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How to grow cucurbits: pumpkins, courgettes and cucumbers | Alys Fowler | Life and style


My friend Birgit once told me that she didn’t feel truly happy unless there was some sort of cucurbit in the house, preferably a winter squash. I’ve come to understand that. There’s a comfort in having a store full of them. I start the winter with 15-20 fruit from five or six different varieties, and I’m still eating them well into May. I have pumpkins that taste of melon, others with a deep, sweet nuttiness, and thin-skinned, dense, beta-carotene rich ones. Sow salads, radishes and fast-growing greens like cime de rapa for quick rewards, grow courgettes and cucumbers if you want something for summer; but grow pumpkins to feel prepared.





‘Sibley’ squash (Cucurbita pepo)



Firm favourite: ‘Sibley’ squash (Cucurbita pepo) Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I sow around now: two seeds in 9cm pots on a heated propagator or warm windowsill. It doesn’t matter a hoot whether you sow the seeds on their sides or not. Germination is best at 20C. Discard the smaller specimen of the two once they have their first true leaves. Grow on at 15C until they have three or more true leaves. At this point, I like to pot them on into 5L pots and harden them off well outside. Cold nights will check growth so keep fleece handy.

I use the same method for summer squash (‘Tromboncino’ is a great climber for small spaces), courgettes (‘Striato di Napoli’ for an upright bush that leaves space for other things), and cucumbers (‘Tamra’ and the Japanese ‘Zipangu’ F1 both have my heart), which I will be sowing this week, too. Real Seeds, Franchi, Chiltern Seeds and Brown Envelope seeds are my go-to for diverse, delicious cucurbits: ‘Thelma Saunders Sweet Potato, ‘Sibley’ squash, ‘Ute Indian’, ‘Burgess Vine Buttercup’ and ‘Zucca Tonda Padana’ are all firm favourite squashes.

I plant them out from about the second week of May. On the whole, you shouldn’t spoil vegetables with too much fertility, but the opposite is true for cucurbits: the more love the better. Each plant gets a hole filled with home compost or horse manure. Once settled, I mulch around them, often with grass clippings for a nitrogen boost, and I liquid feed any that aren’t romping away by mid summer.

Winter squash need to be planted 2m apart; courgettes can go closer: 90cm or 60cm at a push; and cucumbers, as they climb, can go 40-45cm apart. It may be tempting to squish a few more in, but it is always at the cost of yield.

If you are limited for space, try training smaller fruited varieties up arbours and arches. Or train rampant ones in a circle. You will need tent pegs. As the plants start to trail, pin down the stem gently as it grows in a spiral round the plant. Stick a bamboo cane in the middle of the plant so you know where to water.

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