November is a busy time for pumpkins and squashes. Having ushered in the month with ghouls and ghosts over Hallowe'en, they then take centre stage at the great American feast of Thanksgiving. Although they are still more familiar in American vegetable gardens than they are in English ones, they are quickly gaining ground here. Earlier this month Caroline Boisset, who gardens at Castle Donington in Leicestershire, brought 60 different kinds to a Royal Horticultural Show in London. Her mouthwatering display of squashes and pumpkins - apricot, orange, yellow, green, ivory, and a mesmeric metallic pewter grey - won a gold medal.
When she moved to her garden seven years ago, there were few varieties of squash or pumpkin available in this country. English gardeners, long obsessed with giant marrows, were only just beginning to recognise the possibilities inherent in a giant pumpkin. The first pumpkin she grew was a big orange French variety, 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes', raised from seed that she bought while on holiday in France. Now she's hooked. "It's a vegetable that just takes you over. Other pumpkin growers have remarked on the same thing."
Mrs Boisset was showing three different groups of pumpkins and squashes. Summer squashes, which include the flat, frilled patty pans, do not store well. Winter squashes such as the beautiful polished blue 'Crown Prince' should store right through the winter if the skins are well cured. Pumpkins, which include 'Atlantic Giant' - at 314kg 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 on Mrs Boisset's display had the lopsided look of quietly deflating beach balls. Others, like the warty, blue 'New England Hubbard', bulged intemperately in the middle, tapering off either end like a balloon (there is one in every pack) that won't blow up. 'Marina di Chiogga' striped in grey and sage green, was a perfect copy of the streetwise headgear belonging to one of the Capulet gang. 'Giraumon Galeux d'Eysines', a big, pale apricot coloured squash, looked like an avant garde artwork, customised in patches with the left over husks of peanuts. I wanted them all.
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 'Courge Pleine de Naples' 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 in pots inside, either on a windowsill or in a greenhouse, setting a single seed in a three inch pot of compost. The trick, says Caroline Boisset, is not to get the compost too wet. If you do, the seeds rot. She sowed seed around 10 May. 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. I find courgette plants that grow from direct sown seed are more vigorous than the ones I transplant. The same may be true of squashes.
Most pumpkins and squashes grow on big, trailing stems that may be more than 15ft long; the pumpkin 'Aspen' grows on a more compact plant. 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.
Once planted, they 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. Even in this last, waterless summer, Mrs Boisset says that many of her pumpkins and squashes got no extra water at all. In the States, you see young plants sitting in the middle of low stockades of mounded up earth, each circle about three feet 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 like the sun and both like barrowloads of dung under their feet.
Given the right conditions, pumpkins, once set, fatten up prodigiously fast. They can put on three quarters of a pound a day without even thinking about it, a weight watcher's nightmare, a champion vegetable grower's dream.
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: Graines Baumaux, BP 100, 54062 Nancy, France (00-33-83 15 86 86); Seeds by Size, 45 Crouchfield, Boxmoor, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP1 1PA (01442 251458); Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456).For sources (seed and plants) of 3,000 different varieties of vegetables and 1,300 different fruits, get the new edition of "The Fruit and Veg Finder", published by the Henry Doubleday Research Association (pounds 7.99). It is available from bookshops or direct (add pounds 1 for p&p) from the HDRA at Ryton Organic Gardens, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry CV8 3LG.
How to cook squashes
Summer squashes come wrapped in a thin skin, with crisp flesh that can be eaten raw. Courgettes provide a blueprint; treat other summer squashes in a similar fashion. The little 'Pattipans' that look like a gnome's hat, can be steamed and then stuffed once cold with mozzarella and black olives, and dressed with olive oil, basil and diced tomato. The exception within the group is the extraordinary 'Vegetable spaghetti': prick the skin of these and boil them, covered. Slit them open and run a fork down their length and they will dissolve into a mass of firm, vermicelli-thin strands, which can be dressed with any rich and creamy sauce. Bake as a gratin in a hot oven.
The starting size for winter squashes and pumpkins are the twee 'Little Gem' squashes. Choose those the size of a grapefruit, lop off the tops, scoop out the seeds, and fill with a mixture of grated gruyere, double cream, nutmeg and Kirsch, and cook in a hot oven for 30 minutes. The result is a divine mass of good that can be eaten straight from the shell. Depending on how theatrical you feel, you can perform this with larger pumpkins, the risk being that they may collapse. Everyone knows you can get some real whoppers, but they become fibrous as they grow, so think small.
Winter squashes are richer, smoother and sweeter than pumpkins. The buff-coloured 'Butternut' is hard to beat: parboil it, then halve it lengthwise and scoop out the seeds, fill with butter, sage and garlic and roast, scattering Parmesan over towards the end. Save pumpkins for soups and purees, which make the most of their copious, sweet juices.
Annie BellReuse content