Squash club: May is the time to sow your crops – and pumpkins and squash are the best of the lot

May is mayhem for vegetable growers. So much stuff needs to be sown, including the crops that will keep you going through autumn and winter: beetroot, autumn and winter cabbage, calabrese, carrots, cauliflower, chicory, kale, salsify, scorzonera, turnips and the best of them all – pumpkins and squashes. "Squash never fail to reach maturity," wrote the American humorist S J Perelman. "You can spray them with acid, beat them with sticks and burn them; they love it." That kind of dogged determination is an endearing characteristic in a plant. Since you will have to work hard to prevent squashes and pumpkins from growing, you can divert your energy to the question of choice. Which members of this staggeringly varied family – apricot, orange, yellow, green, ivory, or a mesmeric metallic pewter grey – would you most like to look at this summer?

Choice becomes easier if you divide the family into three different categories. Summer squashes, which include the flat, frilled patty pans, do not store well. Winter squashes such as the beautiful, polished blue-green 'Crown Prince' should store right through the winter if the skins are well cured. Pumpkins, which include 'Dill's Atlantic Giant' – at 456kg the world's heaviest vegetable – will also keep if they are allowed to ripen fully on the vine before they are picked.

Some of the larger pumpkins have the lopsided look of quietly deflating beach balls. Others, like the warty blue 'New England Blue' bulge intemperately in the middle, tapering off either end like a balloon that won't blow up (there is one in every pack). 'Marina di Chiogga', striped in grey and sage green, looks just like the streetwise headgear worn by the Capulet gang in Romeo and Juliet. Others are avant garde artworks, customised in patches of apricot and husk-coloured beige.

In essence, growing a pumpkin or squash is much like growing a marrow or courgette. All are members of the same big group, the cucurbits, but some types, such as the Cucurbita moschata varieties 'Butternut' and 'Harrier', like more heat than others. As with courgettes, you can't put the plants outside until the end of May when temperatures begin to rise.

You can start seeds off now in pots inside, either on a windowsill or in a greenhouse, setting a single seed on its edge in a 7cm pot of compost. Cover the pots with clingfilm and keep them at a temperature of 60-65F until the seeds have germinated. This should take no more than a week. The trick is not to get the compost too wet. If you do, the seeds rot.

Later this month, in sheltered spots, you can also sow direct into the ground, setting a jam jar over each seed both to act as a mini-greenhouse and to protect them from mice. Choose an open, sunny site in ground that is rich, well fed but also well-drained. Pumpkins and squashes grow most happily where the soil is slightly acid to neutral. Set the plants at least a metre apart and away from less robust crops which they may smother.

Most pumpkins and squashes grow on big, trailing stems that may be more than 5 metres long; the well-flavoured pumpkin 'Jack be Little' grows on a more compact plant. In a small plot, the modest fruits of cultivars such as 'Sweet Lightning' (Organic Gardening Catalogue £1.58), the patty pan squash 'Sunburst' (Suffolk Herbs £1) or the compact trailing 'Rolet-Gem' (Edwin Tucker £1.20) which has apple-sized fruits with buttery, firm flesh, will be easier to accommodate than 'Atlantic Giant', a pumpkin that is big enough to take Cinderella to the ball. You can train them over arbours, arches or wigwams of wooden poles, but choose types with smallish fruit. No wigwam will be able to stand the weight of an 'Atlantic Giant' with the bit between its teeth.

Some cultivars, such as 'Sunburst' (Edwin Tucker £1.30), a very productive, bright-yellow patty pan squash, and various other scallop and crookneck squashes should be eaten as soon as they have developed in summer. Winter squash and Halloween pumpkins mature more slowly and need to be "cured" in the sun to harden their skins if they are to store successfully under cover through the winter. I especially like the nutty-tasting 'Uchiki Kuri' (Edwin Tucker £1.30) which has pear-shaped fruit ripening to dark orange. Delfland Nurseries can supply organically grown young plants of this variety for delivery in late May (£1.70 for three plants plus postage and packing).

Once planted, most of this tribe can be left to their own devices. They will easily smother weeds and their leaves shade the earth so that it does not dry out as quickly as open ground. Butternut squashes sometimes grow masses of leaf and stem but are reluctant to set fruit. Curb this tendency by pinching out the growing tips of the shoots when they've got to about 120cm. Butternuts, which do much of their growing at the end of summer, need a long, warm autumn to produce decent fruit. In the States, you see young plants sitting in the middle of low stockades of mounded up earth, each circle about a metre across. The low earth walls stop water running off in all directions when you empty a can over a plant.

In the States too, you often see pumpkins and squashes grown in conjunction with sweetcorn, the long trailing growths winding their way through the tall stems of the corn. This is an economical way to use ground and the combination looks good too. Tomatoes, securely staked, would make an equally good companion crop. Both need sun.

Given the right conditions, pumpkins, once set, fatten up prodigiously fast. They can put on half a kilo a day without even thinking about it, a weight watcher's nightmare, a champion vegetable grower's dream. The yield will depend on the type of pumpkin or squash you are growing. The little scallopinis or patty pans such as the super-productive 'Sunburst' or 'Yellow Bird' (available as plantlets – 6 for £7.50 from Simpsons Seeds) should be cut when they are no more than 13cm across. Cut the summer squashes to use as you need them. Dry off the winter pumpkins until the skins are hard and the fruit sounds hollow when you tap it. Store pumpkins and squashes in a cool, frost-free shed until you need them.

An old book I have says rather intriguingly that young shoots of pumpkin, gathered in summer, are an excellent substitute for asparagus. I've never tried that, but I have successfully toasted seeds scraped from the innards. Clean the seeds off in a sieve under a running tap, let them dry and then spread them out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle them lightly with salt and bake them for about 20 mins at 190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Seed of a wide range of pumpkins and squashes is available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue, Riverdene, Molesey Rd, Hersham, Surrey KT12 4RG, 0845 130 1304, organiccatalogue.com; Simpson's Seeds, The Walled Garden Nursery, Horningsham, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7NQ, 01985 845004, simpsonsseeds.co.uk; Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com; Delfland Nurseries Ltd, Benwick Rd, Doddington, March, Cambs PE15 0TU, 01354 740553, organicplants.co.uk; Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd, Brewery Meadow, Stonepark, Ashburton, Devon TQ13 7DG, 01364 652233, edwintucker.com. From Edwin Tucker you can also order 'The Squash: History, Folklore & Ancient Recipes' (£9.99)

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable