I’ve never grown pumpkins or butternut squash before because they take up too much precious garden space but this year I decided to plant one and see whether it could grow in amongst my other plants – with a surprising result.
This worked well to start with and the plant trailed its way around, producing lots of flowers and little butternuts started forming. But it succumbed to powdery mildew very quickly and the little butternuts dropped as the leaves shrivelled up and died before I had a chance to do anything about it. I didn’t think anything more about it during the summer but in autumn I was clearing away other vegetable plants that had finished and suddenly spotted a little butternut nestled in amongst the marigolds. One tendril of the plant had survived the mildew and done well enough to produce a tiny butternut. It really was tiny – barely the size of a drinking glass – but it gave me a nice meal or two of pumpkin and chickpea tagine (recipe to come). I also tried to dry the seeds for eating to maximise the return from my sole butternut but they weren’t very good.
Butternut squash and pumpkins love a warm sunny spot with plenty of nutrients and room to spread. You can start to grow seed under cover in spring but don’t plant them in the garden until the soil temperature has warmed up – late October or early November is good in Auckland. Make sure you’ve added lots of compost, chicken poo, sheep pellets, rotted horse manure or seaweed (whatever you happen to have) to the soil where you’re planting them. I’ve heard that they do really well if you plant them in your compost heap but I don’t think they’d do well in my covered compost bin.
Plant them somewhere where they can spread and get lots of sunshine – in an unused part of the garden or along a fence or hedge. You can ‘steer’ the plant as it grows but you don’t want it to swamp slower growing vegetables. Keep the plant well watered and mulched over summer but avoid getting water on the leaves to avoid diseases. If you start to see a whitish coating developing on the leaves, this is powdery mildew. Powdery mildew spread is often due to humidity, poor air circulation or irregular moisture levels. And as I discovered, if you don’t deal with it quickly you may lose the plant. Remove any leaves as soon as you see the first signs to slow the spread of the mildew and buy some time. You can spray them with a baking soda spray but this can be impractical if the plants are trailing all over the garden.
Look after your butternuts or pumpkins as they are growing. You may want to put some straw or similar underneath the fruit to protect them from contact with damp soil that can cause them to rot. Harvest the fruit when the foliage has totally shriveled and fruit are fully ripened with hard skins. They generally store very well in a cool place.