There’s more to winter squash than just a Jack-O’-Lantern
by Rachel Guy-Whittle
Passionate pumpkin hoarder and self-confessed lazy gardener shares her top tips on how to grow pumpkins and winter squash. Includes ideas for choosing the right varieties, soil preparation, pollination, and why she never saves her own seeds.
Autumn holds a special place in my heart for a wealth of reasons, but if I’m really honest the big one is winter squash. Few things make me as happy as the sight of a bright orange pumpkin, like a beacon of cheerfulness in the slowly darkening landscape. Yet, my dreamy pumpkin gazing aside, there is so much more to winter squash than just a Jack-O’-Lantern. In the UK and Ireland, we don’t seem to have the same cosy relationship with them as other parts of the world. I can’t help but think we’re missing out.
More harvest with less work, tips from a ‘Lazy Gardener’
Home-grown squash is perfect for filling the pantry plus they look great. You can’t really beat a vegetable that makes your house look like a seasonal scene from Good Housekeeping — when really it’s just next months curry sat on the mantle. When was the last time a casually placed potato made your house look like something from Martha Stewart’s Instagram feed? Exactly.
…I sit here, a very lazy gardener with a harvest of squash so big I’m surprised it didn’t cause a divorce…
The following advice is just a patchwork of my own experience. I’m sure reading it you’ll be thinking ‘is she mad? You need to do way more work than that!’. You could be right, but as I sit here, a very lazy gardener with a harvest of squash so big I’m surprised it didn’t cause a divorce (who knew giving the sofa up for squash storage would be such a sticking point?) I can at least say the advice below works for me.
Choosing the right pumpkins and squash to grow
With a huge variety of winter squash out there it can be a little hard to pick which to grow. It’s all about finding a variety that works for you. If you are new to growing winter squash then it’s worth not worrying too much about the differences between the 3 main species (Maxima, Pepo and Moschata).
When looking at seeds instead focus on days to maturity. That’s usually the make or break for those of us with shorter growing seasons. I personally only grow squash varieties that mature under 105 days as that seems to be the upper limit for the season in my region.
I personally only grow squash varieties that mature under 105 days as that seems to be the upper limit for the season in my region.
One thing to keep in mind is that some types are easier to grow than others. Many of us who have tried to grow butternut squash have ended up with very little to show for our blood, sweat, and mulching. Ask around and do some research.
Next, think about your space, is it a container in a small garden or balcony? If so, how about something like a Golden Nugget which is a bush type. If you also have vertical space you can grow pretty much any type. Though I don’t know if I’d recommend trying for a 200 pound Atlantic Giant on a balcony. Not unless you want to make your downstairs neighbours feel particularly uncomfortable.
Winter Squash are notoriously heavy feeders and some of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen have been planted in a manure or compost pile.
If you have a reasonable size garden or allotment then the world is your oyster, or rather, seed catalogue. I’ve had fantastic success year on year with the North Georgia Candy Roaster. Once established it’s a joy to grow, leaving you with more salmon pink zeppelin shaped fruits than you’ll know what to do with. I would heartily recommend it. It has a sweet, melony taste and has impressed me so much that I evangelise about it to anyone foolish enough to stand beside me in a queue for too long.
You need fertile soil to grow pumpkins
Now you’ve got your variety picked it’s a case of preparing the soil. I like to do this a few months ahead but a few weeks isn’t unheard of if I haven’t gotten around to it. Winter Squash are notoriously heavy feeders and some of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen have been planted in a manure or compost pile. So don’t skimp on the good stuff. In a vegetable bed, I go with at least a bucket of well-rotted horse manure per plant and half a bucket of good rich compost as well. Don’t be precious about it, pile it on.
In a vegetable bed, I go with at least a bucket of well-rotted horse manure per plant and half a bucket of good rich compost as well. Don’t be precious about it, pile it on.
Manure & Kitchen Peelings
I also dress the mix with a handful of wonderfully stinky Organic Chicken Manure. On my patch it’s like rocket fuel but I do make sure it’s not in direct contact with the roots. For those that don’t want to use animal byproducts, I had some brilliant success this year with planting over kitchen peelings. Last winter I filled trenches with kitchen scraps and then planted squash on top this summer. Planting distance can vary by variety but if you are going to skimp on the distance it’s worth making sure your soil is really fertile.
I also should say I don’t rotate my crops unless there has been disease the previous sowing. As I use No Dig principles I add new compost and manure each year anyway. I don’t feel the ground is worn out of the nutrients from the last crop, so I don’t move it about.
How to grow pumpkins: sowing seed & planting out
I personally sow early May and often cheat slightly, putting my seeds on a tray near the radiator. This gets them warm enough to germinate as I don’t have either a heat mat or any actual patience.
Squash really hate root disturbance so I make sure that they are sown into pots big enough to hold them till they are ready to be planted out. If you want to hedge your bets and plant a few in each pot it’s best to cut rather than pull when thinning. Pulling out seedlings can disturb the roots of the one left behind.
Remember to feed them every two weeks and soon the little plants will become a jungle. Your allotment neighbours will start to worry you’ve grown some kind of triffid…
I harden mine off in a cold frame in my back garden when they have at least 2 ‘true’ leaves. If a frost looks even remotely possible then I bring them inside. This does mean, as I live in Lancashire, that my kitchen table looks like a village fete plant stall gone wrong through most of May. All is fair in love and pumpkins.
Planting out and bi-weekly feeds
Once all risk of frost is over, I plant them out under fleece for the first week. I give them a big water and then it’s just a case of checking them regularly. I don’t tend to water mine once established as I find that if mulched they don’t really need it. Remember to feed them every two weeks and soon the little plants will become a jungle. Your allotment neighbours will start to worry you’ve grown some kind of triffid but the leaf cover means you’ll be doing a lot less weeding. Fabulous.
There are loads of ways of managing squash vines, books are indeed crammed with great advice on the subject. I’m going to come clean and say I don’t actually do any of them. I’ll maybe pinch off a growing tip if a vine has grown a foot overnight and is now viciously strangling the garlic. That’s about it.
Pumpkin growing challenges
One of the big challenges with growing squash is good pollination. Squash and pumpkins are almost exclusively reliant on pollination by bees. Growing flowers and plants that attract them will help draw pollinators to your pumpkin patch. It also helps to plant more than one of the same type of squash together as it increases your chances of pollination.
If you only have a few plants you could also pollinate them by hand, with a paintbrush. If rain is forecast, place some waterproof bags over the female flowers afterwards to stop the pollen being washed away.
The other issue people talk about with winter squash is the dreaded Powdery Mildew. It’s something that seems for me a non-issue until it’s time for the plants to die back naturally. I have had issues with it on my summer squash though and my treatment of choice is a foliar milk spray. I’ve found it’s best done on a sunny day but you’ll smell like the slop-tray of a coffee shop afterwards. It seems to do the trick better than any chemical control — just don’t forget to spray the underside of the leaves as well.
Harvesting and curing pumpkins
Once picked, pumpkins and winter squash need to be cured if they’re to last through the winter. I cure them in a sunny spot outside or a windowsill for a week or two. Then it’s just a case of finding places to stash them. Anywhere with good airflow and no radiator works for me. I don’t have a root cellar or garage so come November you’ll find a hoard of Buttercup and Candy Roasters crammed into the cupboard under the stairs.
Some varieties like Honey Boat Delicata have thin, edible skin and don’t store well. They’ll need eating up soon after harvest. Others like the handsome Aussie variety Jarrahdale is reputed to last over 12 months. From personal experience, many of the longer storing varieties tend to get sweeter with storage. I actually avoid eating any of my beloved Candy Roasters till after New Years as they get so much sweeter.
While I’m dicing up my harvest for dinner, one thing you won’t find me doing is saving the seed. I know, that sounds terrible of me, doesn’t it? It’s because squash and pumpkins happily and readily cross-pollinate. It’s pretty much impossible to guarantee that those seeds you are holding, covered in squash goo, are going to grow true to type. That’s unless you hand pollinate or only grow one variety of squash in isolation of course.
So each year I roast my squash seeds covered in honey, salt and sriracha. They’re a delicious treat as I flick through seed catalogues looking for new varieties to add to my collection. Seed catalogues are dangerous places on a cold winters night so each year I seem to grow more than I probably should. I’m sure it won’t grow me any world record pumpkins but they taste great, look fancy, and even if they steal half the sofa for a few weeks, well, that’s just fine by me.
Rachel Guy-Whittle is a passionate winter squash grower and professional photo editor. Follow her on Instagram for more pumpkin related tips and photography.
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