Pumpkins and squash always feature prominently in our summer garden. They are very easy to grow. Almost too easy, most gardeners would agree. As they do take up quite a bit of room, a lot of gardeners don’t bother growing them.
For those that do grow them, pumpkins are somewhat taken for granted in the garden. Indeed, the biggest problem you’ll probably have is working out what to do with your abundance! It’s a good thing that they store well and will see you through autumn and winter. Like zucchini which I discussed in an earlier blog post, in previous years, we’ve always taken pumpkins and squash for granted as a guaranteed summer crop. But by a freak of nature we were cursed with a terrible season last summer and harvested very few pumpkins and squash as a consequence. I’ve therefore decided to do a bit more research into growing them so I can work out where we went wrong.
Despite being so easy to grow, pumpkins in particular are hideously expensive in supermarkets, especially at Christmas time because it’s a popular feature of the traditional roast for lunch. A small wedge of pumpkin can cost around $6 and it’s hardly enough to feed the entire family. Unfortunately, your own homegrown pumpkin crop won’t be ready by Christmas for you to harvest but in my view, it’s worth growing pumpkins so you can store them for a time when crops become scarce in the garden. Homegrown pumpkins taste so much fresher and nicer than store bought ones. In your garden, you can also grow unusual varieties which are not found at the supermarket. Pumpkins are very versatile in cooking. Pumpkin can be used in soups, added to curries, served with roasts, used as a gourmet pizza topping and added cold to salads. Squash are all different and can be used in a variety of ways, but we normally just have them steamed with a bit of butter, salt and pepper. I hope that with the help of the information in this guide, you’ll be able to grow some of your own pumpkins and squash successfully this season.
Traditionally, pumpkins and squash can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend (like a Bank Holiday in England). Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October. This year, Labour Weekend starts on 21 October. While it’s natural to want a head start on the season, my advice is to not be in a rush to plant out seedlings. There is often a dramatic difference between day and night time temperatures at this time of the year and the weather can still be quite temperamental. Young seedlings are particularly tender. Once they’ve been hit by a sudden cold snap or exposed to consistently low temperatures, they never really recover. It’s therefore a good idea to wait until the beginning of November to plant pumpkin and squash seedlings into your garden, when temperatures are warmer. This way, the seedlings you plant out will be a bit more established and strong enough to survive any setbacks along the way. In saying that, it does depend on where you live. New Zealand’s climate varies dramatically from region to region and I do have to remember that not all of my audience lives in Auckland or even New Zealand for that matter. My personal gardening experiences are limited to our urban homestead in the Auckland region, so please take this into account when considering my advice. On the same token, what grows well in my environment may not necessarily thrive in your own microclimate. So please don’t blame me if things go wrong and the varieties I’ve recommended don’t grow well in your garden!
Sowing pumpkins and squash from seed
It’s much too early to think about planting pumpkins and squash outdoors. It’s still way too cold! However, I wanted to write a guide to growing pumpkins and squash now because you can start sowing them under cover from seed. It’s really easy to grow these curcubits from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres. It takes about six to eight weeks from the time of the germination of a pumpkin or squash seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside.
Pumpkins and squash can be started from seed indoors in October or even earlier if you live in a more temperate zone and have a hot house to protect them from the cold. Pumpkin and squash seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in punnets or egg cartons filled with seed raising mix from Gardn Gro. I like Gardn Gro’s seed raising mix as it is very fine in texture, enabling seeds to push through the mixture easily as they rise to the surface. I place the punnets and egg cartons inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water once daily or twice if the seed raising mixture is very dry. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment so they can germinate successfully.
How to care for pumpkin and squash seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their pumpkin and squash seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from September onwards. Palmers stock a great range of these seedlings. Awapuni also sell high quality, large grade pumpkin seedlings delivered direct to your door. If you order 7 or more bundles of seedlings, delivery is free.
I plan to sell a variety of different pumpkin seedlings in my own boutique nursery later in the season. Keep an eye out for details in my newsletter, on Neighbourly and my Facebook page as to when they become available. During October and November, I will also circulate updated lists of available stock in my plant nursery to subscribers of my free weekly gardening newsletter. To be added to my mailing list and receive these notifications, please email me at email@example.com.
I’ll probably be selling seedlings a bit later than stores because I’m merely a home gardener, germinating and caring for seedlings in our patio at home without the help of the horticultural technology that you would expect to find in a commercial operation. Without a hot house, I simply don’t have a head start on the season like large-scale nurseries. To compensate for this, I do try and offer seedling varieties which are unusual and can’t be found in garden centres or online retailers. This is a good thing as it enables me to collaborate with other businesses in the industry and promote their brands. You can achieve a lot by working with other people in the same field (no pun intended), as opposed to simply trying to compete with them. To read my further thoughts on this issue, please click here.
Whoever you decide to buy plants from, take care to keep plants undercover until early October as zucchini are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
Pumpkin and squash varieties
If you’re planning to grow pumpkins and squash from seed, you’ll find that they come in an impressive array of shapes, colours and sizes. So many different varieties to choose from! Like me, you’ll have a hard time deciding what to grow in your garden this summer. The most traditional variety of pumpkin that you’ll find year round in most supermarkets in New Zealand is called crown pumpkin (Whangaparoa Crown and Pumpkin Crown F1, Egmont Seeds). Also popular in home gardens here are the Australian heirloom varieties Jarrahdale and Queensland Blue (Egmont Seeds). Triamble (Egmont Seeds) is another great heritage variety which stores very well due to its thick skin. But our favourite grey heirloom traditional pumpkin would have to be Blue Hubbard (Egmont Seeds). This variety of pumpkin is extremely large and has a hard shell which makes it ideal for long storage. The flesh is yellow-orange, sweet and fibre-free. I also really like the heirloom Italian variety Tonda Padana (Franchi Seeds), which is beautiful and has alternating vertical grey, orange and green stripes. I highly recommend growing the heirloom variety Marina di Chioggia (Franchi Seeds), which yields large knobbly fruits that are deep blue-green in colour. Both Tonda Padana and Marina di Chioggia are simply beautiful on the outside and have delicious orange flesh on the inside. Butternut pumpkin is one of our favourite varieties because of its lovely orange flesh and rich, sweet taste. Try growing Rugosa (Franchi Seeds) and Buffy’s Gold (Egmont Seeds). If you like making pumpkin pie, a good choice is Sugar Pie (Egmont Seeds). If you want to grow pumpkins purely for size and as a novelty, especially if you have children, try growing Atlantic Giant (Egmont Seeds). There is something for everyone!
Our favourite varieties of squash include Gem Squash (Pumpkin Squash Gem Squash Hybrid, Egmont Seeds) and Spaghetti Squash (Tivoli F1). My mother comes from South Africa and she introduced me to Gem Squash a few summers ago. These incredibly prolific squash are small, round and dark green in colour. We enjoy them steamed with a bit of butter, salt and pepper. Every summer, we also grow Spaghetti Squash. The stringy flesh is similar to spaghetti in texture. Spaghetti squash can be baked in the oven and the flesh can them be scooped out and cooked slightly in a pot with butter, lots of garlic, salt and pepper. Simply delicious! Another variety of squash worth growing and which performed well in the garden last year is Golden Nugget (Egmont Seeds). We also enjoy growing Kumi Kumi every summer (Egmont Seeds). Kumi Kumi is a green ribbed squash which can either be used fresh from the garden or stored over the winter once it has matured and the skin has turned hard.
To order seeds from the very extensive Egmont Seeds range, visit http://www.egmontseeds.co.nz/.
To find stockists for Franchi Seeds or to order Franchi seeds directly from the New Zealand distributor Italian Seeds Pronto owned by Gillian Hurley-Gordon, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/.
How to care for pumpkin and squash plants
Pumpkin and squash need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting pumpkin and squash seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. I highly recommend Gardn Gro’s Wonder Nuggets, which are 100% organic and function as an excellent fertiliser. Rake the ground so that it is nice and level. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life.
Be sure to water plants every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Try not to get too much water on the leaves, otherwise your plants may develop powdery mildew. Liquid feed melons weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit after they have been pollinated.
Pollination of pumpkins and squash
Pumpkins and squash need to be pollinated in order to develop fruit. As the flowers on pumpkin and squash plants are quite large, you’ll find that bees will do all the work for you. Personally, I wouldn’t bother going to the effort of pollinating them by hand, unlike melons which benefit from hand-pollination, which I covered in a previous blog post.
Harvesting your pumpkin and squash
Generally speaking, pumpkins and squash need a very long growing season in order to mature and for the flesh inside to sweeten. With the exception of Gem Squash and Kumi Kumi, which can be picked young and fresh, it’s advisable to leave pumpkins and squash to die on the vine and then harvest them in early autumn. I normally harvest my pumpkins and squash in March or sometimes even in April. While this may seem like a long wait, don’t forget that there will be plenty of other veggies to harvest in the garden during the summer, such as zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums and chillies, and potatoes.
As mentioned above, pumpkin and squash can be stored over winter. After harvesting them, clean and wipe the pumpkins and allow them to dry properly. Store them in a cool, dry place. Make sure they’re not touching each other so that the air can circulate freely. Inspect your pumpkins and squash from time to time for rot. We find that pumpkins and squash store very well for around six months, but it is possible to store them properly for longer than this.