Abi Wheatley, author of two Usborne gardening books, shares her experience of growing pumpkins with her son – from disappointment to delightful Jack O'Lanterns in time for Halloween.
Miniature pumpkins almost ready to pick
As a keen gardener and author of two Usborne gardening books, you might think I’d be a confident pumpkin-grower. But although I’ve grown many different things over the years, I never quite got around to pumpkins.
Fortunately this wasn’t a problem when writing Gardening for Beginners, because (as with most Usborne books) we had a wonderful expert advisor, who more than made up for all the gaps in our knowledge, and suggested a brilliantly simple method for growing pumpkins. So, last Halloween, when my two-year-old son Edward became obsessed with pumpkins, I felt confident we could grow some together.
Come the spring, and armed with my copy of Gardening for Beginners, I bought some seeds for a miniature variety of pumpkin recommended in the book, and set to work. But, like many first-timers, I made some basic errors. Ignoring the advice in the book to grow two pumpkin plants together, I thought I would save space in my tiny garden by growing just one.
At first, all went well. I managed to persuade Edward not to dig up the compost too often, and a tiny seedling appeared. He was delighted, and almost every day he would go out to check on it, watering it enthusiastically. Excitement mounted as flowers started to appear. ‘When the flowers fade, pumpkins will grow!’ I said confidently to Edward, who by this time had reached his third birthday.
Edward with the pumpkin flowers
But to my dismay, flower after flower withered and dropped off, with no sign of a pumpkin. ‘Where are the pumpkins?’ Edward asked. I felt terrible.
Some frantic internet searching showed me my mistake. It turns that out pumpkin plants have both male and female flowers, and pollen needs to get from a male flower to a female flower to produce a pumpkin. But my lone little pumpkin plant was only producing one flower at a time. I realized far too late the reason why it’s vital to grow two pumpkin plants together – to increase the chances of male and female flowers being open at the same time, so the bees can buzz between them and do their vital work.
Luckily for me, as my solo plant grew, flowers started to open on it two at a time. At first they were all male; I watched and waited anxiously until, one morning, a male and female flower coincided. But the day was grey and rainy, and no bees were in sight. In desperation, I grabbed a paintbrush, dabbed up some pollen from the male flower and brushed it into the female flower. The next day I found a second female flower and did the same.
Pumpkins growing from the female flowers
A few days later, I was rewarded with the sight of tiny pumpkins swelling at the base of each of the female flowers. What a relief!
The harvested pumpkins as Jack O'Lanterns
Edward with a (battery-powered) Jack O'Lantern
Of course, after that I stuck like glue to the instructions in Gardening for Beginners, and was delighted to watch the two little pumpkins grow and gradually take on their cheery orange colour. The happy day of harvesting came, and Edward and I are both ridiculously proud of our hard-won harvest.
I’ve already bought some more pumpkin seeds to grow next spring, but I’ve learned from my mistakes. This time, I’ll do exactly what it says in the book.