How to grow Pumpkins and Winter Squashes
Pumpkin and Winter Squashes Growing Guide
With their oversized leaves and chunky fruits, pumpkins and winter squashes are the giants of the veg patch. After planting they grow at break-neck speed and given a sunny spot the fruits can be left to swell with minimal fuss. They come in all colours and weird and wonderful shapes, making this an excellent crop to try with children. Or why not have a pumpkin competition and see how large they will grow before next Halowe’en?
Pumpkins and squashes are members of the curcurbit family, the same group as marrows and courgettes. Some grow as bushes, while other have a more sprawling habit and snake around the veg patch. Trailing varieties can be trained onto supports, while some bush types are suitable for growing in a container, making them ideal for small plots.
How to grow Pumpkin and Winter Squashes
The key to success with these delicious veg is plenty of sunshine and thoroughly enriched, moist soil. Fruits can be left to ripen on the plant, so there’s no guesswork as to when to cut them. Once they mature they can be cured and their skins will toughen up to keep the sweet, tasty flesh inside ready to eat right through the winter. You won’t even need sacks, nets or boxes to keep the veg on hand, as they can easily be stored in an unheated spare room.
Growing Pumpkin and Winter Squashes month-by-month
Use the new seed catalogues to begin planning your crop of winter squashes. Try a couple of different varieties as flavour and yield varies considerably.
Begin digging over the soil where your squashes and pumpkins are to grow. Incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter in the planting holes before backfilling with soil.
This is usually the last month that stored squashes can be enjoyed, although a few may be suitable for eating in April.
Sow pumpkins and squashes indoors or in a propagator. Place one seed per large module and keep them warm and moist.
Pot on germinated seedlings into 12cm pots of multipurpose compost and harden them off towards the end of the month, before planting out.
Finish transferring your young plants by early June. Outside-sown squashes may be set into position this month.
As the plants grow away keep them well watered and lock in the moisture by applying a mulch. Pinch out the stems of trailing varieties once they reach 60cm.
Keep plants watered and remove any weeds. Cut away any leaves that become infected with powdery mildew to stop it spreading to the rest of the crop.
Fruits will have swollen to full size by now but will need to be kept in situ to ripen and cure before harvesting.
Finish curing pumpkins and winter squashes outside then bring them indoors to dry for a further week or two.Take old plants to the compost heap.
Your fully cured fruits will have a tough, protective skin that will keep them in sound order right through the winter. Eat up those with damaged skins.
Keep the stored fruits at or slightly below room temperature – a utility room makes an ideal storage area.
Caring for your Pumpkin and Winter Squashes plants + problems
There’s a fine balance between over-watering in the early stages and then not watering enough once plants are growing at full speed. Over-irrigating when plants are young may lead to rotting but as soon as their growth speeds up they will need to be kept consistently moist, particularly in hot weather when evaporation rates are high. Damp soil will encourage large fruits so water freely until late August, when irrigation should be reduced.
Applying a layer of mulch to the soil will have two effects: locking in moisture and supplying an additional source of nutrients. Any organic material can be used to cover the soil, from rough compost to grass clippings over layers of cardboard or part-rotted leaves. Trailing varieties of pumpkin and squash will form new roots wherever the stem touches the ground and will push through into the mulch to draw additional strength. Pinch out trailing stems as soon as they reach 60cm to encourage a more compact plant. In most cases weeds shouldn’t be a problem but any large, unwanted perennials should be dug out with a trowel as they appear.
Additional feeding should not be necessary but a liquid feed that is high in potash, such as that applied to tomatoes, may prove an advantage on sandy soils where nutrients can quickly be washed through by heavy rain. This can be applied at watering time, from when the first fruits have set up until late summer. Most pumpkins and winter squashes are then left to ripen on the plant and are picked in autumn once they have fully matured.
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How to harvest Pumpkin and Winter Squashes
Pumpkins and winter squashes will store well into winter. However, the first fruits may be formed as soon as 12 weeks after sowing. These can be cut from the plant while the skin is still soft and enjoyed as summer squashes, sliced up into stir-fries, boiled or roasted and added to risottos.
If you plan to keep your pumpkins and squashes for storage you will need to leave the fruits on the plant until at least October. This will help their skins to harden ready for storage. If slugs are prevalent on your patch then keep the developing and maturing fruits above the soil by slipping a square of tiling, or a similar material, beneath each fruit for it to rest on. Raising fruits off the ground will also help to prevent them from spoiling or rotting by avoiding contact with the damp soil.