One of the favorite dishes of fall is pumpkin pie and roasted pumpkin seeds. While pumpkins are easily available at the local grocery store, homegrown varieties build family memories whether you go to a U-pick It farm or grow your own. If you decide to create your own pumpkin patch for The Great Pumpkin there are a few steps that need to be followed.
Great tasting pumpkins start with a great soil. Preparing the soil for next year’s pumpkin patch begins in the fall with a soil test. The information on how to take a soil test and where it needs to be sent can be found at your local extension office.
Once the report is back, check the pH level. Pumpkins thrive in a soil environment that is 6.5 to 6.8. If the pH is not at this level adjust according to the soil test recommendations. After the pH has been adjusted, add three to five yards of composted manure per 30-foot area. Top this area with winter rye, which is a green manure. This “green manure” will be tilled under in the spring creating another source of fertilizer.
The next step in this process is to start the seeds. If you plan to eat the pumpkin seeds only use seed harvested from organically grown pumpkins. Some experts believe that pesticides become stored in the seed and when this seed is eaten the chemicals are transferred to humans. Once you have the seed you will need to determine when to plant them. Pumpkin seedlings need to be four weeks old or older before placing in the garden. To calculate the planting date, count back four weeks from your local frost-free date.
After the date has been calculated, fill peat pots with an all-purpose potting mix and prepare the seed. Pumpkin seeds have very hard coats and require a little help in the germination process. To aid them in the germination process requires the gardener to sand the seed coat with a finger nail file. Once this is done, soak the seeds in a cup of warm water for 24 hours before planting.
After the seeds have soaked, begin the planting process. This is easy and only requires ones finger. Make a hole that is one to one and half inches deep. Place the seed in the hole with the pointed end sticking up. Fill in the hole with soil and gently pack down. Water the seeds in and keep evenly moist until the seedlings germinate.
Pumpkin seedlings are ready to move outdoors after the frost-free date has passed and the second set of leaves have appeared. Measure off rows in a sunny location of the garden and plant seedlings every five feet.
Pumpkins require a long growing season of 110 to 140 days. In some areas of the country this is not a problem. If you live in one of these areas you can plant your seeds directly into the garden space. To do this, create hills of soil in the garden space. Place five to six seeds in each hill and water in. Once the seeds germinate and have two sets of leaves, thin them out so that each hill has one plant.
If you do not have a traditional garden space, do not think you cannot grow your own pumpkins. Small variety pumpkins such as Sugar Pie grow well in a container. This container can be a kiddie pool with a trellis attached or a more decorative planter such as a cedar planter box with a trellis.
If using the pool, poke holes in the bottom of the pool and fill with an all-purpose potting soil mixed with compost. Plant seedlings or seeds and attach the trellis. If using the cedar planter box with a trellis, fill with the above soil mixture and plant seeds.
Once seeds germinate, thin and train to grow up the trellis. The vines may need a little help attaching to the trellis. To aid them, gently tie them to the trellis using garden twine.
After the seedlings have been planted, apply a good dose of a fertilizer high in phosphorus such as 15-30-15.
In about eight to ten weeks the vines will begin to flower. In pumpkins the flowers are either male or female. The first flowers to appear are always male. These blooms can be recognized by their long stems. A few weeks after the male blooms appear, the female blooms will begin to appear. These blooms have a little pumpkin shape at the base. At this point, Mother Nature can take over but you can help with the pollination process by pollinating the blooms yourself.
To begin the pollination process starts with selecting the best male and female blooms. Once this is done, simply pick a male bloom and strip off all the petals. What will remain is the stamen and pollen. After this is done, take your selected female bloom and rub the stamen inside the female bloom then tie the bloom off. This step will prevent other plants from pollinating your bloom.
Pollinated flowers will drop their petals and form a small pumpkin. Once this happens, start a fertilizer program with a balanced fertilizer such as a 20-20-20. The goal of this process is to create a pumpkin before July 10. Having pumpkins fertilized by this date will allow enough time for the pumpkin to develop character and grow.
By July 20, several pumpkins should have formed on the vine whether you hand pollinated or you let Mother Nature. If you want large pumpkins, you will need to remove all the fruit but one from each vine. To decide which ones to remove takes a little practice. Measure each pumpkin and observe the shape. Pumpkins that are round and tall have a better chance of growing large.
Continue to fertilize the vines with a balance fertilizer and prune them. Pumpkin vines should not be allowed to grow longer than 20 to 30 feet. To prune the vines, simply shorten the vines by cutting the ends. The end that is still attached to the plant needs to be buried into the soil. This will prevent the loss of water through the cut.
If you are growing pumpkins in a kiddie pool or cedar planter box with a trellis, the process is the came except the reduction of fruit and the pruning. Since the pumpkin variety that is grown in a container is small there is no need to reduce the number of fruits. Also having a lot of vining material helps the plant attach itself to the trellis. The only true difference in growing pumpkins in the garden or container is the trellising of the fruit. Pumpkins grown on a trellis do well with some additional support. This can come from creating a plant hammock. This hammock can be made from old panty hose, cotton t-shirts or potato bags. To create this hammock is simple and only requires one end to be tied to the trellis. Once this is done, run the hammock under the fruit and tie off on the other side. Adjust as needed. This hammock will provide support and protection from garden pests such as raccoons and deer.
So this year as the family sits around and watches the Charlie Brown Special called “It’s the great pumpkin Charlie Brown” consider creating your own for your children. With a little effort and planning, next year’s pumpkin can be harvested from your own hyperlocal pumpkin patch. That in itself will be filled with family memories, giggles and your own children searching for their very own “Great Pumpkin.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.