The Halloween harvest
Pumpkins are one of the iconic fruits of harvest and of autumn. Lincolnshire Life visited Bell Brothers of Benington, Boston, one of the largest commercial growers in the county.
Robert Bell and his brother Jonathan are quite literally knee-deep in pumpkins at this time of the year which is in contrast to the times they can be knee-deep in mud during the growing season.
Lincolnshire’s Fen silt loam is some of the finest land in the UK and especially important for food production. The reclaimed land has an almost stoneless fine soil, which is deep with a high water table, yet has perfect drainage; ideal for growing gourds and squashes. Pumpkins thrive and produce high yields here.
Shops and supermarkets will soon be stocked with the cheerful, orange fruits but we went along to witness the start of the harvest which takes place a few weeks before the Halloween build-up.
There are not many farmers who do not start the day early and Robert is no exception. “I get up 5.15am as standard, whether it’s pumpkin season or not,” he said. “As a grower, the early bird really does catch the worm, and the quiet early mornings allow me to walk crops and plan any adjustments we need to make.”
The brothers are the fourth generation of the Bell family to work this land, with their father Bernard running the arable farm and Robert and Jonathan running the highly successful plant nurseries division. Theirs is a British success story where the exceptional growth of the business has been recognised by the London Stock Exchange, which named Bell’s as one of the top 100 Companies to Inspire Britain.
The company has been highly successful at identifying and producing plants to reflect seasonal markets. Their pumpkin production has grown as the popularity of celebrating autumn and Halloween in the UK has risen.
Bell’s Nurseries grow up to half a million pumpkins each year and they are a crop which need some specialist nurturing. With male and female flowers, they need to be pollinated so sometimes additional beehives are hired into the field margins. “We have also learnt how to store the pumpkins under glass in part of our 30 acres of nursery greenhouses, giving them the right amount of heat and light to build the deep orange colour which shoppers expect,” said Robert.
As with any other crop heading for the supermarkets, great care is taken to ensure the pumpkins, gourds and squashes which also make up part of the crop reach the stores in perfect condition. “I spend harvest days going from site to site ensuring that each area is running smoothly,” said Robert. “The pumpkin necks will have been cut up to two weeks before harvest so now they are lifted into bins on the field, transported to washing lines and ready for glasshouse storage.”
Each fruit looks like a bright gem lying out in the open field but the volume of colour which comes together at harvest is dazzling. The final stage is a trip to the pack house from where the pumpkins make their final journey to the retailer… and shoppers’ trolleys.
Bell’s create their own Pick Your Own Pumpkin Patch each year. It began with a small patch behind Bell’s Gardening Outlet using up some leftover seed and now has grown to attract over 10,000 visitors each year.
The Patch opens on Saturday 12th October with a Giant Pumpkin Weigh Off for the public and schools, each with a £250 1st prize. “We give seeds and plants away in the spring to encourage everyone and anyone to grow their own pumpkins but you can come along and pick your own too.” You can read more about this year’s events on page 34.
Handling a harvest on this scale takes careful preparation to ensure the right staff are in the right places and investing in machinery which will make the job in hand more efficient.
Robert said: “Growing pumpkins came about almost accidentally and none of us had any experience of creating our own PYO Pumpkin Patch and half-term event but Holly, my wife, gets everyone stuck in and we all really love celebrating autumn now with pumpkins the focal point.”
The Patch, as well as being enormous fun for the whole family, also has plenty of ideas of how to decorate your home with displays of squash and of course lantern carving and a shop packed with ghoulish delights for Halloween.
Pumpkins which are not sold are offered to local farmers and smallholders for livestock. A local wildlife park even takes some, where they are a favourite with the tigers!
The pumpkin harvest marks the end of the summer for Bell’s but there is no time to dwell on past sunny days; their next focus will be the plants and arrangements we will all be buying during the festive season.
For more information visit: bellshorticultural.co.uk