Gardening spotlight: pumpkins and gourds

Autumn is in the air, and for the next month, any kind of seasonal display is likely to include a pumpkin or two. The pumpkin has been used for hundreds of years as an icon for all things ghostly and grim, but where do these connotations come from? We look at its humble beginnings and explore its transformation from a diet staple into an autumn classic...

What better way to celebrate the autumnal season than to spend time in the garden, tending to a pumpkin patch? The pumpkin comes from the Cucurbit family, which also consists of squashes and gourds. They come in a wonderful array of colours, shapes, and sizes so you’re sure to find a variety to suit your intentions, whether you want to use them for cooking some delicious soups or for creating a spectacular Halloween display on your front porch. 

Shades can include orange, white, yellow, and even blue, with multi-coloured stripes and spots. They can be large, miniature, flattened, smooth, or bumpy. Pumpkins and gourds are botanically considered a fruit, as they bear seeds and flower during their growing season. 

Growing pumpkins can be a special and exciting activity for children as they can be involved at every stage, from cultivating the seeds and planting to harvesting and carving them. Ideally, pumpkin and gourd seeds should be sowed in mid-to-late April so it is worth including this in your gardening plans for the spring next year if you would like to grow your own. 

Pick of the pumpkins

The pumpkins that are grown for commercial purposes are known as Connecticut Field Pumpkins. In the 1900s, pumpkins cultivated in Connecticut were considered a fine standard of the plant. In 1940 one farmer, John Howden, selected the best seeds from his Connecticut Field Pumpkins to cultivate a new variant which we now call the Howden Pumpkin. They were far easier to carve, and would create a fiery orange glow when candles were added, making them perfect for Halloween.  

There are other varieties to choose from, however. The Cinderella Pumpkin comes from France and has a flattened shape that is said to inspire the pumpkin carriage in the traditional Cinderella fairy-tale. The Peanut Pumpkin is a cross between a pumpkin and squash, and its course surface will bring a ghoulish texture to any display. 

Smaller pumpkins are very popular and make great additions to table centrepieces or floral arrangements. The Crown of Thorns gourd is a highly unusual miniature, with ten ‘fingers’ reaching upwards. Pump Ke Mon is small and dainty with white and orange stripes, while Baby Boo is completely snow-white. 

Knowing when to harvest your pumpkins

If you planted your pumpkins back in the spring, then they should be ready for harvesting now. Often one plant can have anything between 5 and 15 fruits on them, depending on the variant. Keep an eye on the weather, as any cold spells could result in frost and you should pick your pumpkins before they can be damaged. 

The vines surrounding the pumpkins should now be starting to yellow and wilt, which is a good sign that your pumpkins are ready. The other test you could try is by pressing your thumbnail into the skin of your pumpkin or gourd. The skin should resist the downward pressure without being cut, indicating that it’s feeling tough and hard. You can also knock the fruit and you should hear a hollow, ringing sound. 

With a knife, carefully cut the stem where it meets the vine. This stem will dry up and seal the fruit – if you cut too close to the fruit, it will rot. Before you store your pumpkins and gourds, you will want to check to make sure there are no bruises or signs of disease. A greenhouse, garage, or garden shed make ideal, dry, well-aired places to store them. They need good airflow and need to be well spaced together to prevent rot. If stored properly, they can be stored for about 5 months, giving you plenty of soups, stews and pies throughout the winter.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

In the USA, a staggering 500 million lbs of Howden Pumpkins are harvested every year, with most people having no intention of eating them. Half of all the pumpkins grown are used for decorations, and the other half is usually made into a puree and canned for pumpkin pies. 

The Howden Pumpkins we buy in the shops at Halloween are specifically bred for their decorative purpose, with less flesh inside and a poor flavour. The pumpkins that are usually canned will be a smaller variant with bright orange flesh and fewer seeds. Pumpkin Spice is a traditional mixture of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon – which can now be found in a range of autumnal products including seasonal lattes and cakes. 

Why do we carve pumpkins at Halloween?

While most people assume that pumpkins are native to the USA, studies have actually suggested that gourds likely travelled to the Americas from Asia over 10,000 years ago, carried by people travelling across continents. They would have been in the form of the original Bottle Gourd, a longer thinner shaped fruit, which may have been used as a bottle container instead of food. These hard-shelled gourds take on properties similar to softwood when dried, so they were also used to make tools and instruments.

From the Bottle Gourd, many variants were domesticated across the Americas. These ancient pumpkins and gourds would have been used in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebrations, either in culinary dishes or as decoration. 

In Europe, the Celts celebrated the end of the harvest on the last day of October. Named ‘Samhain’, it was a time of reflection, remembrance, and rest. The pagans believed that with the last of the crops harvested, the earth’s cycle was complete and the ‘dark phase’ could begin when everything becomes lifeless before being reborn again in the spring. They would use Samhain as an opportunity to mourn their dead, and it was believed their loved ones would come back to visit them. Over time, it was soon believed that witches and spirits would cause mischief and take advantage of the gap between the living and the afterlife being at its weakest. 

Despite these morbid connotations, Samhain was a time of celebration, and feasts would be served for both the living and dead. Costumes would be worn to help lead the spirits away after the celebrations and people would carve faces into root vegetables grown from the harvest, such as potatoes and swedes. With a candle inserted into the vegetable, these were referred to as Jack-O-Lanterns, inspired by a folklore tale about a young man called Jack who made an arrangement with the devil and had to carry a burning ember with him. 

It is believed that to compete against this pagan holiday, the Church introduced Hallows Eve on the same date and adopted Samhain in an attempt to end the unholy festivities in favour of a Christian ceremony.

From the 1400s, the European expansion to the Americas began. In the 1600s, Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to grow and eat pumpkins; a food they had never seen before but soon relied on for survival. During this time, the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico was moved from August to November and combined with Hallows Eve to result in the Halloween that we know today with carved pumpkins.