Weekend Project

Justin Newcombe's tips on outdoor DIY projects

Weekend project: Cucurbit enthusiasm

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Even a small garden can include cucurbits - if you keep them under control. Raise the stakes, says Justin Newcombe.

Tripods are a sensible way to make garden space available for prolific spreaders like cucurbits. Photo / David White
Tripods are a sensible way to make garden space available for prolific spreaders like cucurbits. Photo / David White

One of the biggest problems most gardeners face is space. It's not about finding just any old space, it is finding viable space, sunny, well-protected space. In most instances that's also the kind of space we want to use for a patio for humans, who also like sunny, well-protected space - so your garden is space-challenged to start with. Then once we start reducing that space even more by adding a few other important amenities like a lawn and a clothesline, it soon becomes clear available, viable garden space is a rare and precious thing indeed.

It is with viable space in mind that I start looking at a particularly space-hungry crop, the cucurbit family. Cucurbits, as I'm sure you will know, include a large range of vine-dwelling fruits that extend from rock melon to cucumber, squash, pumpkin, courgettes and marrows. Cucurbits are prolific spreaders with vigorous, water and sun-hungry vines which will take over vast areas if they are let go. So some cunning ideas are required to keep them under control in a small garden.

The answer lies in the space above your garden. First option to try is large bamboo stakes set up in tall tripods. These are ideal for smaller-fruiting cucurbits like gherkins, and crystal apple or mini white cucumbers. The tripods can be set up in rows and then under-planted with celery, lettuce or conehead cabbage which are all relatively fast growing.

Try different varieties of your favourite fruit. Space master, for example, is a good cucumber option for the space-deprived as the vine requires only one third the space of a regular cucumber while still yielding plenty of fruit. It is ideal for container gardening, too.

Sunbeam squash are another small cucurbit which will do well on bamboo poles. But for the slightly larger squash like white ace, mardigras and table gold which are popular, sweet tasting autumn fruiting vines, an upgrade to trellis or more sturdy bean frame might be in order. Larger fruiting vines will need more training and tying but are worth it: the sturdier frames can hold much larger fruit like golden health, Hubbard golden delicious and the very good eating Chicago warted. And of course let's not forget the butternut.

For a breakfast option rock melons are a cucurbit must. The melon "collective farm woman" surely leads nominations for best name. The fruit is good eating too and best of all, fast growing. Try other melons such as cantaloupe, venice, and the classic charentais which is popular in Europe.

Small pumpkins like baby bear and jack-be-little can be grown on trellis or bean frames.

Again, once we start getting into the bigger varieties the fence becomes the best option besides the ground. At this point I should say the ground can still be used effectively if you keep your pumpkin in check and grow it under corn in long rows. It helps the corn by shading the ground and effectively doubles the yield of the area you've planted. I'm amazed at how tough a pumpkin vine actually is. It can be trained up a fence or over a shed and the pumpkin will hold on to the vine right through until full maturity.

Remember the vines will need a lot of support and regular care but a good storing variety like Queensland blue or the more common ironbark are well worth the effort.

- NZ Herald

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