Sue Adams has lived in SW France for 15 years and is developing a small field into a garden with orchard, vegetable and soft fruit garden, flower beds, dry garden and a wildlife haven. It’s still a work in progress.
In this article she looks at a season of mellow fruitfulness with all kinds of pumpkins.
I love September and October. The heat and activity of August is behind you, the “rentrée” is over and the pace of life settles down. In the vineyards which surround our house and garden activity is steady and we are woken early each morning to the familiar whine of the harvesting machinery or to the voices of workers picking the grapes by hand. Towards the end of October the vines themselves turn a mellow gold and copper.
In our vegetable garden it is time for the annual pumpkin harvest. This year a little spice has been added because my husband gave our children some Atlantic Giant seeds as part of their Christmas present and challenged them to a competition to find who could grow the biggest. As I write this, the results are still to be decided.
There are, literally, all kinds of pumpkins – some of which you would least expect to find in their Cucurbitaceae family – a versatile plant family of almost 1,000 different species. The best known are pumpkins and squashes, ornamental gourds (which are not edible), calabashes, cucumbers, watermelons and melons and even the bathroom loofa. They are grown across the world in temperate and tropical climates and are an important foodstuff.
Throughout the summer we may enjoy melons, cucumbers and courgettes, but it is in the autumn that pumpkins and squashes come into their own. Not only are they delicious and attractive as ornaments, but if cured correctly they will store for months. To preserve one for winter use leave it on the plant until the skin is hard. As it ages balance it on a roofing tile to keep it dry. Once you have picked it, leave it in the sun until the skin is tough before storing it somewhere cool.
The autumn is an ideal time for trying different varieties out – go to a traditional French market and you can buy segments of large pumpkins or entire, small pumpkins and squashes. Try cooking them and if you like them take a note of the name and buy some seeds because they are very easy to grow at home. All they need is a lot of space, some very nutritious soil and plenty of warmth and water.
It is a good idea to buy new seeds even though there may be lots of big, healthy seeds in the slice of pumpkin you brought home from the market. This is because cucurbits can be very promiscuous, and your seeds may be a cross between the example you like so much and a less attractive neighbour. The result could even be mildly poisonous if it crossed with an ornamental gourd.
These are the pumpkins we have found work well, through a lengthy process of trial and error:
If you want a whopper, then go for Atlantic Giant. You can still eat the flesh, but it is a bit bland. The average Atlantic Giant grows to a weight of around 300lbs and they have been known to reach over 2000lbs.
I think the best pumpkin for taste is a “potimarron”. Potiron is, confusingly, one of two French words for pumpkin (the other is citrouille). Marron is French for chestnut and that is what it tastes like – a cross between pumpkin and chestnuts. In the UK they are known as red onion squashes. They don’t keep very well, so eat them before you eat your butternut squashes.
The best winter squash for taste is the butternut. This is usually the shape and colour of a peanut but in recent years we have successfully grown one called Barbara Butternut which has green stripes.
Another great squash – which is also a conversation starter because of its shape – is the tromboncino. This is an Italian heirloom variety and can be eaten green as a summer squash or allowed to turn yellow on the vine and kept into the winter. It tastes good and stores well. We grow it up a strong trellis so it doesn’t use up too much space.
For decoration you can’t beat ornamental gourds. We grow them up the fencing around our hen run and use them as ornaments in the house and garden throughout the winter. Another superb decorative pumpkin which is edible is the Turk’s Turban. With stripes of red, gold, green and cream, they make a fantastic addition to winter terraces adding colour where you need it throughout the dark days of January and February.