Kids and growing pumpkins go together. Especially at Halloween. The carved pumpkin outside the front door or being carried house to house as a lantern is an established tradition that you as a parent miss out on at your own peril!
But nutritionally too pumpkins are great. Who hasn't heard of pumpkin pie? Some of the pumpkins seeds are also edible and delicious when dry roasted with a sprinkling of salt. Interestingly, it isn't just the fruit itself which can be eaten, but the shoots and young leaves can be cooked and eaten, and the flowers are edible either raw or cooked.
Where to grow:
Pumpkins belong to the gourd family, which also includes marrows, courgettes and squashes. Most varieties grow very large and have trailing vines along which the fruit grows. They are not hardy and need a lot of sunshine and a lot of water to stay healthy and produce a decent crop. For most families, one or two plants will be more than adequate.
Pumpkins need protection from high winds, a sheltered warm spot is the best place to grow them, either allowing plenty of space for the vines to grow or providing some form of trellising and training them along it as they grow. Some people also use twine to train the vines into spirals, which not only takes up less space, but also looks pretty
When to grow:
If starting the seeds off in the greenhouse or cold frame, the seeds can be sown in 4-5 inch pots in April, then slowly hardened off during the end of May.
Plant out at the beginning of June. Leave 6-10 ft (= 2-3 m) between plants depending on the variety.
For each plant, dig a hole (45cm / 18in apart) in the bed to about 5cm / 2in deeper than the pot and water if conditions are at all dry. Ease the pumpkin plant out of the pot, keeping the root ball undisturbed as far as possible. Place it in the hole and fill around the plant with soil.
Growing pumpkins are fairly thirsty, especially once the fruit has started to ripen, so watering during prolonged dry periods is important. They tend to be deep-rooted, so to ensure the water actually reaches the roots, it is a common practice to plant an upside-down plastic bottle with the base cut off in the mound next to the plant when either sowing the seed or transplanting the young plant. This then enables you to pour the water into the bottle and ensures it gets to the roots.
If you only require a few fruit, you can remove any surplus pumpkins growing early on and pinch out the growing tips of the vines. This will ensure the strength goes to the fruit you have chosen to keep.
Pests and diseases:
Don't grow pumpkins near cucumbers, courgettes, marrows or squash, as these are all susceptible to cucumber mosaic virus. Keeping them well apart in the garden helps to prevent cross-infection.
Avoid powdery mildew - a white fungus that forms on leaves - by watering plants only during the day (which allows moisture on to evaporate quickly) or by using a soaker hose which waters roots while not soaking the leaves.
To help the pumpkins ripen evenly, remove any large leaves which are shading them and turn them very gently, ensuring you don't damage the stalk. It is also advisable to place some wood or matting under the fruit to keep it from getting too wet on the ground or being attacked by pests.
You can expect your pumpkins to be ready to harvest anything between 12 to 20 weeks after sowing, depending on the variety. Be sure to pick them before the first frost arrives.
You will know when the pumpkin is ripe because the stem starts to crack and the outer skin gets harder. Cut through the stalk a few of inches above the top of the pumpkin and if you want to store it, leave in the sun for another week or so if possible, to give the skin time to harden further - this is called curing the pumpkin.
Handle pumpkins carefully to avoid surface damage, which leads to decay and shortens shelf life. Remove pumpkins showing any signs of spoilage from storage shelves quickly. For longer storage, freeze, can, or dry pumpkins for use in meals throughout the year.