An abundance of pumpkin and squash varieties grow in the Vaucluse House kitchen gardens during the summer months.  Photo © Sydney Living Museums

A harvest of melons and pumpkins

In February 1811, the owner of Vaucluse Estate, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, put a notice in the Sydney Gazette. The Irish aristocrat – a convict – offered 10 guineas to ‘any Person that will give Information so as to prosecute to Conviction the Person or Persons, who on Tuesday and Wednesday night last robbed my Garden, at Vaucluse, of a quantity of Water-Mellons; and on Thursday being fired at, left Bags and Bludgeons behind’.

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.

Orange and green pumpkins in the kitchen garden

A bumper harvest of Turk’s Turban squashes in the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House. Photo Helen Curran © Sydney Living Museums

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

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 Turks 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.

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Photograph of Helen Curran, assistant curator at Sydney Living Museums
Helen Curran
Former Assistant Curator
Helen was Sydney Living Museums’ dedicated gardens...
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