The story of the Halloween pumpkin

Halloween sees an unusual proliferation in the supermarkets. The space normally devoted to potatoes or apples becomes filled with the bright orange fruit of the pumpkin. The term pumpkin can often be used to refer to the large orange varieties of cucurbita pepo, popular for carving for lanterns at halloween. It is sometimes used to refer to other winter squash which can be varieties of cucurbita moschata, maxima, ficifolia, or even a hybrid, as squash are very promiscuous.
The tradition of carving lanterns for halloween does not originate in North America as some may claim, but has been a long-held tradition of the British Isles. Halloween as we know it (or All-Hallows-Eve) is the christianised form of the old Celtic festival of Samhain. This festival signified the end of the light part of the year, and our movement in to the dark half. This meant the divisions between the earthly world and the spirit world were at their most delicate, so people dressed as ghouls, lit bonfires and carved grotesque ‘jack-o-lanterns’ to scare away malevolent spirits. The lanterns would originally be carved from turnips to represent ‘Stingy Jack’.

Stingy Jack was a famous drunkard who was visited by the devil in search of his soul. Jack was no fool, and made one last request in return for his soul; a good drink. Jack and the devil drank heavily, but when it came to time to pay, Jack had no money so he suggested that the devil turned himself into a silver coin. Jack threw the coin in his pocket, next to a crucifix which prevented the devil from changing back. Jack said he would release the devil in return for ten years freedom, which the devil had to grant. Ten years passed and the devil returned. This time Jack convinced the devil that as his last request he would like an apple from the tree in his garden. Strangely, given Jack’s track record, the devil agreed, but no sooner was it up the tree than Jack surrounded it with crucifixes, stranding the devil in the tree. Jack bargained that he would let the devil down if he agreed that Jack would never be taken to hell, and the devil begrudgingly agreed. When Jack’s time came ( a bit early from all his drinking) he was barred entry from heaven for his lifetime of drinking, gambling and trickery. When he tried at the gates of hell he was barred too, so was condemned from that day onward, to walk the earth, between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember from the fires of hell inside a hollow turnip lantern to light his way. The pumpkin is a far easier lantern to carve than a turnip (believe me, as a child we had to make do with turnips), and it has since become adopted as the symbol of the festival. 

Although these pumpkins are technically ‘edible’, after years of selecting for bigger, rounder, more orange fruit with a larger cavity, the flavour and nutrition has unfortunately been bred out of these squash. They are now exclusively grown for their ornamental value. The pumpkin used to make the pumpkin pie beloved of Americans at Thanksgiving is actually more closely related to the butternut squash. These have a much higher sugar and nutrient content, and contain less water, so your pie will be dense and firm, rather than watery with a soggy bottom. I have grown lots of different varieties, but some of my favourite culinary squash for flavour are ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Kabocha’, ‘Buttercup’, ‘Marina di Chioggia’ and the unusual butternut ‘Barbara’. This variety originally comes from a South American strain. They grow prolifically in the UK and when they are ripe they are striped green, like a watermelon, with an even higher sugar content than the pale-brown types. If you have ever purchased the pre-prepared butternut squash, it will probably have come from one of these green butternuts as they are now favoured by the supermarkets due to their improved taste.

Pumpkins and squash are probably one of the most cosmopolitan of crops. They are thought to have first been cultivated in Mexico around 9000 years ago but have since moved all around the world and you are likely to find them growing in almost every country. The spiritual home of the pumpkin is still North America where there is a huge diversity of forms and shapes. Pumpkins were grown as one of the principle crops in the Iroquois ‘Three sisters’ system, alongside corn and beans. The corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb up, the nitrogen-fixing roots of the beans provide fertility for the pumpkin and corn, and the pumpkin provides ground-cover to reduce the evaporation of water. It is a clever way to maximise the calorific product from an area of ground, but choosing the right varieties is essential, as many modern varieties have been bred to be more suited to growing in a monoculture. I have had a go at growing this way myself, with mixed results. Whilst none of the individual crops produced quite as much as I would normally expect when grown separately, the bed did overall produce a substantial amount compared to what I would have got if I only planted one of the crops. 

If you are growing squash in a more conventional system there are a few things to be aware of. Squash like fertile soils with plenty of organic matter as they need plenty of nutrition and water whilst growing. They need space, as if they are planted too densely, they will produce leaves to compete for light and fruit production will be delayed. Drought, excessive watering and temperature fluctuation will all cause flowers to abort and a poor ‘set’ of fruit. Typically the first eight buds that develop on a plant will all be male, and the first female flowers will only open around a week after the male flowers have started. The pollen needs to be transferred (by a bee or by hand) from the male to female flowers for a fruit to form. The fruit can take from 60 to 110 days to ripen, and its high sugar content makes it prone to attack from animals. Many growers lift the fruit slightly off the ground, so the sun can ripen all sides evenly. The growing season will often be cut short at the end of the year by mildew. Feeds high in phosphite can help to alleviate some symptoms, but it is almost the inevitable end for the plants. When harvesting the fruit always make sure to cut the vine, not the stalk of the squash, as this will reduce the chance of bacteria entering the fruit and causing rots in storage. The pumpkins need a few weeks curing in a warm sunny place so the skin starts to harden before they are placed into storage. Many squash actually experience an increase in the concentration of sugars in the flesh during storage as moisture is lost, and starch is converted to sugar. 

The growing of giant pumpkins has become something of a sport in recent years. This year Matthew Oliver of RHS Hyde hall managed to break the record for an outdoor grown pumpkin in the UK with a fruit that weighed in at a whopping 605Kg though this is still a little way from the world record of 1054kg held since 2014 by Beni Meier from Switzerland. Whilst these pumpkins are essentially inedible, the seeds can sell for huge prices to other growers who also want to grow a giant.

Squash are a versatile and diverse crop, that store well through the winter. With a bit of care and planning you can be enjoying them long into the New Year, and they needn’t be just for halloween.

Autumn leaves

One of the most spectacular moments of the gardening calendar has to be the arrival of the Autumn colour. The horizon that was once verdant and lush starts to reveal a natural tapestry of colour, hidden until now. 

The leaves were once packed with chlorophyll. This green pigment has been perfectly engineered to absorb energy from the sun and turn it into carbohydrates through the summer. A combination of the shorter days, and dropping temperatures signals to the tree the imminent approach of winter. Deciduous trees have adopted the survival strategy of winter dormancy. This means that like the gardener, the tree must now shift from producing, to storing. The production of chlorophyll in the leaf is reduced and the green colour slowly starts to ebb away, revealing the kaleidoscope of pigments hidden beneath. 

The colours that we see in the leaves are due to a range of chemicals present in the leaves. Carotenoids are the group of chemicals responsible for the yellow brown and orange colours. The red and purple hues come from a group of chemicals called anthrocyanins. These are both involved in protecting the leaves. They act like suncream, protecting the leaves from damage caused by the UV radiation of the sun. They can give the leaves a bitter taste, making them unpalatable to insects, and act like wood preservatives, preventing fungus and moulds from destroying the leaves. 

In the US it has become an annual obsession to visit the forests of New England to watch the colours as they start to develop. This pilgrimage to the woods has become know as ‘leaf peeping’ and the effect it has on tourism in the region has been estimated to be worth around 3 billion US dollars to the economy. It is not just the Americans who have made a hobby of visiting the woods. In Japan the habit of forest bathing, or shirin-yoku, is very popular. It is encouraged to spend time in mindful contemplation in the forest to experience the natural effect of stress reduction and relaxation it induces. The trees also give off volatile essential oils such as a-pinene and limonene that are thought to be anti-microbial and great for health. This desire to be in the great outdoors has sometimes been termed as biophillia, a love of live or living systems. It was made well-known by Ernest.O.Wilson in his 1984 book of the same name where he described ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life’, and how these connections are fundamental to our sense of well-being. 

If you are looking to add colour to your garden in autumn there is a huge range of plants that take on vibrant colours at this time of year. The Spindle bush, euonymous alatus has to have some of the most dramatic colour and will often turn a vibrant hue of pink in the autumn. One of my own personal favourites for colour are the Japanese maples or acer palmatum. These small trees are ideal for domestic gardens, they appreciate a rich, moist soil and a bit of shelter. The variety ‘sengo-kaku’ has incredible colour, both when the leaves first emerge in spring, and when they start to fall in the autumn. For orange and copper tones I would choose a bush like the Saskatoon, or amelanchier lamarkii, which also has fantastic blooms in spring and tasty berries in summer or witch hazel, hamamelis which will fill the garden with scent on sunny winter days. If you are looking for yellows, one of the most stunning has to be the Maidenhair tree, or ginkgo biloba. Members of the dogwood family, or cornus, will often take on a mix of deep purple or red colours as they begin senescence. One of the most stunning trees for Autumn colour has to be liquidambar styraciflua. They are often too large for smaller gardens but as the season progresses they will start to show a huge range of colours right across the spectrum. If you are pushed for space in the borders, then Boston Ivy or parthenocissus tricuspidata will quickly cover a wall and provides one of the most stunning displays as they turn from green to flame-red.

Whilst autumn is a season that sees the end of the growing part of the year, it is a season that ends with the most incredible crescendo. If you brave the changeable weather and make time to take it in, bathing in its beauty, it will reward you tenfold.

The secret life of the compost heap – a tale of muck and magic

There is an easy way to spot a diehard gardener, just ask them about their compost heap. This often-forgotten corner is the true ‘engine room’ of the garden, providing the valuable organic matter that is the key to improving soil health and fertility and the eventual success of the garden.

The compost heap is the meeting point of myth and science. Whilst the effectiveness of burying cows horns full of quartz is yet to be proven, the worth of composting is well recognised. The process of recycling organic matter from the garden back to the soil is an age old process, but has been elevated to an art form in modern times with hundreds of accessories for the compost buff, from tumblers and kits to build your heap, to 100s of additives to speed up the process. However you choose to do it, the partial break down of green waste to humus for use in the garden is now universally recognised as an essential and worthwhile process. Advocates who encouraged the modern composting renaissance include Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the Biodynamic system of farming, and Lady Eve Balfour, an early proponent of Organic gardening and one of the founders of the Soil Foundation. Their interest in mimicking the natural process of the environment signalled a move away from the industrialisation of agriculture and the dependence on chemical fertilisers to promote plant health.

Building a compost heap can be as complex, or as simple you want to make it. The first ingredient is organic matter. This should be broken down into suitably sized pieces, whether that means chopping it up in a shredder, or with a spade or loppers. The smaller the pieces, the larger the surface area for the bacteria and fungi to act on and the quicker the breakdown will occur. Compost heaps work best with a mix of materials. We need materials that are rich in Carbon. These will tend to be brown, and are often quite dry like woody prunings, leaves or even cardboard. We also need materials that are rich in Nitrogen. These will tend to be more colourful (often green) and could include grass clippings, veg peelings or bruised and rotting windfall fruit. We also need oxygen and water to feed the bacteria and we have our ideal mix. It is better to have higher carbon than nitrogen levels in the heap (20:1 is often recommended) as a heap high in nitrogen can sometimes stagnate, and begin to produce more methane and ammonia. Few of us will have the ability to monitor our carbon to nitrogen levels quite so accurately, so we must assume that we should just alternately add a little bit of both carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials at a time to ‘feed’ the heap.

Inside the heap the processes start to turn our waste into the most valuable of garden commodities, compost. Small earthworms like ‘Brandlings’, ‘Red wigglers’ and the ‘European nightcrawler’, who all specialise on fresh detritus, will start to colonise the heap. They perform a large part of the process, breaking the waste into smaller pieces, massively increasing the surface area and combining the different substrates together. This huge surface area is then colonised by many different bacteria, fungi, moulds and yeasts that will continue the digestion process, releasing the nutrients locked in the materials. These processes would also happen if the materials were left where they fell in the garden, but the high concentrations present in a compost heap will increase the speed of breakdown, and reduce the chance of these organisms causing problems on plants in the borders. 

The plants (and weeds) that thrive in our gardens do so because they are better than others at isolating, and accumulating the elements our soils may be deficient in. These plants are often termed ‘dynamic accumulators’ of these nutrients. By harvesting them (weeding) then composting and returning them to the soil we can take advantage of the high concentrations they contain to help rebalance and improve our soil.

By composting locally and returning it to the soil we ‘close-the-loop’, saving tons of carbon needed to move it to large-scale, industrial composting sites, then move it back to the garden when we need it to mulch the borders. 

At the garden I care for, when the council started to charge for the removal of household green waste, many of the local gardeners started to resort to bonfires to dispose of their waste. Now barely a day goes by when the air in the village isn’t filled with acrid smoke as one of our neighbours lights a bonfire. This waste of organic matter is completely unnecessary, an environmental hazard, and highly anti-social.

As any gardener knows, good gardening starts with a healthy soil, and the easiest way to improve your soil health is by composting. 

How to make the most of all those apples

Apples are one of the crops I associate most with this time of year. Almost every garden will contain at least one tree, (and if not, it really should). For the biggest harvest, it’s best to have two different varieties that flower at similar times. This will give more successful pollination as some apple varieties are unable to pollinate themselves. In Hampstead Garden Suburb, near where I live in North London, every house had two fruit trees planted when they were built. A survey of the trees 100 years later, in 2009, revealed at least 45 different varieties still growing. This is just a small selection of the 2200 varieties held in the National collection at Brogdale. – http://www.brogdalecollections.org and a drop in the ocean compared to the 6000 different varieties thought to have been grown through the years in the UK. 

The apple has come a long way from their wild relatives, Malus sieversii, who’s small fruit first attracted the attention of mankind in Central Asia over 7000 years ago. It has followed our spread around the globe and is now a grown across Asia, Europe and North America. It has put down deep roots, and is now part of many of our cultures and traditions. They have are celebrated through history, from the Roman goddess of the harvest, Pomona, to the creation story and the tree at the centre of the garden of Eden. 

Anyone who’s garden contains a mature apple tree will be familiar with the abundance of fruit that usually occurs around this time of year. The only trouble is, most apple trees will produce considerably more than most of us will be able to eat or store. So what are we to do with all those apples?

The garden I take care of is blessed with apples. The land was once part of an orchard many years ago and some still remain. We have 6 small Trees of various dessert varieties, and three grand old veterans whose gnarled old branches are heaving under the weight of their large ‘Bramley-esque’ fruit at this time of the year. 

Over the past few weeks I have been picking the apples as they ripened (five laundry baskets full this year) and last week they were sent off to the local press. For a small fee, the apples are prepared, squashed, pasteurised and bottled. I have just sampled some of this years product and I can confirm it was a great vintage.

The unsettled weather in spring meant that pollination wasn’t as good and the crop wasn’t as big as last year. The late summer sunshine helped to ripen and sweeten the apples though, and the finished product was excellent. Some trees do have a tendency to slip in to biennial fruiting, giving heavy crops on alternate years. Judicious thinning of the fruit in summer to just one or two per cluster will help the trees to produce good crops more consistently.

Unfortunately, not every one has access to a local press as we do, so projects are being set up around the UK to help people to deal with the glut of fruit in the autumn. Abundance – http://www.abundancelondon.com  is one charity that hopes to help people deal with their gluts. By getting communities together to collect fruit from under-utilised trees they hope to cut waste and reduce our dependence on imported fruit. It is thought we currently import around 90% of our fruit in the UK, so just harvesting what we already have can contribute to reducing the air miles of our food.

The Orchard Project http://www.theorchardproject.org.uk/ is a charity, set up in order to create, restore and celebrate community orchards. They started in London but now have groups active across the UK. They offer training and support so local people can make the most of the harvest in their neighbourhoods. A quick glance at the map of my local area revealed a network of orchard spaces throughout the city. These can have a massive impact on the local environment, providing beautiful blossom, tasty fruit and strengthening the communities they help to support. Orchards for the benefit of the community is a fabulous idea. It helps to bond the small, tightly-knit communities that are able to unite at times such as the harvest to share a common interest and work toward a collective goal from which every member of the community benefits. Surely this is a vision of utopia.

Orchards don’t just provide food. Traditional orchards, with widely spaced trees of varying ages, are also great for the environment. They often comprise of several different ecosystems, such as woodland, hedgerow and meadow. This creates a vibrant mosaic of habitats which can be home to a huge range of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and beetles. They are vital for acting as a green corridor to connect together fragmented habitats within our landscapes. This type of orchard can be found in most areas of the UK, although the majority are in England. Over the past 10 years The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species has been working to map the remaining orchards in the UK. They identified over 35,000 sites in England and 7,000 in Wales. Their work revealed that around 90% of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950’s. This is mainly from either neglect or development. 

I fondly remember spending my summers as a child camping in the orchards that surrounded my village, and in the Autumn snaffling a few of the fruit. The produce became like currency between the villagers, who exchanged their surpluses for the produce they wanted. These orchards have since been lost as the land was developed as housing. Whilst we can never turn back to clock, I would like to think that the orchards we plant today will provide plenty of fruit for our ancestors to go scrumping for in years to come, just as we did. 

To find an orchard near you visit their interactive map at – https://ptes.org/get-involved/surveys/countryside-2/traditional-orchard-survey/orchard-maps

How to log in to the ‘Wood Wide Web’

As we passed the autumnal equinox last week, and Michaelmas on Thursday, we are now deep into the rich and fruitful season of Autumn. The leaves are not quite taking on their most glamorous colours yet, but a few are starting to fall. The evenings are drawing in fast and the longer nights are noticeably cooler. Fallen apples and conkers decorate the paths and the air is filled with the rich scent of decay as we enter the dark half of the year. The plant kingdom is laying down its stores of summer carbohydrates in their roots, preparing to hunker down for the winter. Underground life is stirring. This is the time when the ‘flowers’ of the woodland start to bloom. Now is one of the best times of the year to go looking for mushrooms.

I don’t collect any mushrooms for culinary purposes. If you do it’s well worth taking an expert to guide you, and make sure your identification is 100% correct before risking cooking any. I have however grown mushrooms from a kit a few times. This year I collected the spores and have added them to a few rotten logs in the garden. I’m hoping I will be able to harvest oyster mushrooms of my own sometime soon.

My primary interest in foraging for fungi is to learn more about them. I want to be able to identify them better and know how they relate to the habitat in which we discover them. Many have specific requirements, only growing on wood in a particular life stage (from living, to dead, to near mush.) Many will be specific to one particular host plant or only occur in association with certain soil types. They are indicator of the health of the ecosystem and tell us just as much about our environment as the plants, animals or insects we see.

For all that we see going on above the ground, there is just as much at work beneath. Whilst the world of light is easily seen and tangible to us, the dark underworld of the soil and mushrooms can be easily overlooked. We only ever see their tiny fruiting bodies if they choose to make an appearance when the ideal environmental or climatic conditions allow. The giant redwoods of the west coast of the US are often thought of as the biggest organisms on the planet, but they are dwarfed by a leviathan of a mushroom. The giant body of a colony of armillaria mellea (honey fungus) is slowly eating it’s way through the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It is thought to span 3.4 sq miles, and is possibly the largest single organism on the planet. The world of mushrooms and fungus plays an essential role of recycling nutrients in the environment. Without the approximately 1.5 million species of fungi that exist we would be without bread, beer or soy sauce. Millions would die from a lack of the antibiotics produced by fungi, and yet we still seem to be fearful of them. Perhaps it is their ominous sounding names such as the ‘Death Cap’ or the ‘Destroying Angel’. Maybe it is their association with malevolent imps of the forest, but we seem to push them to the edge of our world. 

The hyphae of the soil fungi form a mutually beneficial association with the roots of the plants that live there, called a mycorrhizae (from the Greek mykos – fungus, and riza – root.) This links every plant and fungus living in the ecosystem together. This huge network has been described as a ‘wood wide web’. Recent research has shown that this performs a beneficial function for both plants and fungi. The fungi are able to access the carbohydrates produced by the plants from a summer of photosynthesis. In turn the fungi provide the trees with essential phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil.

By using a special blend of carbon dioxide containing the carbon-13 isotope, researchers demonstrated trees utilised this network for mutually beneficial reallocation of resources. Young saplings, struggling in the shade of more established trees were supported by the matriarchs of the forest. Trees under attack from aphids used the network to warn their neighbours to raise their defences against the impending threat.

This starts to raise the question about if the traditional way we see the boundaries of an organism are really true. Should we start to recognise the forest as one single living, breathing and feeding organism, rather than a host of individuals, all competing for a niche in a laissez-faire, free-market system, as our current interpretation of evolutionary theory suggests we should. If so, how do we start to plug into this network. How can we start to add our own status updates? And how do we start to like the ‘posts’ from our friends and neighbours, the plants and fungi.