Autumn arrived with a bump last week. On Friday, as I cycled to the allotment to feed the chickens before work I noticed an unfamiliar chill in the air, and a rush of gold infusing the leaves of the ash trees along the railway line. Sure enough, a typical wet and windy October day followed, largely stripping the ashes of their brief flash of colour.
On the plot too, there’s been a sudden thinning of leaves and move towards bareness. Where once the luxuriant foliage of squashes and pumpkins covered the soil, now only their deflated leaves remain, looking like burst balloons along the rambling stems and tendrils. What could be a melancholy time is made happy by the fact that the leaves’ disappearance has revealed a lovely crop of fruit; vivid coloured orbs nestled like jewels among the decaying leaves.
I love pumpkins and squashes – I can think of few vegetables as tasty and exuberant. It’s often said that potatoes are the ideal crop for people dealing with a new (weedy) allotment plot; but experience has taught me that squashes can do just as well. Last year I became so fed up of digging out the roots of bindweed, ground elder and couch on my plot that I gave up 3/4 of the way through and covered the rest of the soil in cardboard. I then cut holes through, roughly 4ft (1.2m) apart and planted squashes. They romped away and gave me a beautiful crop for next to no work – and the weeds were almost gone; smothered by cardboard and the lush leaves of the squash.
The secret to success is to remember that they are greedy plants, which love to be fed and watered as much as possible. I give mine liquid seaweed at the start and end of the growing season, and comfrey fertiliser over the summer. They’ll even grow on your compost heap, given enough sun and water. I grew them this way in France, sowing the seeds of a local variety on top of last year’s heap. Five months of frankly demented growth later I had pumpkins the size of beach balls on plants over 30ft (9m) long!
If you have more time than space it’s worth remembering that although most of them are trailing plants, you can train them up wigwams or arches. Smaller-fruited sorts such as squash ‘Sweet Dumpling’ and pumpkin ’Munchkin’ are ideal for this. These diminutive varieties are extremely tasty, and, I think, a better bet for most people than the giant pumpkins. I love them simply chopped in half and roasted with olive oil and thyme. Their dense, sweet, almost chestnut-like flesh is a true taste of autumn and will bring joy to even the darkest, dankest October evening.