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.

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?!

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.

Huh? Gardening Terminology

I thought I should add some further information on certain words I use that might be lost to some. Therefore, I introduce the beginning of ‘Garden Terminology’.

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Mulch – material, such as decayed leaves or tree bark, that is spread around a plant or over a seed bed to both enrich and insulate the soil/plant. Mulching provides the plants with nutrients, helps to retain the water for the plant in the soil and visibly improves the garden soil in general. Wherever we mulched last year, the soil in that area is a hundred times better in comparison to a place we did not mulch. For gardeners working on sandy soil, this is a very good way of improving the condition of your soil.

We dig up our mulch from underneath the pine trees in our woodland area next door to the vegetable patch or in the woodland that the pigs roam in. It is good, brown, broken down materials, mostly leaves, bark and pine needles, occasionally some bracken too. We dig it up, remove any unwanted insects or roots and carry it in our wheelbarrows, distributing it generously over the garden. It is time-consuming work but worth the effort. We use mulch to cover paths as a form of weed control. The mulch is very good and suppressing the growth of weeds in both plant beds and on the paths. Plus, it looks actually very pretty as the colour is so rich and dark.

Catch-crop – a crop grown in the space between two main crops at a time. For example, I have sown this year radishes between my latest planting of purple sprouting broccoli. I have planted spinach between peas in one trench and chervil in another. Lettuce has been squeezed in between cabbages and asparagus, more radishes and spinach between brussels sprouts and brukale etc.

Using the catch-crop technique gives on a chance to squeeze in more varieties of vegetables in their patch, especially if they are short of space. The idea is to sow things that are small and temporary, making radishes ideal as well as lettuce and spinach as they bolt quickly. Be wary of the term companion planting before trying this technique.

Companion planting – the close planting of different plants that enhance each other’s growth or protect each other from pests. For example, poached egg plants sown near courgettes encourage beneficial insects to the pollinate the flowers. Summer savory attracts beneficial insects to eat the aphids that love broad beans. Garlic is supposed to deter carrot fly (as well as spring onions, leeks and sage) and the flea beetle that will put holes in your brassicas. French marigolds deter white fly from tomatoes. Nasturtium flowers are supposed to be a magnet for cabbage whites to draw them away from cabbages.

The term companion plating can also be applied for growing vegetables alongside each other. For example, the ‘Three Sisters’: pumpkins, corn and climbing beans are an example of companion planting, sowing them close together in the same patch. Beans provide shade for crops, like spinach, who in turn provide magnesium when their leaves break down into the soil. Tomatoes are said to protect asparagus from asparagus beetle (if you can grow them successfully outside without harboring blight). However, one needs to be wary of what plants dislike about each other. For example, cucumbers grow poorly around potatoes and sage (if grown outdoors), beetroot will compete with runner beans for growth too much and will struggle, the same with pumpkins and potatoes, both heavy feeders. Tomatoes attract pests to corn rather than repel them and dill and cilantro cross-pollinate when grown together. Read up carefully about ‘what-likes-what’ when companion planting.

The great thing about companion planting both flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables is that it means you can fit in more types of plants in your vegetable garden than if you restrict your beds to one type of seed. It might look more tidily organised if you do this but the production will be far more impressive if you adopt the ‘mix and match’ approach.

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Manure – animal dung used for fertilizing the land. Horse manure is the most popular form of manure as it is rich in nitrogen. People generally use manure from animals that have a grass-fed diet, meaning horses, cattle and sheep, rather than poultry, cats or pigs, unless they are grazers. As a homegrower, it is up to you what you use but if you ever consider selling commercially, be careful what you choose to use as some get obsessed by the hygiene and risks of illnesses from using other manure from non-grass fed livestock. There has always been debates about using manure but almost any gardener will tell you that it is a good idea. The first time I used horse manure from a friend to feed the crops I was terrified that it was not rotted enough and would kill the plants. Instead, they flourished and I have used it generously ever since. I even dig some in to the patches where I plant root crops, like carrots and beetroot that are said to dislike it but it really does make all the difference and improves the germination, growth, size and flavor of the vegetables. Vegetables that feed us need as much feeding themselves to grow up big and strong. John Collis, ‘The Worm Forgives the Plough’ writer describes manure at its best: ‘I take large spadefuls of the stuff, like great slabs of chocolate cake, and throw them into the cart’.

‘It starts with the grass and the roots and the corn upon which stock feed. These things are burned in the furnaces of their stomachs.’

It is then treated by ‘whole empires of creatures visible only under the microscope, called bacteria’. They break down complex substances. ‘Farmyard manure consists of excreta, urine, and the litter of the stable. The first movement in the bacterial symphony is the destruction of the litter and its conversion into a dark brown moist substance, hummus.’ Manure contains a great number of carbon compounds. The bacteria ‘splits the ammonia from the protein’ in nitrogen before converting it into nitrate and then changing it into a soluble form of calcium nitrate. A pile of manure should be left to rot for at least 6 months before being used. Once can increase the speed of rotting by turning it over with a fork (like one does to compost) and covering it with a tarpaulin to increase the heat for the bacteria to work in and to keep extra rain out that will slow it down. You will be able to tell when the manure has rotted enough for use as it will no longer smell strongly and will have broken down into a crumbly substance instead of being sticky.

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Blood, Fish and Bone – a slow release fertilizer. It feeds and strengthens the plant as well as improving the soil. When I ‘update’ my plants, I first of all weed around them, then I sprinkle a small layer of BFB (Blood, Fish and Bone)  around them, put a layer of manure on top followed by mulch to hold the nutrients for the plants for longer and to suppress the weed growth. Unfortunately, feeding the soil around the plants does increase the production of weeds as you are ultimately feeding them at the same time, hence why weeding before feeding is so important. BFB is strong-smelling stuff that comes mostly in grain form when purchased from your local garden centre. It does attract animals, cats and slugs alike, so do not be tempted to leave it on top of the ground without covering it with manure and/or mulch to deter the pests. Cats have dug up places where I BFB before but seem to not be interested wherever I lay down manure. Slugs will be more attracted to manure so set up the slug defenses after feeding immediately.

Liquid feeds – solutions that contain a combination of required major nutrients to boost the growth and health of a plant. Homemade liquid feeds include comfrey feed and nettle feed, as a couple of examples. Tomorite is probably the most popular shop bough feed used to feed tomatoes including an extract of seaweed. We have started making and using our own liquid feeds this year, comfrey and nettle. I will be discussing the process of making these homemade feeds in another post.

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Garden 2015 – Wheelbarrow of mulch ready for spreading