Make the most of this tender annual to create gorgeous pies, soups and jack-o-lanterns
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.
The first piece of advice Connolly gives me is to get my hands on as large a pumpkin as possible. “Otherwise it’s very difficult to get any real detail into the carving. You need that workspace.” Nor is she at all averse to irregularly shaped pumpkins. “I’m happy to take the ugly ones that the shops don’t want – they have lots of personality and make for a more interesting carving.”
Another useful tip is that when it comes to hollowing out your pumpkin, it’s better to cut off the base rather than the top: this maximises the space available for carving (to light it, place it over a lit candle/nightlight contained in a holder).
She also points out that would-be carvers will need the right tools, which these days you can buy as a set from most good garden centres. For particularly detailed carving work, Connolly likes to use both clay-shaping and lino-cutting tools, of the sort stocked by art supplies shops (Evans on Meeting House Lane in Dublin 7, evansartsupplies.ie, stocks a set of six lino-cutting blades for €4.95).
As for the stencils, a wide selection is available to download free from the internet (see pumpkinmasters.com, which also offers a free pumpkin carving iPad app, and zombiepumpkins.com, where you can take your pick from ghostly phantoms, witches, haunted houses, bats, headless horsemen and many more).
Print them out, tape them to your pumpkin and punch tiny holes at regular intervals along the lines to mark out the drawing. Use the miniature saw to cut out the design (start with the smallest pieces first). Alternatively, you can forget about the stencils and carve free-style. This is risky if you get it wrong but so rewarding if you get it right.
And don’t worry that you might be the only one who enjoys indulging your inner child in this way. Along with the many workshops in pumpkin carving that Connolly is running for children this Halloweeen (see below), she’s also running an extreme pumpkin carving workshop exclusively for adults. It booked out weeks ago.
October 25th-30th: Virginia Pumpkin Festival, Virginia, Co Cavan, see pumpkinfestival.ie.
October 26th, 27th, 28th: Children’s pumpkin carving workshops with Neve Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. €10/child, pre-booking essential, see rolestownplantsplus.ie.
October 27th-28th: 12pm and 2pm, children’s pumpkin carving workshops at Powerscourt Garden Pavilion, Co Wicklow. Pre-booking essential. See powerscourt.ie/events