No other vegetable shouts autumn so loud! Pumpkins and squash are my edible plants for September because they look magnificent, taste good and are fun to grow! In this piece, I'll cover how to grow them and which varieties to try. I'll also give you tips on how to harvest and store them.
Pumpkin, Squash or Gourd?
All these wonderful veg are related and are also in the same family as cucumbers, marrows and courgettes. Pumpkins grow largest but don't store as well as squashes, which also have more variety. Gourds are also grown in Britain, but mostly for winter decorations.
What would Halloween be without pumpkins?
The perfect candle-lit, doorstep decoration with the centre carved out and a spooky face etched in.
They tend to grow much larger than squash and gourds, but mini pumpkins are also becoming more available.
Pumpkins are, generally, a super rich and warm orange colour when ripe.
A closeup of an orange pumpkin
Not noted for long term storage; pumpkins are best used as decorations or eaten before winter.
Pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup are the most popular ways to eat this vegetable.
If you're making soup with the hollowed-out centre of a pumpkin, try cutting off just the top and retaining this bit to use a lid. Separate the seeds and then cook the pulp using a recipe. Pour it back into the pumpkin shell, cover with the lid and bring to the table to wow your friends!
The seeds have many health benefits and can be added to salads, breakfast cereals or just eaten as a snack. They can be gently roasted and kept dried to add to recipes later or can be eaten raw, if in moderation.
Squash can be divided roughly into two types - summer and winter squash.
There is an infinite variety of shapes and colours of squash. For this reason, they are often grown for just their decorative properties.
It is winter varieties of squash that provides an easily stored and nutritious vegetable. If you grow summer squash, cook and use them as soon as they are ready.
Mixed squash fruits
Unlike the other two, gourds are not generally grown in Britain to eat.
In Africa, India and other hot countries, they are grown to eat and then to use the dried skin as a storage container.
Once they are fully mature, harvested and have ripened, gourds will keep for many years as attractive indoor decorations.
I prefer to sow my seeds individually in nine-centimetre pots.
Sow just a couple of weeks before you would typically get your last frost. In the south of England, this is generally sometime in mid-May.
Germination is rapid and takes about a week in warm conditions. You can propagate them on a bright windowsill or in a conservatory.
Greenhouses, cold frames or polytunnels are great places to start them off.
Pumpkin seedlings sown in pots in a greenhouse
It's better to plant out in warm conditions - when the soil has warmed up. To help warm the soil, you could cover the ground with a sheet of clear polythene for a few weeks before planting.
Avoid planting during windy conditions, or provide shelter from the wind until your plants get going.
Plant in a sunny spot where plenty of organic matter has been incorporated into the soil. These plants are hungry feeders and like moisture too.
If you have a full compost bin then planting on top of this is a great place to grow pumpkins and squash.
Organic pumpkins just a few days after planting at Lyburn Farm in Hants
Squash will benefit in particular from being grown on a support structure. This can be decorative and will save space in the vegetable plot. I grow mine on a wigwam made of hazel poles cut out of the hedgerow.
A support structure will keep the fruits away from mud splashes and allow plenty of air circulation through the stems and leaves.
Crown Princes squash growing over a wigwam of poles
Ripening and Harvesting
It's important to let your pumpkin and squash fruits fully ripen before harvesting. Ripening can be encouraged by putting a bed of straw or something similar under each fruit while still attached to the plant. Removing a few leaves to let the sun shine directly on the fruit may also help.
Harvest when the fruits have finished growing, and the skin has full colour.
Cut the trailing stem so that a small part is attached to your fruit. Including the stem of the fruit make a 'T' shape.
You can put your pumpkins and squash on a shelf in the sun. Make sure it is raised off the ground and that the air flows freely.
Pumpkins ripening as the leaves die off
When autumn frosts begin, the fruits that you want to store for winter should be moved into a frost-free and airy shed.
Kept cool and dry they should store well into the new year.
Butternut squash stored in a box
Pests and Diseases
Slugs and snails need to be controlled at the germination stage and shortly after planting out.
Powdery mildew can attack plants and coat the old leaves in white mycelium. This can reduce plant vigour, and it may pay to spray with a fungicide. However, these plants can be sensitive to some products and so check the small print before using.
Powdery mildew on a closely related courgette leaf
Unless you want to break the world record for the heaviest pumpkin - currently standing at a whopping 2,624 pounds - then I recommend 'Expert F1' or 'Jack O' Lantern'.
If you'd like to grow some smaller pumpkins for decoration rather than for carving out, try 'Jack Be Little'.
I have a firm favourite for squash varieties! It's 'Crown Prince' and keeps really well.
Squash Crown Prince
'Crown Prince' squash has tasty rich orange pulp.
Butternut squash comes a close second for me and keeps equally well and is versatile in the kitchen.
You might want to grow some of the more decorative ones such as 'Turks Turban' too.
Squash Turks Turban
Carving for Halloween
Carving the centre out of pumpkins for Halloween is a wonderful project to do with children. Put a night light inside when you're done and put on your doorstep!
Keep the carvings to make into soup but separate the seeds for roasting.
What varieties of pumpkin and squash do you grow?
Do you have any growing tips to share?