A harvest of melons and pumpkins
Light fingers in the recreated Victorian kitchen garden at Vaucluse House are no longer met with firepower. But the beautifully mottled melons ripening on the sun-warmed slope still attract plenty of attention.
According to Sydney Living Museums horticulturist Anita Rayner, more than a few will disappear in the hands of an admirer. ‘Jam melons are the favourite because they’re so beautiful,’ she says. ‘They look exactly like a watermelon. That’s one of the reasons people take them, thinking they’re going to have a delicious feast. And then they cut them open.’
Melons are a member of the Cucurbit family, a group of scrambling vine–growers that includes squashes, gourds, pumpkins, zucchinis and cucumbers. Cucurbits love a hot, dry climate and thrive in sandy soils, so they’re perfect for Sydney’s growing conditions. ‘Vines of every sort seem to flourish,’ reported the British officer Watkin Tench in 1793. ‘Melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins, run with unbounded luxuriancy.’
Over two centuries later, the late summer and early autumn cucurbit harvest at Vaucluse House is still bountiful. This year the garden beds are strewn with a motley crew of heirloom varieties: Turk’s Turban, Green Hubbard and Custard White Button squashes, Rampicante zucchini and African horned cucumbers. All have been chosen to represent the astonishing range of varieties available to gardeners in the first half of the 19th century.
But of all the things that grow, the most astonishing, certainly, are our pumpkins and vegetable marrows. It is hardly too much to say that you may see them grow.
Charles Rowcroft, Tales of the colonies, 1843
Green Hubbard squash
The Green Hubbard squash was first cultivated in America in the 19th century. By 1907, NSW’s Armidale Chronicle was describing it as ‘the ideal Australian pumpkin’. The sweet-fleshed squashes have a distinctive tear-drop shape and grow to impressive proportions in Sydney’s hot climate. Because the outer skin is very tough, you can store Hubbard squashes for up to six months after harvesting them.
Turk’s Turban squash
Named for its unique shape, the Turk’s Turban squash is a pumpkin variety developed in France in the 18th century. The thick outer skin is mottled orange with green and white stripes. At Vaucluse House, we plant the seed in spring to produce large squashes weighing up to about 7 kilograms in late summer and early autumn.
Jam melons (also known as red-seeded citrons) are native to West Africa. Their date of domestication is unknown, but they appear to have been grown in ancient Egypt at least 4000 years ago. Because of the high pectin content, the flesh has been used for centuries to make preserves. While the jam melon’s flesh isn’t tasty in itself, its beautiful, dark green–patterned skin looks fabulous in our kitchen garden.
Honeybees are essential garden workers in the Vaucluse House kitchen garden. Anita reports much more success with the pumpkin harvest now that the kitchen garden is host to four hives from The Urban Beehive. ‘Before the bees, we had a lot of trouble getting [the pumpkins] to pollinate,’ she says. You can sample the bees’ honey, Wentworth’s Gold, at the Vaucluse House tearooms.
The Tromboncino squash, also known as the Rampicante zucchini, is an Italian heirloom variety named for its curling growth habit (tromboncino means ‘little trombone’). It runs rampant in the kitchen garden throughout the summer months, ‘This self-seeded and I just let it grow, because the cucumber I planted didn’t work out,’ says Anita. ‘This is what they do – every year it happens.’
Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkins
The patch of Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkins is a show-stopper in the gardens this season. Unlike the other heirloom varieties, these are a relatively recent cultivated variety. Anita grew them out of curiosity to see how big they’d get, and for visual impact. The biggest weighs in at more than 20 kilos.
This year, the Sydney Living Museums gardens team is also growing the jam melon – an important Victorian crop. Though it looks beautiful, its flesh is disappointingly pale and insipid. ‘It’s not for eating,’ Anita says. ‘[Colonial cooks] used it to fill out their jams. If they only had a handful of strawberries or whatever, this could make it go a long way. It has a really high pectin content, so it sets the jam. That’s why it’s called a jam melon.’ (You can see colonial gastronomer Jacqui Newling making melon and pineapple jam here.)
A later variety, the Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin, is a departure from period authenticity, but makes up for it in visual impact. The enormous orange pumpkins – the competition-growing standard – litter the garden bed by the pomegranate tree and beehives, looking jack-o’-lantern ready. ‘Before Christmas there were no pumpkins here,’ says Anita, ‘and then all of a sudden, heat. Boom!’
Anita’s tips for growing melons and squashes
Plant seedlings into prepared soil in October for a bountiful late summer and early autumn harvest.
Mark seedlings with a stake. As the vines start to ramble, it can be difficult to trace them back to the original plant, where you need to direct your watering efforts. Watering the leaves makes them mouldy.
Give seedlings plenty of compost, then feed them with Seasol (a seaweed plant tonic) every fortnight until they start to grow.
Make sure you leave plenty of space for your vines to ramble: a single Turk’s Turban seedling produces a bumper crop of 10 or more squashes.
Pollination can be a problem. At Vaucluse House we have four hives of bees from the The Urban Beehive who do the work for us (they also produce a delicious honey, Wentworth’s Gold, which you can buy at the Vaucluse House gift shop). You could also try using a paintbrush to daub female flowers (the ones with the sticky stigma) with pollen from a male flower (the ones with pollen-covered stamens).
References & acknowledgements
Sir Henry Browne Hayes’ account of the Vaucluse Estate melon heist appears in the Sydney Gazette, 9 February 1811, p. 2. Thanks to historian Jane Kelso for the reference.
Watkin Tench made his observations about the colony’s cucurbits in A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson, London, 1793, p. 165.
Thanks to Anita Rayner, and to Amelia Lindsay for her help researching and writing this article.