I meet the ‘pump-king’: one man who will be taking his Halloween creations to another level this month – and get his top tips on pumpkin carving
You could say allotmenteer Gareth Glover is carving a niche when it comes to winter squash.
Over the last five years the 36-year-old has given over a quarter of his Hull allotment to pumpkin growing, producing more than 20 of the large orange specimens every year. But he doesn’t keep them all to himself.
In fact, Gareth isn’t just a keen grow-your-owner, he’s also a ‘pumpkin artist’ – responsible for chiseling spookily accurate portraits of faces, among them Johnny Depp, Robin Williams and Marilyn Monroe, into squash skin. It brings a whole new meaning to getting a skin peel.
From seed to squash
It was three years ago that Gareth turned his hobby into a seasonal business, when he quit his office job to take a horticulture course at his local agricultural college. Fed up with the small pumpkins on offer in the supermarkets, he began experimenting with homegrown Jack O Lanterns.
“The first year was an absolute disaster,” admits Gareth. “I germinated the seeds too late and planted them out too early – and made every mistake there was to make! But luckily my fellow allotmenteers were on hand to offer advice and the following year I grew three different varieties, with one of them growing so long it rampaged across my allotment and into the next one!”
After a successful harvest, Gareth spotted a pattern for a pumpkin design on the internet.
“It was a very basic pattern but I was so amazed at how it turned out that I decided to send the whole thing to my mum in the mail,” says Gareth. “The postal costs were astronomical, of course – and goodness knows what my parents thought when they got a pumpkin by post!”
After researching advanced designs, Gareth soon became captivated by carving, however.
“It’s amazing how such intricate designs can be sculpted on to what is essentially a piece of fruit,” he says. “But I gave it a go and seemed to have a real aptitude for it.”
Fruits of his labour
Today, Gareth creates complex squash sketches directly from photographs, transferring his handmade patterns onto the pumpkins. But, he says, the art of good carving always begins in the potting shed.
“I sow between 30 and 40 pumpkin seeds in February and of those maybe 10 per cent won’t germinate,” he says. “From the ones that do, I’ll select the healthiest ones to grow on and discard the weakest, and just after they’ve got their first true leaves I’ll pot them into 12″ pots.”
In April, Gareth hardens the plants off so they are acclimatised to outdoor conditions and plants them out into the allotment after the last frost, feeding as they grow.
“If you want nice big pumpkins, it’s all about soil improvement. Work as much well rotted compost as you can into the soil – some of the old guys on the plot even grow them on their compost heaps!” he says. “I keep the plants in check by only allowing two or three fruits per plant, and removing the rest. This ensures the plant puts its energy into swelling a few select pumpkins instead of putting on unwanted growth.
“If you want a decent design, you’ll also need a smooth surface – so when the pumpkins are starting to grow, I stand them on their bottoms so they naturally grow with a smooth front and back. And make sure you harvest them with a really nice long stalk as this not only gives the pumpkin character, but they often last longer too.”
“People love the fact that I germinate, plant out and care for the pumpkins I carve for them,” says Gareth, whose business is blooming. “Obviously, I can’t do it all year round because of the availability of pumpkins – but some people have suggested I turn my talent to watermelons as well!”
Such is his skill; Gareth is now accepting all sorts of challenging commissions.
“I’ve had some strange requests over the years, from pet Chihuahuas to politicians,” says Gareth. “One mum-to-be even wanted me to carve the shape of her unborn fetus into a pumpkin to announce her pregnancy to her family. It was made particularly difficult as I had no design to reference!”
The whole creative process from selecting the pumpkin, to hollowing it out and transferring the image can take up to five hours – and Gareth is keen not to waste anything. “We make an awful lot of pumpkin soup in my house!” he jokes.
And only when the pumpkin is illuminated from within does it comes to life.
“Without light they just look like pumpkins with holes in,” says Gareth. “But when you add the candle, that’s when the magic happens!”
Gareth’s Goulish Guide to Carving
- Choose the right pumpkin. Every pumpkin has a character and lends itself to particular designs. There are also many different varieties with interesting textures and colours – so you don’t always have to go for the obvious ‘Jack o’ Lantern’ types.
- Get the right tools. Throw away that kitchen knife and get yourself some sculpting tools, as they are much sharper and more accurate.
- Hollow it out. Cut a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin, not the top. If you remove the stalk, you’re removing most of the fruit’s structural integrity and it will not last as long.
- Use a stencil. Make sure the pumpkin skin is dry before you start, then draw the outline. If you find it difficult to see the pattern you’ve traced, drop some talcum powder over the surface, which makes the dotted lines more visible.
- Don’t rush. It’s heartbreaking making a mistake at this stage and accidentally cutting somebody’s nose off or giving them a wonky eye!
- Spray. Dose your pumpkin with a mild bleach solution as this will kill any fungal and bacterial spores and will slow down its decomposition.
- Use artificial light. When you put a candle inside a pumpkin it will start to cook it from the inside, so use a LED battery operated candles instead.
First published in Vegetarian Living