Sunday gardening: Record smashing pumpkins

By Meg Liptrot

This weekend is perfect for sowing a prize giant, says Meg Liptrot.

Pumpkins and their 'relatives' come in numerous varieties. They're easy to grow, and store well through winter. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Pumpkins and their 'relatives' come in numerous varieties. They're easy to grow, and store well through winter. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Labour Weekend is traditionally the time to plant tomato seedlings, and it's also a great time to plant all those summer-lovin' plants. The soil has warmed, moisture levels are good and the life force in the garden is bursting forth.

In the Northern Hemisphere, spring is the time to celebrate Easter. Instead, we are following the seasonal celebrations of that side of the world and Halloween is on the cards this week, with little devils, goblins and witches trick-or-treating down the street.

Here's an idea to combine two festivals, featuring the symbol of Halloween, the pumpkin, but imbued with the meaning of Easter and spring - new life. Get the kids planting pumpkin seeds.

They'll learn to nurture and care for something and have fun doing it. Best of all, giant pumpkin competitions are popping up around the country. These are usually held in autumn (the traditional time for Halloween), but now is the time to get the seeds in the ground.

Mitre 10 is running a giant pumpkin contest, with prizes and a competition around Easter in April. Only one pumpkin can win the prize for size, but there are other fun categories.

I couldn't get over the size of pumpkins at the Easter Show. I watched a kid try to climb up the biggest pumpkin and adults were leaning on it to have their photos taken. The world record for the largest pumpkin is 921.6kg. Growing a pumpkin anywhere near this size is quite an endeavour and needs serious planning.

There are many pumpkin types, but to get a giant you need to grow the variety "Atlantic Giant". The amount of fertiliser and water that goes into one of these monsters is not for the fainthearted. Some dedicated growers set up tailored liquid fertilisers, drip irrigation and erect shelters over their pumpkin to prevent scorching by the sun.

Despite all this effort, most giant pumpkins end up as stock food as they are quite flavourless, which seems a waste. A tastier pumpkin this size could be used for soup at the City Mission, thrown in a hangi at a school gala, or even to feed one's neighbours. Pumpkins are easy to grow, store for many months and are good sources of vitamin A through winter.

There are plenty of flavoursome, good looking alternatives to giants. Some varieties have the charming appeal of a still-life painting, such as the heritage pumpkin "Marina di Chioggia". Kids will love other varieties such as "Wee Be Little", whose small fruit are the size of a cricket ball, or "Spookie", which is the perfect shape for carving out a Jack o' Lantern. Other pumpkin types are grown specifically for their nutritious oily seed, such as the variety "Austrian Oil Seed".

Our environment centre is giving the giant pumpkin challenge a go this year and will do it without conventional fertilisers. We don't have access to farmyard manure to get it cranking, but we do have ample food-waste. One of my colleagues is involved in a waste reduction scheme for New Lynn Night Markets. She has set up an oversize bokashi system to deal with the cooked food scraps. The finished fermented product is dug into trenches in our community garden allotments then covered with soil. One of the trenches has been filled and dug in for a month, so it is ready to go. On top we will sow the seed for a monster pumpkin.

Pumpkins are heavy feeders and, at the very least, should be planted in soil with plenty of rich home-made compost incorporated (which has more nutrients than store-bought). Add a thick layer of mulch around the plant to keep the soil moist in summer. Plant somewhere in your garden that has damp soil and gets a little shade, rather than in a hot, dry spot.

Larger pumpkin varieties do take up a lot of room. They can be planted around the outskirts of your garden so they don't take over. It is best to move the vine's long tentacles into position early on, to avoid accidentally snapping the fragile stem when trying to move it with heavy pumpkins attached.

Pumpkin growing is fun and rewarding for all ages. The kids will certainly enjoy seeing the little seed they planted in spring turn into a big vine and pumpkins in late summer - whatever their final size.

- Herald on Sunday

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