‘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
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