Late October and the gardener’s mind turns to pumpkins, especially when they have children who are hoping for a jack o’ lantern ready for Hallowe’en fun. Although it’s too late to grow your own for this year, it’s a good time to think about whether you could grow them for next year. They’re a fairly easy crop to grow and are tasty to eat, so worth growing regardless of Hallowe’en.
We grow 3 or 4 different varieties of pumpkin on the allotment for colour and size. They have space there to roam and they’re interplanted with other crops, in the Three Sisters system (see below) and with other companion planting. Growing pumpkins need not take up acres of your garden; they will wind their way along the ground between other plants both edible and ornamental. Smaller trailing varieties can be grown vertically on trellis, sweet dumpling for example. If vertical growing isn’t possible, then there are also bush varieties, which take up less space on the ground than trailing; neon is a vibrant medium sized orange one.
Pumpkins are members of the squash family, part of the larger cucurbit family which also includes cucumbers. All the squash are fruit not vegetables, and flesh, seeds and flowers are all edible. They’ve been eaten for centuries; 5,000 year old squash seeds have been found in Mexico; and squash can be grown in all the continents except for Antarctica. Pumpkins are a winter squash, the skins allowed to harden so they keep over winter. Summer squashes include courgettes and have soft edible skins; these don’t keep as well.
Both the North and South American Indians grew a lot of squashes; they had a cropping system called ‘three sisters’ where they grew squashes, beans and corn together for the benefits each gave to the others whilst growing. According to Iroquois legend, the three sisters, or plants, were gifted by the Sky Woman’s daughter, and gave agriculture to people.
This interplanting method of agriculture has known benefits. The maize provides support for the beans; the squash acts as a ground cover to reduce weeds and keep moisture in the soil; the beans provide nitrogen for the other two crops. The companion planting rather than pursuing a monoculture, or one species only, system also improves the condition of the soil by increasing beneficial mycorrhiza which encourages a symbiotic relationship between the plants roots and the surrounding soil.
Pumpkins have other uses too. For example, they’re supposed to be good for reducing freckles. There is some doubt about this; some sources say it’s because pumpkin juice was used for eczema and freckles were confused with or thought to be linked to eczema. Other hold that because being outdoors in the warm harvest weather increased freckles and post harvest – when inside and eating pumpkins of course – freckles decreased and so the two things were linked.
However, it is worth noting that pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil contain vitamin E, which is good for the skin. Along with the fatty acids contained in the seeds they are likely to improve certain skin conditions; and if you don’t fancy smearing pumpkin seed oil on your face, you could just eat the seeds as a snack or cook with the oil.
More on pumpkins and Hallowe’en soon…