Make the most of this tender annual to create gorgeous pies, soups and jack-o-lanterns
Neve Connolly brings her graphic design talent to pumpkin carving. Photograph: Richard Johnston
After a series of cold, wet, slug-infested summers when the plants petulantly threw out a handful of tiny, forlorn fruits before succumbing to a mixture of disease, frostbite and apathy, I decided, reluctantly, not to grow any pumpkins this year.
More fool me. As for pretty much everything else in the garden, 2013 turned out to be a vintage year for this tender annual: warm temperatures and sunny days meant the plants flourished and fruited abundantly. For the past few months I’ve been spotting pumpkins – big and small, smooth-skinned and delightfully warty, in every possible shade of green, gold, red, and orange – in allotments, community gardens and kitchen gardens all over the country. And I’m envious.
Growing pumpkins outdoors in this country is always something of a space-consuming gamble, for as well as needing lots of room to stretch out their leafy vines, the plants need a long, warm growing season. They also need to be carefully cured, lifted and stored before autumn frosts hit. But still I regret squandering the opportunity to grow these colourful beauties.
As with many other kinds of winter squash, the juicy, golden flesh of the culinary varieties of pumpkin is delicious whether grilled, roasted, made into a pie, baked in bread or turned into a nourishing, flame-coloured soup. Their large yellow flowers are also edible (like those of their close relatives, courgettes), while some gardeners stir-fry/steam the tender shoots. But all that aside, pumpkins just look gorgeous, in the sort of covetable, caressable, larger-than-life way that makes you want to pucker up your lips and whistle in sheer admiration.
After childhood Halloweens spent laboriously whittling jack-o-lanterns out of turnips (pumpkins being pretty thin on the ground back in those days), I am also a sucker for a well-carved pumpkin. So when the Dublin-based graphic designer Neve Connolly recently offered me a masterclass in pumpkin craft, I was as enthusiastic as any eight-year-old.
Connolly (whose horticulturist father, Michael Connolly, is the proprietor of Rolestown Garden Centre in Swords) first got bitten by the pumpkin-carving bug during a childhood visit to her aunt’s home in Boston.
“My aunt showed me how to use stencils to make intricate designs and gave me the sort of special carving tools that just weren’t available in Ireland at that time. Straight away I was hooked.” Soon she was organising pumpkin-carving parties with her friends, which eventually led to her giving workshops and demonstrations for corporate events.