Pumpkin and squash are like a gang of boisterous children – generally hungry, likely to roam and coming in all shapes and sizes. All, of course, eventually maturing with sweet good nature! These really are plants that want to grow and given the right conditions they’ll happily make themselves at home. Pumpkin and squashes produce an abundant harvest that stores well and can be called upon as a culinary contribution right through winter and on into spring. Like zucchini, sweet corn and sunflowers, pumpkins and squashes are great plants for kids to sow and care for because they take off pretty quickly and the later harvest can be highly rewarding for young gardeners keen on results! Pumpkin and squash offer a huge return on investment. Depending on variety, you can expect to harvest in excess of a sackful of fruits per plant.
Companions Sweet corn, beans, peas.
Quantity 1 plant per person.
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Queensland Blue heirloom ironbark variety with thick, ridged greenish grey skin. Orange flesh is great for roasting or baking. Fruits grow to medium size - about 5-8kg. Yield around 3 per vine.
Kumi Kumi (or Kamo Kamo) heirloom green and yellow ribbed pumpkin that can be eaten fresh with soft skin or allowed to cure and be stored for later use.
Crown a heritage variety with blue-grey skin and bright orange flesh. Has a sweet, nutty flavour. Fruits get to around 4kg. Stores well and for a long time.
Burgess Buttercup (Squash) heirloom variety with dark green skin and sweet, yellow firm flesh. Matures quickly with harvest just either side of Xmas.
Big Chief Butternut F1 (Squash) produces elongated pale tan/orange fruits with slightly swollen end. Flesh is sweets and golden. Each weighs in at around 2-3 kg. Vines can be very productive with up to a dozen fruits.
Chieftan (Squash) is a more compact butternut variety that can be grown in large containers or smaller gardens.
September to January. As a general rule, sow indoors about a month before you want to plant them out in the garden.
In warmer areas sow indoors or under cover in September and plant out mid to late October as long as it is warm.
In cooler spots sow indoors or under cover in September and plant out when all risk of frosts has passed.
Pumpkin and squash are intolerant of cold temperatures and cannot handle any frost at all so wait until all risk of frost in your area has passed – this normally means at least after Labour Day – before you plant your seedlings in the garden. In colder parts of the country you may find you have to wait until December.
A place in the sun with plenty of space is best for these sprawling, clambering plants. An unused sunny slope, a fence or a hedge close to the compost heap (that you can actually plant into) would be ideal. Pumpkins and squashes can be ‘steered’ in an appropriate direction once they get going but are often placed at corners or edges of beds so they are less likely to overpower smaller, slower growing vegetables nearby.
The compost heap is often the best place for these gross feeders thanks to their insatiable appetite for rich nutrients. Pumpkin and squash also love a slightly moist, cool soil to help generate sufficient moisture for all those leaves during the hotter parts of the day. In your garden you will do best if you can replicate these conditions. I dig a round hole about the size or one or two buckets and fill it with rotted horse manure, seaweed, compost, chicken poo, sheep pellets – whatever I have to hand – mixing with the garden soil as I go. I slightly over-fill the hole so that it ends up like a gently pregnant mound. (Adding some untreated wood ash will provide extra potassium to boost production of fruits)
If you are keen to grow pumpkins for their edible seeds then try a variety called ‘Austrian Hulless which matures quickly with heaps of large seeds. The actual flesh itself is, however, not so nice to eat.
Seeds are best popped into a peat pot (around a finger length in height) filled with seed compost and put on a windowsill, in a cold frame or in a greenhouse to get a head start on the cooler weather of spring.
Soak seeds overnight in a glass of water before planting – this will improve germination. Generally, it is a good idea to plant two seeds per pot and then select the stronger of the two when they have developed a pair of leaves (just pinch out the weaker one at soil level).
If you are buying seedlings then go for specimens that are well-rooted and not flopping around in their pots.
Each plant will easily cover several metres so either plant here and there around the garden where space and opportunity allow or plant in a large bed allowing a space that is at least a stride by a stride per seedling. Just make a hole as deep as your pot and pop the seedling in before back-filling and gently firming the soil around it. Water well.
At this stage it helps to mark the position of each seedling with a bamboo cane to aid accurate watering later on when the bed is overrun with a mass of stems.
Water your plants at the base as they start to explore their territory – avoid spraying leaves with water a this can spread fungal diseases. Mulch heavily around the stem of the plant where its roots are concentrated – I use lawn trimmings which come in handy as my mowing seems to coincide with a need to apply more mulch. If any trailing stems start to get too rampant then you can cut stems back to stop them taking over your garden. Pinching out the tip of a plant’s main shoot once it has reached a good stride away from the planting position can help produce a good crop with more flower-bearing side shoots.
In some years the harvest can start earlier than others – delays can come from colder springs causing an early lack of pollinating bees. If flowers appear to not develop into fruits before withering then use a soft paintbrush and hand pollinate on a warm, sunny day by dabbing gently from the centre of one open flower and onto another.
Once fruits start to form along the stems and begin to swell, feeding can be stepped up to twice weekly applications of liquid comfrey or similar liquid feed with a high potassium content to benefit fruit production.
Look out for aphids which can infect plants with ‘Cucumber mosaic virus’. Treat with Garlic oil spray or Tomato leaf spray as soon as you notice them.
Towards the end of summer pumpkins and squashes often develop a grey, ash-like coating to their leaves. This is powdery mildew and its spread is often due to humidity, poor air circulation or irregular moisture levels. This can mean the end of fruitful fun if not promptly addressed. Remove any leaves as soon as you see the first signs to slow the spread and buy some time. You can spray powdery mildew with Baking soda spray but, given the size of these plants, this can be impractical.
Look after your plants, removing any dead or shriveled leaves and fruit that starts to rot or otherwise fails to develop properly. If growing larger pumpkins it can pay to put a layer of straw, an old cupboard door, piece of plywood or something similar beneath fruits to protect them from contact with damp soil that can cause fruit to rot.
Summer squashes such as ‘Spaghetti’ and ‘Pattypan’ varieties are best eaten as they ripen because they don’t store for long.
Winter squashes such as ‘Butternut’ and pumpkins such as ‘Crown’, ‘Queensland Blue’ and ‘Ironbark’ are all long keepers and are harvested when foliage has totally shriveled and fruit are fully ripened with hard skins.
Check pumpkins and winter squash are in good condition and have no bruises before storing them. Store in a cool, frost-free place – hanging them in old onion bags works well.