Pumpkins, courgettes, marrows and the increasingly popular winter squash offer a rainbow of colours to the garden and culinary delights to the kitchen. They are easy to grow and can be used as ground cover or as climbers, and range in all manner of size, so there’s one for every garden. Courgettes are relatively expensive to buy because their thin skins make them hard to transport. A single plant produces 20 or more fruits, so you can see why they are such a popular vegetable to grow at home or in the allotment.
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Large-fruited pumpkins and winter squashes need more space than courgettes, so are best planted in bigger gardens and allotments, where their large leaf canopies can be used to out-compete weeds. Courgettes and marrows are essentially the same thing, except courgettes are picked young, no bigger than the length of your thumb for the best flavour; whereas marrows are left to grow fat. Unless marrows are your thing, I’d just grow ordinary courgettes and let a few grow into marrows at the end of the season. Productivity slows down hugely once the marrows appear.
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Marrows and pumpkins will store for several months. Winter squash can easily be stored for four months or more without affecting its quality, so it’s possible to have year-round supplies. Below you’ll find advice on sowing, planting, storing and growing pumpkins. Plus our favourite pumpkin, squash and courgettes to grow in the garden.
How to grow pumpkins, courgettes and winter squash
When to start growing pumpkins
Sowing pumpkin seeds
Squash, pumpkin and courgette seed germinates at around 13-15ºC and it’s best to do this indoors. Plant in 9cm pots, a pair of seeds in each. Once they have germinated, thin out the weakest of the two. In general it’s best to sow roughly a month before the last frost but in practice, if your seedlings fail or get nibbled, you can sow as late as the end of May.
When it comes to growing pumpkins and squashes, you’ll need to harden-off indoor-raised seedlings before planting out. Winter squash and pumpkins are particularly susceptible to cold weather and may need to be covered with cloches in the beginning. Plant your pumpkins out when you have at least two or three true leaves. Courgettes and summer squashes should be planted out 90cm apart. Smaller winter squash and pumpkin cultivars should be planted out 1.5m apart and large ones at 2m-2.5m apart. They can be planted closer if you train the trailing types either up a short fence or trellis, or around themselves in a spiral. These will need to be tied or pegged down. Place a cane at the centre of the plant so you know where to water.
Caring for your pumpkins
It’s important to ‘stop’ trailing winter squash and pumpkins so that they concentrate their energy into two or three fruit per plant (perhaps four or smaller cultivars). This means pinching out the growing tip when you have the desired amount of fruit and removing any subsequent flowers or fruit. You can also remove any side shoot that appears beyond the fruit, to concentrate growth.
Pumpkins, winter squash and marrows need full sun to ripen their skins. Near the end of the season it may help to remove leaves that are shading plants. Rotate fruits gently so all sides have some sun. You can sit fruits on top of upturned plates or straw to dry the bottoms out. You can also make your own natural supports.
Harvesting and storing pumpkins
Harvest squashes and pumpkins with a bit of stalk on either side of the cut, or rot may set in. Don’t carry the fruit by its stalk as this can damage it, also leading to rot. Marrows, winter squash and pumpkins need to be stored somewhere warm to cure for several weeks. This improves flavour and prolongs storage. Marrows and pumpkins can go in a warm greenhouse or garage. For winter squashes the initial storage temperature needs to be 27-30ºC for 7-13 days; they should then spend a month at 7-10ºC. Eat a just-picked kabocha (cucurbita maxima Kabocha Group) and it will taste of little; cured, it will taste divine. Winter squash and pumpkins can be baked, roasted, stir-fried, used in soups, sweet pies, bread and biscuits. Marrows, courgettes, pumpkins and squash can all be used to make jams and pickles.
Which pumpkins to plant
Our favourite cultivars for growing pumpkins and a delicious and colourful harvest
- ‘Patty Pan’ has flying-saucer shaped fruit that can be eaten small and tender or allowed to grow larger for cooking. Bush-forming habit.
- ‘Sunburst’ F1 is a yellow skinned ‘Patty Pan’ type that is very high yielding, and has a good flavour. This is one for the ornamental vegetable garden.
- ‘Vegetable Spaghetti’ has the most extraordinary flesh that when cooked whole and scooped out looks just like spaghetti. Trailing habit in full sun. Harvest fruits when they are 20cm long. Don’t expect a huge yield.
- ‘Harrier’ F1 is a butternut squash bred for our climate. Sweet flavour to its flesh, stores well and can be ready in just over three months.
- ‘Uchiki Kuri’ is an onion-shaped squash, with fantastic flavour and brilliant, bright orange skin and flesh. It matures late in the season, but stores very well. It’s a kabocha-type squash (Curcurbita maxima Kabocha Group), which originated in cultivation in Japan having been introduced there from America as early as 1540.
- ‘Crown Prince’ is another kabocha squash, with steely blue skin and bright orange flesh. It’s hard to beat the flavour of this one, and it has exceptional storage qualities.
- ‘Berrettina Piacentina’ is a beautiful winter squash with knobbly, steel-grey green skin and deep-orange flesh. It has a fantastic flavour and good storage qualities.
- ‘Invincible’ is an improved version of ‘Crown Prince’.
- ‘Turk’s Turban’ has distinctively shaped fruits with green, white and orange stripes. It’s particularly good for stuffing and cooking whole (and can even be used as a soup terrine).
- ‘Baby Bear’ is small, weighing 500g to 1kg, and perfect for soups and pies. The seeds are semi-hull less, so can be toasted for snacks.
- ‘Atlantic Giant’ (also known as ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’) is for those who want to break records. Apparently this kind of pumpkin can reach a weight of up to 780kg (see www.howarddill.com).
- ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is the best for carving at Halloween, with good orange flesh and a decent size – between 5kg and 7kg.
- ‘Defender’ F1 good for organic growers – it resists disease and fruits early.
- ‘Verde di Milano’ is a small bush-forming courgette ideal for small gardens. It can even be grown in a large pot. It has dark green, straight fruit.
- ‘Tondo Chairo di Nizza’ is a spherical courgette. It should be picked when it is roughly golf-ball sized, and can be stuffed. It has a trailing habit and can be made to climb. It needs space though.
- ‘Jemma’ F1 has yellow fruit that look great but don’t taste hugely exciting. It’s prolific, though, and good for picking.
- ‘Rugose Friulana’ is the ugliest courgette available. It has butter-yellow skin and lots of warty-looking bumps, but tastes divine. It’s slightly firmer than normal courgettes, so it’s well suited to cooking.
Thompson & Morgan have a good range of pumpkins and squash including some of the cultivars mentioned by Alys here.