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Old fashioned petunias | Photos by the writer
Old fashioned petunias | Photos by the writer

It’s hard to believe that it is 18 years since the competition began: Huma was just six years old when she fell in love with a huge — well 32 kg — brilliant vermilion Rouge vif d’Entampe pumpkin which, lavished with an endless supply of tender loving care, had become the focal point in my bottom garden terrace.

Round-eyed and open-mouthed she was completely awestruck by this colourful mass of plenty and, right there and then, determined that she must grow one, in her own close by garden, the following year too.

I still remember how that little girl picked my brains about how to grow pumpkins over the ensuing winter months and how desperate she was to be given her promised seeds come spring. The only thing the incredibly independent — at least when it came to growing pumpkins — little girl did not want was help. “I can do it myself,” she insisted when sowing day arrived. She further surprised me by adding, “I’ve already made its special place and my pumpkin is going to grow bigger than yours!”

Tips on growing majestic pumpkins from seeds

“Huma keeps asking everyone about how to grow pumpkins,” chimed in her four-year-old sister Madiyah. “She even asked the sabzi wallah because he was cutting up a huge desi one for sale.”

Huma went home clutching her six precious pumpkin seeds — harvested from the 32kg beauty of the previous autumn — in her tightly clenched fist and came running back, just 20 minutes later, to tell me that the deed was done, the seeds were sown, the competition was up and running.

First hurdle was germination: we both germinated five seeds out of six.

The second hurdle, a good few weeks later, was first flower and Huma won.

Then it was the first pumpkin to set and the delighted girl won again.

Then it was the big wait to see, on harvesting day, which one of us had grown the largest pumpkin. Meanwhile, we fed them, pampered them, talked to them, and even sang to them at times. We protected the developing fruits from slugs and snails, from chickens and porcupines, from monsoon rains and anything else we figured they needed protection from ... including, sadly, predatory humans.

Weighing day approached: Huma had a prolific 15 pumpkins distributed between her five monstrous plants which sprawled here there and right up on to the earthen kitchen roof of her traditional mountain home. My own five plants had yielded 11 promising fruits but all significantly smaller than the majestic specimen attained the previous year.

Huma was so certain that she would win, that she had celebratory pakoras, tea and biscuits waiting in her porch where, after meticulously weighing the largest one I had grown — just 24.7 kg — we set up the scales to weigh, with her father’s help, her prime contender — a winner at 32.8 kg.

Huma’s smile was broad enough and bright enough to light up the entire world. She had outdone her teacher at first try.

Prized pumpkin
Prized pumpkin

Her growing secrets, divulged in bits and pieces over the following weeks and before the next sowing season arrived, were simple: make a raised mound out of ancient, therefore totally rotted down, goat/buffalo and chicken manure which, during its years of rotting down, had periodically been deeply infiltrated by a mixture of naturally fallen deciduous leaves and pine needles. Each mound was about two feet high and four feet in diameter when newly constructed. A single pumpkin seed was inserted into a purpose-created soil pocket, one third of the way down from the mound top and on both sides of each mound (two seeds/plants per mound). From then on, it was all down to regular watering combined with tender loving care. Simple really and, substituting the mixed manure with very rich compost, you can do the same if you go out and get started right now.

  • Huma and I are no longer neighbours but the competition continues with Huma and I having won nine times each … ready, steady, seeds and sow!

Elsewhere in the vegetable garden: April is perfect for getting a sweet potato patch up and running and do remember that you don’t have to wait for tubers to develop before you get a meal as the leaves, cooked like spinach, are delicious too. Sow more tomato seeds along with cucumbers, aubergines, capsicums, crunchy salad radish, giant-sized mooli, ladies fingers, karela, beans both bush and climbing, green onions and fenugreek. In partial shade you can sow lettuce, leaf beet/Swiss chard and an assortment of Chinese and Japanese salad leaves with some summer/autumn maturing cauliflowers, loose leaf summer cabbage and collard greens too. Along with the pumpkins detailed above, April is last call for sowing marrows, zucchini/courgettes, tindas, loki and other members of the squash/Cucurbita family of plants.

In the herb garden: A wide selection of basils, coriander, chillies, borage, garlic chives, chives, nasturtiums, chervil, rocket/arugula, feverfew, summer savoury, dill, aniseed, calendulas, lemon grass, ginger and why not give turmeric a go as well.

On the fruit front: Sweet melons, water melons, pineapples and Chinese gooseberries can be planted now.

In the flower department: Celosia, Gompherena, Nicotiana, Matricaria, Amaranthus, Cosmos, sunflowers, Mesembryanthemums, Portulaca, Zinnias, Tithonia, Californian poppies, Rudbekia, Gaillardia, Coreopsis, Flax (alsi in Urdu), Tagetes, French marigolds and Petunias.

Bulb/corms: Calocasias, Alocasias, Caladiums and Amaryllis can all be potted up for growing on now.

Flower of the month: Californian poppy (Eschscholzia) is an easily grown, sun-loving annual which, in coastal regions and the plains, can be sown at almost any time of the year. It thrives in poor, well-drained soil and self-seeds when happy.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened. Commercial enquiries will be ignored.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018