What it's like to grow pumpkins. . .It’s smashing!
Whether they are chopped up and turned into soup or carved by children to make jack-o-lanterns – we can’t get enough of pumpkins during October.
It’s estimated that around 15 million are grown across the UK every year to meet the growing demand for this brightly coloured crop.
Although often thought of as a vegetable, they are actually a fruit and can come in a variety of different colours including green, white and blue as well as the most common, orange
As well as being a Halloween decoration they can also make for a tasty meal too, often used in stews, lasagne, risotto and even pies and cake. And one grower who knows all about this October favourite is Chris Barton who owns Canalside Farm in Great Haywood, near Stafford where more than 4,000 pumpkins can be found in fields and a glasshouse.
It’s only his second year growing the seasonal produce but the 64-year-old says he has discovered it’s a satisfying crop to grow.
“Once they are in the ground, they can pretty much be left to it and you will end up with these absolutely beautiful pumpkins,” he tells Weekend.
Last year thousands of people flocked to the farm, which also has a café and shop, after the team decided to expand their Pick Your Own range to include pumpkins.
“It’s a quiet period in the season, we’re coming out of summer and the other Pick Your Own produce has come to an end. Pumpkins seemed an obvious choice to fill this gap.
“We grew 2,500 pumpkins last year and it was a great success. We were completely taken by surprise by how popular it was, we had thousands visit, so we’ve increased the numbers this year,” explains Chris.
Pumpkin seeds are usually planted in April and the plants go in the ground in May but this time around the process was delayed due to the lengthy and cold winter.
The team, which includes Chris’s wife and co-owner Wendy, did suffer a set back as the summer heatwave wiped out some of their plants in the field that had struggled to survive in the hot temperatures.
But the growers still had time to re-sow some seeds and grow the plants in the glasshouse to replace those they had lost.
This year they have grown a mixture of varieties including Rocket, Racer and Mars which are all medium-sized pumpkins that are said to be good for carving.
While their bigger pumpkins are American varieties Mustang and Corvette, which are known for their deep orange colour and can weigh up to 10kg.
Now their crop is thriving and the final checks are taking place ahead of its Pumpkin Festival which starts on October 20.
Visitors will be able to choose their own pumpkin and also have a go at carving a spooky design. The tradition of making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween dates back centuries.
It’s commonly believed to have originated in Ireland where lanterns were carved from turnips or beets and used to ward off evil spirits.
The name jack-o-lantern comes from an Irish folklore about a ghostly figure of a man named Stingy Jack who was sentenced to roam the Earth for eternity with only a burning coal to light his way.
He became known as Jack of the Lantern and later Jack O’Lantern. Lanterns carved from vegetables and with scary faces would be placed beside windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.
Irish immigrants then brought the tradition with them to America where they began using pumpkins and now they are well established as part of Halloween.
Now the spooky celebration is becoming more and more popular with Brits, just as it has been with our American counterparts.
“I think Halloween is growing in popularity but has been for the last 15 years so there is a new generation for whom it’s quite normal.
“Families want low-cost activities that they can do with their children. Picking a pumpkin together is a nice thing they can do together, out in the fresh air and away from their screens.
“Last year we bought a small fleet of wheelbarrows, I wasn’t convinced at first but it was great to see the children pile into the wheelbarrows as soon as they arrived and have their pictures taken. It made it more of an event for them,” explains Chris who has owned Canalside Farm for 35 years.
When it comes to picking the prize pumpkin in the patch, there are a number of things you should look out for, he tells us.
“You want it to be a reasonable size and for it to have a hardened skin, which indicates it’s ready to be picked, and be a nice orange colour,” says Chris.
If you’re planning to display your pumpkin for a while, it helps to pick one with a firm stem as a weaker one may mean it will soften sooner.
Bear in mind when examining the skin that you don’t want it to be too hard if you need to put a knife through to make your spooky face.
On average a carved jack-o-lantern will last between five to 10 days but it can be longer.
But if you fancy eating rather than decorating your pumpkin then Chris says it’s a very versatile ingredient.
“It’s really nice in soup or just roasted in the oven in a little oil to have alongside your Sunday lunch.”
l Canalside Farm’s Pumpkin Festival takes place on October 20 and 21 and continues from October 27 until October 31. Families can pick their own pumpkin and enjoy activities including pumpkin painting and carving as well as Halloween-themed games. See www.canalsidefarm.co.uk