Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Yard Bonus

In the last post I talked a lot about stuff going unexpectedly wrong. Sometime things go unexpectedly right too. When I first noticed the little plant spouting out of the compost heap, I assumed it was the reincarnation of last Summer's MONSTER ZUCCHINI PLANT, which invaded through the back fence, encircled our shed and made it as far as the house before being beaten back. All the while it produced enough zucchinis to make us, well, pretty sick of zucchini actually.. Anyway, so this thing sprang up in early Spring and didn't do much until the weather warmed up and it started to grow.. But when some fruit first appeared it was rounder than any zucchini had a right to be. I first thought it must be a watermelon because that's the only other kind of seed we'd thrown in the compost in the recent past. But no, soon enough the fruit developed the distinctived ribbed pattern of a pumpkin. Oh, and the plant became rather large.
Pumpkin vine encircles unhappy potted bougainvillea and curry leaf plant
We usually buy butternut pumpkin, and this was not one of those. The only time we bought another type was when we bought one at a market in the Blue Mountains, quite some time ago. I don't really remember what it looked like, but I suspect it was something like this:
Sort of Japanese pumpkin, only more spherical
I think it's a Japanese or Kent pumpkin (or something similar) but it's not as flat as the ones I've seen in the shops, rather more spherical and soccer ball sized. The plant obviously enjoyed feeding on the fresh, tasty compost as it became large and threatened to take over the entire yard. It was kept in check by pruning the new growth, which also has the effect of stimulating new flowers. The growing tips are edible and used in stir fries, but I'm ashamed to say we didn't get around to trying them this year. Anyway, like other Cucurbita species, pumpkins depend on insect pollinators to produce fruit. And because there didn't seem to be many of them around our place this year apart from a few pretty Blue Banded Bees, I had to play insect pollinator myself buy taking pollen from the male flower to the female flower. The difference between the two types of flowers is easy to spot thusly:
Male pumpkin flower
The male flowers have a single stamen in the centre and lots of pollen visible...
Female pumpkin flower from which the fruit develops
...while the female has multiple carpels and, more tellingly, a little proto-fruit attached. So after a little pollen redistribution (no bumblebee costume required thank goodness) and just a few days' wait, you get this:
Pumpkins grow quickly. Notice the dried up flower petals still attached.
They are best harvested once the plant dies back, but we harvested a few beforehand and they was all good. If you're not eating them straight away you should cut the stem as long as possible and let it dry out in the sun to form a good plug in the top. All told we got 10 pumpkins, of between 2 and 3 kg each. The vine even grew through a small gap in the fence and deposited a pumpkin onto next door's driveway (they offered to give it back but I insited they keep it; they were most pleased and made soup). We've now eaten three and given two away.
Orange flesh and lots of plump seeds
We usually dice them, then toss them with oil, salt, pepper, and moroccan tagine spices before roasting. Then they go into a salad with arugula (rocket) from the garden, pine nuts, ricotta and a few other things. I find they're tastiest if cooked until they get a few dark, almost burnt bits, on the outside. The last time I even scooped out the seeds and roasted them, as they make for some pretty good eating too. 
And in case anyone is keen to grow some, here's one more tip: Pumpkins, like other Cucurbits, are susceptible to mildew. Mine got some downy mildew as the leaves got older, which can be treated using a dilute milk solution rather than anything toxic. I didn't need to though, because I had some little helpers..
Ladybird grazing on downy mildew
Yes, a group of ladybirds moved in and began systematically chom-chomming their way through the stuff. See why it pays not to spray pesticides in the garden? 
So, all in all the accidental pumpkins have been a raging success. If I had more space I'd definitely grow them again next year, maybe some of the more bizarre varieties. However, being a bit limited in that respect I may try for some watermelons instead. If only I could train them to grow up onto the roof of the shed it would free up some space perhaps...

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