Pumpkins Better Than Butternut

Evette Jungwirth ponders on producing the perfect pumpkin

Pumpkin Zucca del Portogalla

Nothing says heirloom more than the peculiar shape and colours of the Turk's Turban pumpkin or the perfectly fluted, distinctly orange Rouge Vif d’Etampes.

It had been a while since we conducted extensive pumpkin trials, so in the summer of 2012-2013 it was time for tomatoes and melons to take a back seat and make way for the weird and wonderful members of the squash family.

We love doing trials here at Diggers and we conduct extensive seed grow-outs every year. It is from our trials that we select new seed lines and we also grow out our existing varieties to make sure they are true to type, growing and cropping as we would expect them to.

We collect information such as growth habits of the plants, days to harvest, and the size and weight of the produce so gardeners become just like professionals in planning their food needs. We also take photos for our catalogues and conduct taste tests on the produce we grow.

Taste tests can be a perk of the job, in the case of melons and strawberries, or definitely not a perk of the job if its chillies and garlic up for tasting! Pumpkins normally rate somewhere in between, better than chillies but not as good as melons.

But this year we were all pleasantly surprised - all of the pumpkins we tasted were delicious- so much so that we all went back for more, and this is unheard of when tasting 20+ pumpkins in a row!

We had an eclectic mix of varieties for our 2012-2013 pumpkin trials. Our trials manager at the time, Lou Larrieu, had brought back an intriguing selection of pumpkin seed from heirloom specialists across the USA.

Clive had accidentally tumbled into a village near Turin where an Italian rare seed collector, who had 180 different pumpkins, was keen to give us seeds of as many varieties as we wanted.

He had a botanic folio and picture of every variety but no English, while Clive was eager to learn but unable to speak any Italian! After lots of smiles and nodding, Clive brought back about 15 interesting pumpkins from Brazil and Mexico that we trialled.

We added these to the varieties sent to us by you, our generous seed saving members, as well as all of our existing Diggers lines that we wanted to trial.

In all we sowed 47 varieties in carefully prepared, raised beds in our Dromana trial garden. We always sow our pumpkin seed directly into the garden when soil temperatures are around 25 degrees; this is late October to early November in frost free areas in Melbourne.

By early February we were getting a look at some of the early producers such as Australian Butter, Turk's Turban and the pepita producing Kakai.

We already know these varieties well so we were very excited when we could finally harvest some of the new pumpkins we had never grown before. Pumpkins such as Moranga de Mesa, a Brazilian heirloom with dusky pink-orange skin and a flat stackable shape. Or the beautiful green, white and gold striped, taste test winner, Survivor. Or even the strangely named Double Stink, with pimply smoky orange skin. We are not sure why it has such an odd name but it may have something to do with the effect it has on the cows it was fed to!

It was bred by a Kentucky farmer to feed to his cattle but due to its superb flavour it found its way out of the field and onto our plates.

Keeping pumpkins true to type

One of the benefits of conducting trials is that we can collect ‘mother seed’, or a small amount of seed collected from the most robust, best tasting and performing plants from our grow-outs.

We would then use this seed to produce more seed in subsequent years until we have enough seed to list a new variety in our catalogue.

However we couldn’t do that with our pumpkin trials because pumpkins, like all members of the Cucurbit family, are just far too promiscuous! That is they will procreate with just about anyone else of the same species. The pumpkins we all know actually come from several species. Varieties such as Dill’s Atlantic, Jarrahdale, Queensland Blue and Jap are all Cucurbita maxima and so will cross pollinate with each other.

This can result in significant variation in crops grown from the seed collected from open field-grown plants, if several of these varieties are grown together. The same goes for the other species such as the butternuts (C. moschata) and the marrow types (C. pepo).

But you can grow a butternut (C. moschata) next to Turk’s Turban (C. maxima) and they will not cross pollinate because they are different species. You will be able to save seed from both varieties and you can expect to get a butternut and a Turk’s Turban again the following year. Unless your neighbours are growing any pumpkins of the same species!

Pumpkins and bees

Pumpkins are pollinated by insects, predominantly bees, so there needs to be at least 800 metres between members of the same species or cross pollination is likely to occur. Pumpkins (and their cousins – cucumbers, melons and zucchinis) are monoecious – that is they produce both male and female flowers on the one plant.

This creates the possibility of ‘selfing’ or pollinating their own flowers. But when seed saving for the sake of genetic diversity it is always better to grow a number of plants of the same variety so cross pollination between plants occurs. If we were growing plants to procure mother seed we would never rely on self pollinated plants.

However in our own backyards we can put all the technical stuff aside and have some fun. Because pumpkins are so promiscuous we can all have a go at amateur plant breeding and see what weird and wonderful fruits are created if we let nature take its course.

We have collected seed from all of the pumpkins we grew, including our standards alongside the new and unusual pumpkins we trialled last summer. Of course they have already been cross pollinated in the field so there is no way we could use them for mother seed. But because they were collectively the best tasting trials that we have had for pumpkins we believe that the potential for creating new heirlooms of the future is too good to miss out on.

It’s a bit like a pumpkin lucky dip; with some unique parentage a single packet of seed will grow you a barrow full of fine tasting surprises. Go on, we dare you – breed your own pumpkin!

NB: We are planning to grow out the best performers from these trials in isolation so we can collect true-to-type seed. This will take a couple of years of hand pollination and selection but we are excited that we will be able to offer them to you in the future.

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Evette Jungwirth

Evette is a passionate backyard gardener and has been a Diggers Botanical Guide. Over the years she has also headed up the Heronswood Garden Shop, plus our plant, seed and bulb departments, giving her a wealth of knowledge to share with members.

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