BY: Kathleen Duncan
Pumpkins take a loooooong time to grow, 80 to 120 days depending on the variety. This means if you want that perfect Halloween pumpkin you need to plant your seeds by the 4th of July (I use one holiday to remind me of the other.). The University of Georgia (UGA) vegetable planting guide is downloadable from the Fort Gordon community garden website divides pumpkins by variety/cultivators and size. (gordon.armymwr.com/community-garden)
*A quick note about Varieties/Cultivators the ones listed here in this article are from the test gardens of UGA, they are KNOWN to grow well in our planting zone. If you select seed varieties from the big box store they may not have stocked with our planting zone in mind.*
If you want the cute tiny pumpkins, look for the variety/cultivator called “Little Ironsides”, this one is not for carving or eating but looks super cute as decorations. There are a couple of choices for a small pumpkin: “Autumn Gold, Jack-O-Lantern or Jack of all trades”. (These are about the size you see at the store, the ones easy to carry if you have little ones helping)
Now for the larger pumpkins you will want to look for the variety/cultivators called “Aladdin, Gold Rush, Major Lantern or Merlin”. For those who have to have the biggest pumpkin on the block look at variety/cultivators called Dill’s Atlantic, Giant or Prize Winner”.
Growing pumpkins have some care needs, besides patience. They are usually planted in mounds (like most squash) but you can plant rows if you want. Plant seeds in rows or “pumpkin hills,” which are the size of small pitcher mounds. With hills, the soil will warm more quickly and the seeds will germinate faster. This also helps with drainage and pest control. For an adventure use a large 5 or 10 gallon dark bucket or pot. Make sure they have good drainage. Also remember they are a vine plant and will spread out and cover a patio.
However you decide to plant them they HAVE to have full sun, they like warm rich composted soil, good amounts of water with good drainage. They will need 1 inch of water a week. You need to water the base of the vines, not the leaves because pumpkins can get powdery mildew too easy.
I recommend growing pumpkins by directly sowing seeds into the warm rich ground. Plant seed when it is no colder than 75 degrees but 95 degrees is best. Pumpkins are delicate to transplant because their roots are shallow and breakable. Plant 4 or 5 seeds per hill BUT then you have to thin down to the best and strongest vines. Plant hills or rows 4 ft. apart.
If you are growing for the biggest you will also want to thin your vine down to only one pumpkin on the vine for concentrated growing. Regular thinning plan is to thin plants around 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to 2 to 3 plants per hill by snipping off unwanted plants without disturbing the roots of the remaining ones, they are delicate. In rows, sow seeds 6 to 12 inches apart in rows 6 to 10 feet apart. Snip off plants to thin to one plant every 18 to 36 inches. Pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine after a few pumpkins have formed. This will stop vine growth so that the plant’s energies are focused on the fruit. As the fruit develops, they should be turned (with great care not to hurt the vine or stem) to encourage an even shape. Slip a thin board or a piece of plastic mesh under the pumpkins.
As they are growing make sure you mulch them well to keep the soil warm and moist and to keep weeds down (not straw or hay too many bugs). Be very careful as you weed or cultivate around your pumpkins because of their delicate root system. Pumpkins are HEAVY feeders. Regular treatments of manure or compost mixed with water will sustain good growth. If you get a lot of vines and flowers, but no pumpkins, you need more bees in your garden to pollinate the flowers. Grow some colorful flowers next to your pumpkin and get more bees and butterflies!
To avoid some of the squash pests you can try covering the vines until they blossom or planting nasturtium as a natural deterrent, don’t over water and be watchful for squash bugs on your plants or bulging vine nods. Pick the bugs off you plant and drop them in soapy water, have a bucket near you and you can “tap” the leave and drop them in the bucket or bowl. It is possible to scrap out the larvae in vines by gently cutting a slit in the bulging vine and use a wire or very thin knife to scrap them out, then squish back together and gently bury that area into the soil. It should root at that spot. Neem oil spray at the stem can deter vine borers along with sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the stalks when the squash vines are small. Don’t forget to reapply after rain. You can also sprinkle black pepper around the plants as a defense. You can also trap the adult moths with yellow sticky traps and yellow-colored bowls of soapy water.
Harvest Time J
Your best bet is to harvest pumpkins when they are mature. They will keep best this way. Do not pick pumpkins off the vine because they have reached your desired size. If you want small pumpkins, plant a small variety (see above). A pumpkin is ripening when its skin turns a deep, solid color (orange for most varieties). When you thumb the pumpkin, the rind will feel hard and it will sound hollow. Press your nail into the pumpkin’s skin; if it resists puncture, it is ripe. To harvest the pumpkin, cut the fruit off the vine carefully with a sharp knife or pruners; do not tear. Be sure not to cut too close to the pumpkin; a liberal amount of stem (3 to 4 inches) will increase the pumpkin’s keeping time. Handle pumpkins very gently or they may bruise. Pumpkins should be cured in the sun for about a week to toughen the skin and then stored in a cool, dry bedroom, cellar, anywhere around 55ºF.
Fort Gordon Community Garden can fill your need for you very own “Pumpkin Patch”. The fall season opens 1 July and for $25 you can grow a good crop of pumpkins in your own garden plot. If you want more information about growing you own pumpkin patch call Kathleen Duncan706-791-9483.
Information from: UGA planting guide, Better Homes and Garden website: www.bhg.com/gardening and The Organic Gardner’s handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control, by F. Bradley, B. Ellis and D. Martin.