi­ant, which holds the cur­rent Amer­i­can and Cana­dian records (pa­thetic rel­a­tive to Bri­tish and Euro­pean glo­ries), and Pa­ton Twins Gi­ant, a Bri­tish cham­pion named af­ter its breed­ers, Ian and Stu­art Pa­ton, who achieved 160 stone to se­cure the na­tional record at the Net­ley show in Hamp­shire. We salute them all.

Hav­ing got your seed, the next thing is to make sure you have plenty of suit­able ground. You’ll need a plot 20ft by 20ft, then, sow your pre­cious seed, of which only a few will be avail­able. Sow each seed on its edge in a 3in pot of multi-pur­pose com­post, ideally on a green­house bench at 21˚C, in mid April. The shoot will be up in a week. As you would ex­pect, its progress will be star­tling: think Jack and the Beanstalk.

‘He cut his pump­kin in half and rowed it across a lake

Pot the plant as nec­es­sary. When May comes, har­den it off by grad­u­ally ac­cli­ma­tis­ing it out­side. It will be safe to plant at the be­gin­ning of June. To pre­pare your plot, dig out a cube of soil and re­fill the space with pot­ting com­post or the same soil with plenty of well-rot­ted or­ganic mat­ter. Put your pre­cious cargo in and keep a chicken-wire hat over it un­til it’s made it­self com­fort­able. Sink a flow­er­pot next to the plant so that your daily wa­ter­ing gets to the root. Spread well-rot­ted ma­nure over the whole plot.

Soon, you should be­gin your weekly high­potas­sium feed, down the same hole as your daily wa­ter­ing. The flow­ers will start to ap­pear and, not long af­ter, the first of the fruits. Once three fruits have set and got go­ing, re­move all other flow­ers and, in due course, choose the most promis­ing fruit and dis­pense with the oth­ers. For­tune favours the brave.

If the pump­kin sits on the earth, the slugs will eat away the base, so you must act. True cham­pi­ons think ahead: how will I move it when it be­comes huge? One way is to get an in­dus­trial pallet, cover it with old car­pet and rest the beloved ob­ject on it. Cut away any leaves that shade the pump­kin. In the au­tumn, you’ll know the fruit is ripe when you can knock sat­is­fy­ingly on it with your knuck­les. Fi­nally, cut the stalk back to a min­i­mum, as that can be­come a source of fun­gal in­fec­tion. Cease­less vig­i­lance com­bined with com­mon sense will carry the day.

It’s not nec­es­sary to en­dure the lonely life of the cham­pion grower to en­joy the great diver­sity of the squashes and their kin. The same ini­tial regime ap­plies to all those or­na­men­tal pump­kins, gourds and what­not that keep us en­ter­tained and fed dur­ing au­tumn. The an­ti­dote to vast­ness is a pump­kin such as Jack Be Lit­tle with hand­some swelling ribs like Sir Wal­ter Raleigh’s shorts.

Carry that idea a lit­tle fur­ther with some­thing like the squash Turk’s Tur­ban in which the cen­tral por­tion is raised in a boss to form some­thing you could, with a lit­tle work, form into a prize-win­ning fancy-dress hat. If the grotesque ap­peals, look no fur­ther than Ma­rina di Chiog­gia, su­perbly green and warty like a witch’s nose.

For a pump­kin suit­able for carv­ing into a can­dlelit doorstep dis­play on All Hal­lows’ Eve, you could do worse than Ever­gold. Imag­ine par­al­lel rows of them along your gar­den path to wel­come the tri­umphant win­ner of the vil­lage-hall con­test. Hail, the con­quer­ing hero comes.

Thomp­son & Mor­gan’s Na­tional Pump­kin Sow­ing Day is to­day, April 12 Coun­try Life, April 12, 2017 79

Above: Bit­ter gourd Mo­mordica cha­ran­tia makes a colourful dis­play. Be­low: A va­ri­ety of pump­kins on dis­play in Las Ve­gas, USA

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