Spooks, ghouls, ghosts and goblins….but how would Halloween haunt without pumpkins and Jack-o’-lanterns?
Members of the Cucurbita family, which includes cucumbers, gourds and squashes - the word pumpkin originates from the Greek ‘pepon’ meaning ‘large melon’.
As the handsomest of autumnal veg (strictly speaking ‘fruit’ as they contain seeds), pumpkins are filled with the sunshine they’ve absorbed during the summer months.
Forming large sprawling, climbing and scrambling garden plants when given a generous mulch of manure and sufficient warm, wet and sunny weather during the growing season (May to September), a pumpkin patch will repay generously with a mountain of fruity gems.
Worth growing for their looks alone, many pumpkins also make fantastic eating –
Small and pretty mini-pumpkin ‘Munchkin’ boasts the brightest of orange flesh with a flavour reminiscent of sweet chestnuts; produced on attractive climbing plants ideal for wigwams. Hugely popular ‘Crown Prince’ stores well with a fine taste and pleasing waxy texture, while nutty-flavoured ‘Snowman’ offers large and tasty seeds, set against pale eau-de-nil skin and creamy coloured flesh.
Dense and hard when raw, from a cook’s point of view, roasting drives off much of the moisture from the typically succulent flesh, leaving a sweet, nutty concentrated flavour.
Sliced in halves or wedges and tossed in a little olive oil, they respond well to the drying heat of an oven. Needing less than an hours cooking time, both pumpkins and squashes benefit from added flavourings such as garlic, rosemary, sage or cinnamon. Simply scrape the soft, caramelised flesh away from the hard leathery skin to enjoy the concentrated flavours of autumn.
Most impressive of all and the behemoth of the Curcubita family, the ‘Giant Pumpkins’ of the show world are all sports of C. maxima cultivated since the early 1800’s from the ‘Hubbard’ squash. According to the Guinness World Records, the current reigning champion, a whopping 766.1kg (1689lbs) fruit, was recorded in Topsfield, Massachusetts, USA, on September 29, 2007. To put this into perspective, true ‘Giant Pumpkins’ can indeed weigh more than a family car!
To grow your own record-breaking pumpkins, start early – with competitive growers setting their seeds from early spring in readiness for transplanting when seedlings are hardened off at the all-important three-leaf stage.
Holding many world records, ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ is the variety of choice for competitions, shows or just to amaze your neighbours. Give plants plenty of room to expand – allowing up to 25ft between stations. Experts insist that all pumpkins are vigorous growers and gross feeders requiring manure-enriched soil to reach their full potential.
Of the 125-130 days required to produce a record-winning pumpkin, the first 60 are the most crucial. Permit only a few fruits to form on each vine, sacrificing all others to those showing the most promise, in an effort to concentrate energy.
During the second 60 days, fruits may gain up to 9kg (20lbs) per day, with essential weekly liquid feeds (or "composted tea") the secret to winning results.
With a bumper harvest of pumpkins expected again this year, fruit for decoration can outstrip the demand from the kitchen. Originating in Ireland, pumpkin carving was exported to the US via the decorative turnip lanterns of the Irish Samhain holidays. Regarded as the Celtic New Year, this annual event celebrated on the 1st November, marked the end of the harvest season with ‘Jack-o’-lanterns’ of all shapes and sizes. From turnips, swedes and mangelwurzels, today the ‘tradition’ of easier-to-carve pumpkins has become a popular part of Halloween craft.
Once the pumpkin top has been removed and the soft flesh scooped out (which may be turned into warming soup or a filling for pies and tarts), a monstrous face is typically carved and illuminated by a candle from within. Grotesque fruits up to a record-breaking 666.32kg (1469lb) have been shaped (often using powered hand tools), with more attractive designs a far cry from the familiar snag-toothed ghouls, looking intricately beautiful as candleholders and nighttime lanterns.
Scribe with special hand or craft tools, leaving deep v-shape groves using a "pushing and holding back" motion, ensuring that the etching is controlled. Once finished, to preserve your carving, submerge the pumpkin periodically in cold water to revive it, ensuring your handiwork lasts in glowing perfect condition for well over a week.
IN THE GARDEN THIS WEEK…
? Home fires, wood smoke, stored apples and golden autumn sunlight…everything in the garden is now about preserving and shutting down for the winter; with foliage aglow from low slanting sunshine and the warmth of buttery shades.
? Mark the changing seasons with a display of berrying shrubs, turning leaf colours, polished stems and glossy evergreen foliage grouped close to the back door.
? Arrange on rustic tables, staging or benches to appreciate the fruits and foliage of misty autumnal forays and collected woodland finds.
? Incorporate natural materials and rich-textured fabrics into your decorating schemes. Use fiery shades to celebrate the season and bring warmth into your home.