It’s time to celebrate the humble pumpkin this month! You may think of a bright, orange pumpkin as little more than the traditional decoration for Halloween but think again: it is also an incredibly nutritious food which can be used in everything from soup and salads to desserts and pies.
The name pumpkin comes from the Greek word ‘pepon’, meaning ‘large melon’. Pumpkins are fruits, not vegetables as they have seeds on the inside. The plant is a vine and it winds its way across surfaces in a similar way to other members of the cururbitaceae family like cucumbers, squashes and cantaloupe melons. These plants are native to North America but grow in many climates.
Pumpkins are low in calories and yet they are packed full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They contain no saturated fats or cholesterol but are a rich source of dietary fibre. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of dietary fibre and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which are good for cardiac health. You can eat the flesh from inside the pumpkin as well as the seeds, leaves and flowers, making it a crop which will more than cover the return you put in for growing it.
Pumpkins are so versatile as they can be baked, roasted, steamed or boiled. Try pumpkin in a soup with butternut squash for a warming Halloween treat. The flesh can also be cut into chunks and roasted or steamed and then used in salads or as a side vegetable.
For using pumpkin seeds, scoop them out, wash them and set them aside to dry first. Then simply sprinkle the seeds with a little oil and salt and pepper if desired, and roast. You can then eat them as a snack or use them to garnish salads or soups.
Grow Your Own
If you fancy growing your own pumpkin next year, here are the top ten things you need to know:
- Pumpkins will be ready to harvest from around 12 to 20 weeks after sowing depending on the variety you choose so work backwards from Halloween to choose the right time to sow your seeds.
- Pumpkins need a lot of sunshine and protection from high winds so it is best to choose a warm, sheltered spot in your garden for growing them.
- They prefer very rich soil that is well-drained and not too soggy.
- You need to allow plenty of space for the pumpkins to grow as they grow along trailing vines. Alternatively, you could erect some form of trellis or sturdy support and train them to grow upwards rather than outwards.
- Add a mulch around your pumpkins to keep in moisture, suppress weeds and discourage pests.
- Bees are essential for pollination, so be mindful when using insecticides to kill pests.
- Pumpkins need a lot of water to produce a good crop so do make sure to stay on top of regular watering. Water deeply, especially during fruit set. Water in the evening and water only the base of the plant so that the leaves stay dry to reduce the risk of disease.
- Generally pumping vines do not need to be pruned: big leaves help them produce more carbohydrates which in turns means more pumpkins. Some growers will thin their plants to one or two fruits in order to grow giant prize pumpkins but it is not necessary unless you are growing to show.
- Pumpkins do their growing at night time; some will expand five inches in circumference every night.
- Pumpkins are not hardy which means they won’t survive outdoors over a Scottish winter. Be sure to pick your pumpkins before the first frosts of autumn.
- To harvest the pumpkin, cut the fruit off the vine carefully with a sharp knife, do not tear it away from the vine. Don’t cut too close to the pumpkin, if you leave around 3-4 inches of stem it will help to increase the storage life of the pumpkin.
Think about planting some pumpkins for next year: your children or grandchildren will love watching them grow before they carve them out and you will benefit from the super nutrition provided by the humble pumpkin. To really make it fun, inscribe messages on growing pumpkins with a large nail. The letters will scar over while the pumpkins grow and will still be visible at harvest making your children or grandchildren feel wonder about where they came from!
Once Halloween has passed and you have finished with your pumpkin carving, take it to the bottom of your garden and let the birds, hedgehogs and squirrels feed on it – they love pumpkin and you will be helping to feed your local wildlife.