Curing pumpkins

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Curing pumpkins involves hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least 3 months, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.

The fruit is harvested when it is uniformly orange and the rind is hard. Harvest the fruit by cutting it off the vine with a sharp knife or a pair of looping shears, leaving 3-6 inches of the stem attached to the fruit. This makes the fruit less likely to be attacked by fruit rot pathogens at the point of stem attachment.

Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find, after  brushing off any dirt or washing in soap and warm water, drying first. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan. This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then, once carefully flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom.

Pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. Keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection.

Once cured, store the pumpkins in cool, dry storage.

The pumpkins are coming…

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The pumpkins are turning orange – it must be autumn.

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We had a pretty good growth of pumpkins this year – at least one per plant. We’ve got about six in total off the top of my head.

I planted ‘Racer’ seeds indoors in tall yoghurt pots in April, I think… could have been May…

Anyway, they were planted outdoors into a very sunny patch during the heatwave. With regular feeds of rotted manure and blood fish and bone, they have flourished.

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We were really lucky that the heatwave kept back the powdery mildew this year (look at Powdery Mildew for more information and preventative treatment tips). This disease flourishes in warm but moist climates – so thank  you drought. It meant that the mildew that could attack as early as May or June stayed off until the last few days of August. Powdery mildew looks like this:

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To begin with, little spots of white mould form on the leaves. These quickly spread, covering the whole leaf and spreading to the stalks. The plant starts to turn brown. It shrivels and dies, sometimes taking the fruit with it. Very quickly you can end up with this:

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A dead plant.

I cut off two pumpkins yesterday from their dead plants to prevent the disease from spreading to the fruits themselves. Thank goodness they had already turned orange…

Next step is curing them…

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Pumpkin

A pumpkin is a cultivar of a squash plant, most commonly of Cucurbita pep, that is round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and deep yellow to orange colouration. The thick shell contains seeds and pulp. Some exceptionally large ones are derived from Cucurbita maxima. In NZ and Australia, the term pumpkin generally refers to the broader category called winter squash elsewhere.

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Native to North America pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the US although commercially canned pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie fillings are usually made from different kinds of winter squash than the pumpkins frequently carved as for decoration at Halloween. Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence of pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BC was found in Mexico. Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often-used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly, and angular (with an approximate five-degree angle) than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded and more flared where joined to the fruit. Pumpkin fruits are a type of botanical berry known as a pepo. The word pumpkin originates from the word pepon which is Greek for “large melon”, something round and large. The French adapted this word to pompon, which the British changed to pumpion and to the later American colonists became known as pumpkin. Traditional C. pepo pumpkins generally weigh between 3 and 8kg (6 and 18 lb), though the largest cultivars, C. maxima, regularly reach weights of over 34 kg (75 lb). The color of pumpkins derives from orange carotenoid pigments, including beta-carotene found in carrots, provitamin B compounds converted to vitamin A in the body.

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop that are usually planted in early July. The specific conditions necessary for growing pumpkins require that soil temperatures 8cm (3 in) deep are at least 15.5C (60F) and soil that holds water well. Pumpkin crops suffer if there is a lack of water or because of cold temperatures and sandy soil with poor water retention or poorly drained soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain. Pumpkins are, however, rather hardy, and even if many leaves and portions of the vine are removed or damaged, the plant can very quickly re-grow secondary vines to replace what was removed. The thing I most fear for our pumpkins is powdery mildew – Powdery Mildew

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A courgette with powdery mildew – the white spots that grow on the leaves before the plant shrivels and dies.

Pumpkins produce both a male and female flower. Bees play a significant role in the fertilisation of the flowers. Pumpkins have historically been pollinated by the native squash bee, Peponapis pruinosa, but this bee has declined, probably at least in part to pesticide sensitivity. Today most commercial plantings are pollinated by honeybees. One hive per acre (4,000 m2 per hive, or 5 hives per 2 hectares) is recommended by the US Dept. of Agriculture. If there are inadequate bees for pollination, gardeners often have to hand pollinate – inadequately pollinated pumpkins usually start growing but abort before full development.

To grow pumpkins, plant one seed in a tall yoghurt container filled with good compost, puncture a hole in the bottom of the pot to allow water to drain through, in April. Plant 1.5cm, 1/2 inch, deep (deep as your thumb) and firm the soil over the top. Keep well watered and put on a warm, sunny windowsill in your house. Take it off the windowsill at night to keep it warm. Transplant outdoors in May or when the frosts are over, spacing 1.2m (4’) apart. Keep moist and well fed – I feed mine lots of manure throughout the season because of my sandy soil that leaks away the nutrients – pumpkins are hungry plants. To prevent the fruit from rotting, gently lift from the ground and place a brick or large stone underneath them. Careful not to damage the stem. Harvest once they are turning orange all over, September – November and before the first frosts. The most obvious clue is to look at the stem as if it has died off and turned hard you know that the fruits are ready. Other ways of telling that the moment of truth has arrived is to slap the fruit (it should sound hollow) and to push your thumbnail into the skin, which should dent but not puncture. Cut the stalks a good 4 inches from where it joins the fruit. Wash the fruit with soapy water containing one part of chlorine bleach to ten parts of water to remove the soil and kill the pathogens on the surface of the fruit. Make sure the fruits are well dried. Then you need to cure it. Curing involves the hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least three months, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.  Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find having first brushed off any dirt. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan! This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then once carefully flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom. Pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. Keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection.

The best pumpkin variety I’ve tried so far are ‘Racer’.

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The practice of carving pumpkins for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips. Not until 1837, does jack-o’-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is first recorded in 1866. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities to encourage families to join together to make their own jack-o’-lanterns. Association of pumpkins with harvest time and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving reinforce its iconic role. Pumpkin chunking is a competitive activity in which teams build various mechanical devices designed to throw a pumpkin as far as possible. Catapults and air cannons are some of the common mechanisms. Some pumpkin chunkers breed and grow special varieties of pumpkin under specialized conditions to improve the pumpkin’s chances of surviving a throw.

Pumpkin seeds, leaves, and juices all pack a nutritional punch. Pumpkin has a range of health benefits, including being one of the best-known sources of beta-carotene and are a good source of fibre -one cup of cooked pumpkin is 2.7kg of fibre. Pumpkins have been found to reduce blood pressure, reduce risk of cancer, combats diabetes and supports your immune system.

Here are some yummy pumpkin recipes and ideas to get you started:

You can simply roast them at 180C in the oven covered in olive oil for 45 minutes. You can use them in soups, stews. Grate them up and add them to any casserole or bolognese, stir fry etc. Make pumpkin pie, try inventing a new dip…

Pumpkin Coconut Curry

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What to do with left over pumpkin? – make pumpkin seeds taste like popcorn

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Happy Halloween! Recipe Flashbacks – pumpkin cake anyone?!

Mushrooms

Unless you know your mushrooms well, it is difficult and dangerous to forage for them. I heard a story about someone who put a poisonous one in the basket alongside all of the edible ones before realising their mistake and removing it. She and her partner ended up in hospital with severe poisoning after eating the edible ones that had touched the poisonous one.

However, there is a simpler way of harvesting them if you are a scardy-cat like me. You can buy your own mushroom kits.

Mushrooms are the fleshy and edible bodies of several species of microfungi – fungi which bear fruiting structures that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

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Potato and Mushroom recipe – coming soon…

Identifying mushrooms requires a basic understanding of their macroscopic structure. Most are basidiomycetes and gilled. Their spores are produced on the gills and fall in a fine rain of powder from under the caps. At the microscopic level the spores are fired off and they fall between the gills in the dead air space. As a result, for most mushrooms, if the cap is cut off and placed gill-side-down overnight, a powdery impression reflecting the shape of the gills is formed. The color of the powdery print, called a spore print, is used to help classify mushrooms and can help to identify them. Spore print colors include white (most common), brown, black, purple-brown, pink, yellow, and creamy. While modern identification of mushrooms is quickly becoming molecular, the standard methods for identification are still used by most and have developed into a fine art harking back to medieval times and the Victorians, combined with microscopic examination. The presence of juices upon breaking, bruising reactions, odors, tastes, shades of color, habitat, habit, and season all have to be considered.

Mycophagy, the act of consuming mushrooms, dates back to ancient times. Edible mushroom species have been found in association with 13,000-year-old archaeological sites in Chile but the first reliable evidence of mushroom consumption dates to several hundred years ago in China. The Chinese value mushrooms for medicinal properties as well as for food. Romans and Greeks used mushrooms for culinary purposes. Food tasters were employed by Roman emperors to ensure that mushrooms were safe to eat.

The terms “mushroom” and “toadstool” go back centuries and were never precisely defined. Between 1400 and 1600 AD, the terms mushrom, mushrum, muscheron, mousheroms, mussheron, or musserouns were used. Mushroom and its variations may have been derived from the French word mousseron in reference to moss (mousse). Yet difference between edible and poisonous fungi is not clear-cut, so a “mushroom” may be edible, poisonous, or unpalatable. Cultural or social phobias of mushrooms and fungi may be related. The term “fungophobia” was coined by William Delisle Hay who noted a national fear of “toadstools”. The word “toadstool” has apparent analogies in Dutch padde(n)stoel (toad-stool/chair, mushroom) and German Krötenschwamm (toad-fungus, alternative word for panther cap). In German folklore, toads are often depicted sitting on toadstool mushrooms and catching, with their tongues, the flies that are said to be drawn to the Fliegenpilz, a German name for the toadstool, meaning “flies’ mushroom”. This is how the mushroom got another of its names, Krötenstuhl (a less-used German name for the mushroom), literally translating to “toad-stool”.

Many species of mushrooms seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. This phenomenon is the source of several common expressions including “to mushroom” or “mushrooming” (expanding rapidly in size or scope) and “to pop up like a mushroom” (to appear unexpectedly and quickly).

A mushroom develops from a nodule, or pinhead, less than 2mm in diameter, called a primordium, which is typically found on or near the surface of the substrate. It is formed within the mycelium. The primordium enlarges into a roundish structure of interwoven hyphae roughly resembling an egg, called a “button”. The button has a cottony roll of mycelium that surrounds the developing fruit body. As the egg expands, the mycelium ruptures and may remain as a cup at the base of the stalk or as warts or volval patches on the cap. Many mushrooms lack a universal veil, a mycelium, therefore they do not have either a volva or volval patches. Often, a second layer of tissue covers the blade like gills that bear spores. As the cap expands, the veil breaks, and remnants of the partial veil may remain as a ring around the middle of the stalk or as fragments hanging from the margin of the cap. All species of mushrooms take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though they do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.

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Mushrooms are great in stir fries

The cultivated mushrooms, or common field mushrooms, initially form a minute fruiting body, referred to as the pin stage because of their small size. Slightly expanded they are called buttons, once again because of the relative size and shape. Once such stages are formed, the mushroom can rapidly pull in water from its mycelium and expand, mainly by inflating preformed cells that took several days to form.

Many mushroom species produce secondary metabolites that can be toxic, mind-altering, antibiotic or antiviral. Although there are only a small number of deadly species, several others can cause particularly severe and unpleasant symptoms. Toxicity likely plays a role in protecting the function of the basidiocarp: the mycelium has expended considerable energy and protoplasmic material to develop a structure to efficiently distribute its spores. One defense against consumption and premature destruction is the evolution of chemicals that render the mushroom inedible, either causing the consumer to vomit the meal or to learn to avoid consumption altogether. In addition, due to the propensity of mushrooms to absorb heavy metals, including those that are radioactive, European mushrooms may, to date, include toxicity from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and continue to be studied.

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So far we have tried using Taylor’s mushroom growing kit. It hasn’t been great – so far we have one big, beautiful mushroom, and nothing else. But I’ve been doing my research and have looked up how to grow mushrooms indoors and outdoors, as well as including the Taylor instructions below…

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Taylor’s Grow Your Own mushroom kits…

  1. Empty the mushroom compost in the bottom of your lined box and lightly firm. Spread over the ‘Casing Layer’ (which has been moistened with half a litre of water) and lightly mix the two layers together leaving the surface rough.
  2. Rest the lid on top of the box at an angle and put in a warm place for about a week and a white fluffy mycelium should appear on the surface.
  3. Remove the lid and place in a cooler dark location, use a mist spray to keep the surface damp.
  4. Mushroom should begin to appear after about a week, pick them as small or as large as you like.

Indoor sowing information… 

You need 20kg (45lbs) of well rotted compost for 100g spawn. Make the compost from fresh, strawy horse manure, or straw supplemented with organic nitrogen. The best compost for mushrooms is horse manure. Make sure the compost is free of worms and invertebrates which will eat the spawn. The manure will be “clean” if composting temperatures are reached. A cellar, shed, cool greenhouse, shelter or even garden frame can be used. Beds should be about 25cms (10 ins.) deep, boxes 15-20cms (6-8 ins.) deep. Tightly pack with compost. It may heat up after packing so leave until the temperature is steady and no higher than 21C (69F). Scatter the spawn over the surface and mix in until it is about 2 to 3 ins deep Firm the surface again and cover with a damp newspaper to keep the compost dark and moist. The compost will become covered in white fungal threads in two to three weeks. When the compost is fully colonised (covered with white threads) remove the newspaper. Cover the compost with 2.5 cm (1 inch) of casing. Casing may be either 50% garden soil 50% peat plus 2 or 3 handfuls of lime per bucketful of casing, or 50% chalk and 50% peat. Peat free compost can also be used but add the chalk or lime. Before using the casing it should be thoroughly wetted and allowed to drain. Keep the casing layer evenly moist but not wet. Use a fine rose watering can or mist spray. Mushrooms will first appear as tiny pin points 3-5 weeks after casing. Air humidity must be kept high at this point (about 85%) to allow mushrooms to develop. They will grow in a flush approximately every 10 days. Pick by twisting the cap until the mushroom comes away and avoid damaging the small ones nearby.

For outdoors…

Sow from Spring to August. In grass areas lift 25 cm (10 ins) square turfs, 4 cm (1.5 ins) deep and about 60 cm (24 ins) apart. Loosen the underlying soil with a fork. Where no animal or garden compost has been added recently, or where the soil is poor add well rotted farm manure, garden or mushroom compost. Spread the mushroom spawn thinly over the soil and mix to a depth of 1 cm. Press the turf down firmly and moisten in dry weather. The soil below should not get saturated. A good dressing of humus – limed peat, rotten horse manure or old mushroom compost is recommended. Choose a lawn or pasture where the soil is rich, moist and contains plenty of fully decayed organic matter. In the garden it will thrive best in lawns which are not to acidic and therefore do not grow moss. Neglected lawns and around compost heaps are good sites. Growth will depend on the weather. Mushrooms grow best in warm damp conditions and once established they should continue to thrive if the weather is warm and the turf is kept moist. Growth produces patches of greener grass. Mushrooms grow best at an even temperature of about 16C(60F). They do not grow well below 10C(60F) or above 20C(68F).

Mushrooms are an excellent source of potassium, a mineral that helps lower elevated blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke. One medium portobello mushroom has even more potassium than a banana or a glass of orange juice. One serving of mushrooms also provides about 20 to 40% of the daily value of copper, a mineral that has cardioprotective properties. Mushrooms are a rich source of riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Male health professionals who consumed twice the recommended daily intake of selenium cut their risk of prostate cancer by 65 percent. In a Baltimore study, men with the lowest blood selenium levels were 4 to 5 times more likely to have prostate cancer compared to those with the highest selenium levels. One cup of raw onions equals 2.2g of protein which is pretty high for plants. Mushrooms are therefore very useful for vegetarian or vegan diets as a source of protein and vitamin B and D.

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Mushroom and Orach seeds

I’ve been using mushrooms more this year and have come round to liking them in a number of different dishes. They are a great replacement for chicken in casseroles, brilliant in stir fries (Garden Stir-Fry – the way to use up unwanted veg), I like them just fried in butter with rice and salad for a quick lunch, or fried with Orach seeds. They are a traditional side to egg and bacon, or just egg and toast. An addition to chicken pie. Mushroom risotto, addition to carbonara, raw in French salads with raw green beens and hard boiled eggs. Yet my favourite new-found-new-liked recipe is mushroom and cheese omelette – the best omelette around.

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Mushroom and Cheese Omelette

(Serves 1)

-2 eggs -100g grated cheddar cheese -3-4 button sized mushrooms, sliced thinly -Knob of butter, for frying -Salad, to serve

  1. Beat the eggs together in a large bowl, thoroughly otherwise the whites and yolks won’t mix properly to create that beautiful yellow colour.
  2. Mix in the grated cheddar and sliced mushrooms.
  3. Melt the butter in a frying pan, swirling it round to cover the entire surface. Tip in the contents of the bowl and swirl it over the surface of the pan too.
  4. Allow it to cook on one side for a couple of minutes. Then, using a scraper, gently lift up half of the omelette and flip it over the other half. This encourages the other side to cook whilst preventing you from tearing the omelette apart.
  5. Once the outside is starting to brown and the inside looked cooked (the cheese will be melted but you want the egg part to be cooked), flip the omelette onto a plate and serve alongside a salad or some crusty bread, rice or potatoes.

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Moving Compost

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We’ve actually got around to ‘turning’ a compost heap over.

That is quite and achievement here. We often fill compost heaps so high that we can’t possibly turn them over without creating a collapse similar if Everest gave way.

But we did it, in two hours in the rain. We kind of had to do it because, well, I needed more space for the onions and garlic. I’ve planted somewhere around 250 onions… we were given quite a few but it was good seeing as the cats have already dug some up…

But yes – back to composting – why do we ‘turn’ compost over? Why do we compost in the first place? Why not chuck it in one of those bins?

For shame.

Right, compost: organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as fertiliser and soil amendment. Compost is the KEY ingredient to organic farming. Despite the slug pellets, that is what we aim to do.

Have you ever read The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stemple? Do, its great.

You make your compost out of basically anything in the garden – that can be cut grass, leaves, old plants, some people choose not to include their weeds but I do because I like dumping them somewhere and feeling like I am recycling. You can also put your food waste in it. This might attract rodents, of course, but what about your tea bags, banana peels, veg scrapings? Those are all really good to rot down and so not worth giving to the bin man. You can put cardboard and paper on too – covering the heap with cardboard is a good way of helping it to rot down.

But why should I compost?

  1. Saves money – do you know how expensive compost is?
  2. Saves resources and reduces negative impacts on the environment by avoiding chemical fertilisers.
  3. Improves soil – it feeds it with a diversity of nutrients, improves soil drainage and increases soil stability.

Compost takes time. It can look messy. But it is so worth it for a gardner. It is an investment.

So, if you don’t know already, ‘turning over’ the compost bed is aerating it. It gives it a flush of oxygen that encourages the bacteria breaking it down not to remain sluggish. It therefore speeds up the process, sometimes by weeks.

To aerate your compost, fork or shovel the compost into a newly set up enclosure next door to it. It is that simple. If your pile isn’t as big as a mountain.

Leaf mould = homemade gold dust

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Earlier this year, we raked up some of our leaves and squashed them thickly into large bags, leaving them under a hedge. We looked at them last week and they had rotted down into leaf mulch.

Now, there are plenty of nutritious ways to feed your gardens, and of course you can buy most of them. But doesn’t making your own sound so much better? You never know what goes into the compost you are buying, but if you make your own it saves money and will be a hundred percent naturally made by you!

Back to nutritious feeding: leaf mulch is what Monty Don called ‘gold dust’. And here is why he is right:

Organic mulch improves soil fertility as it decomposes, reducing the need for fertilizers.  Mulches maintain soil moisture by reducing evaporation so less irrigation is needed from you. It inhibits weed germination and growth, reducing the need for herbicides.  It buffers soil temperatures keeping soils warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Mulching leaves simply recycles a natural resource.

This is the time of year for making your next supply. We use large bags that were once used for animal foods, similar to compost bags one can buy from the garden centre, but slightly tougher.

Word of caution: avoid “volcano mulching”, when mulch is piled against the base of a tree, it holds moisture, encouraging rot in the trunk.

Forget the leaf blower and bonfire, grab your rake and a large bag and get to storing some of that nutritious leaf mulch for your veg patch!

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