Growing Pumpkins and Pumpkin Carving

By Andy McIndoe

Ian Hatcher is a gardening friend of our horticulture expert and top tutor Andy McIndoe, who also lives in Hampshire, Southern England. If you want to get your pumkins going in time for Halloween, here are Ian Hatcher's top tips.

Ian is a Wiltshire boy who stated life as a printer, and then got into gardening, but I never really knew how. I knew that Ian had grown pumpkins, so I asked him to show me some pumpkin carving in time for Halloween. I suppose what I had in mind was one of those little orange pumpkins you sit on your windowsill, instead he turned up with a 200 pound beast of a pumpkin; but then I suppose he was a champion pumpkin grower! The arrival of this enormous pumpkin prompted a few questions:

So how did you start growing pumpkins?

My mum organised a pumpkin growing competition where she worked. So I decided to have a go at growing pumpkins, and enter the competition. I had never really grown anything before and certainly was not into gardening. I was a printer by trade and used to an indoor life!

So growing pumpkins started you gardening?

Yes, growing pumpkins got me interested. I progressed from growing pumpkins into growing vegetables. I liked being outside and started to love gardening so I gave up the print trade and started garden maintenance part time. On the other days I had a driving job. As I learned more I eventually gave up the driving and started gardening full time: maintenance, planting and some construction. No regrets; I’ve never looked back!

What’s the biggest pumpkin you’ve ever grown?

The biggest pumpkin I ever grew was about 650 pounds. That sounds enormous, but the world record has recently been broken in the USA with a pumpkin weighing over 2,000 pounds – that’s ten times the size of the one we are carving! I won championships here two years running and won trips to the World Championships which were then in San Francisco. America really is the pumpkin growing capital and pumpkin carving capital of the world! However Halloween is getting bigger in the UK too so maybe pumpkin carving will become a bigger part of the October scene.

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So what are your top tips for growing pumpkins?

If you want to grow massive pumpkins you need the right seed to start with. That’s where the American champions succeed: pedigree seed from prizewinning pumpkins. Secondly good soil preparation is essential: I used lots of well rotted manure and started early in the year. Then you need plenty of water in the growing season and regular feeding. I used Miracle-Gro!

Why did you give up growing pumpkins?

I simply did not have the time when I started gardening as a full-time job. I also discovered the ornamental aspects of gardening and was inspired to try different things. Pumpkin growing got me into gardening in the first place though. Doing this pumpkin carving has got me interested in having another go. Maybe next Halloween?

Do you think growing pumpkins is a good way to start gardening then?

I truly believe that growing pumpkins is the perfect way to get children started. Kids like things that grow quickly: they like to see quick results and rewards for their efforts. Pumpkins grow big and they have the wow factor. They are a lot more exciting than carrots and there’s the creative bit to come before Halloween.

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So let’s take you through pumpkin carving step by step:

First get your pumpkin into position and decide how you are going to carve it. There are no limits to the different designs you can go for: be led by the shape of the pumpkin. It’s a good idea to sketch the design o a piece of paper first.

With a marker pen (non-permanent is best so you can wipe it off if you make a mistake) mark out the features on the pumpkin. Remember that you’ve got to cut out the mouth, the eyes and maybe the nostrils so be practical. Don’t cut out over complicated designs the first-time round.

Now cut out the pieces that you intend to remove to let light shine out of the pumpkin when you put a candle or lamp in it later. You can use a pumpkin carving knife or a selection of kitchen equipment and garden tools. Ian used a pruning saw, a pumpkin carving knife, a cane, a small scoop and a vegetable peeler. It’s best to wear gloves in the early stages of carving to avoid disasters, and children should always do this with an adult.

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Ian first cut out the eyes with a pumpkin carving knife, and then the mouth, carefully cutting around the teeth with a pruning saw. This removes some large pieces of pumpkin flesh which we used to make pumpkin soup.

He then carved the lines of the nose, cheeks and eyebrows and any other design details. It’s then a matter of carving deeper and wider with a scoop to define the features of the pumpkin, especially above the eyes to create the eyebrows. If only plastic surgery was as simple and effective – not sure I’d want to look like that ‘though. This detail is where the American pumpkin carvers excel in creating amazing designs and some really magical vegetable creatures. Ian’s experience in the US and in competitions here really showed in the results.

Ian used a cane to floss between the teeth and give better definition around the mouth. I was impressed by the level of dental hygiene of this pumpkin!

Then it was time to find the eyeballs. Initially we used small marrows from the garden, just the flowering ends where the lines of the marrow come together to give the effect of an iris. The pupil itself was created from the seedhead of a rudbeckia. Although these eyes looked great we decided to go for more piercing ones, so we used small oranges held in position with wooden cocktail sticks and wooden skewers.

We then added a hat. A cane was carefully pushed into the top of the pumpkin to support the hat and keep it in position. This hat came from a German Halloween festival; my daughter brought it back from a German exchange – I knew it would come in useful one day!

Finally Ian cut a hole in the back if the pumpkin large enough to get a hand in. Seeds and pulp were removed as necessary to allow three tee lights to be placed inside the pumpkin. You could also use a battery lantern if you wish.

Remember that pumpkin carving is fun and it’s creative; it’s only limited by your imagination. There’s no right and wrong way so get out there and experiment.

For more gardening tips from Andy McIndoe, why not join him on one of his online Learning with Experts courses. Andy teaches in depth courses on Shrubs, Wildlife Gardening, Trees, Bulbs: For Pots & Borders and Lawns.

Andy McIndoe

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