How to Grow Your Own Halloween Pumpkins
It’s Jack-o-Lantern Season
By Lori Fontanes
Admit it. You’ve always wanted to grow your own giant pumpkin patch just like the one in the Charlie Brown cartoon. Add a few cornstalks, maybe a scarecrow or two and voilà!—ready for a visit from the Great Pumpkin.
But unlike that oversized squash who (spoiler alert!) never actually showed up, you can have your pumpkin and get to carve it, too. Even beginners can grow a spectacular patch with enough Cucurbitaceae to meet anyone’s fall decorative needs.
Before you buy seeds, read up on pumpkin cultivars and select a variety that will work in your available space. If you don’t have a large lot, consider a bush variety that produces several fruit on a much smaller plant. Also, mini-jacks can be festive and these palm-size pumpkins work quite well on trellises.
So, how much space will you need? How much space do you have? For vining varieties, University of Illinois Extension recommends 50 to 100 square feet per hill. That’s a lot of vineage. At our house, we started with a broad, slightly sloped area about 20-feet by 20-feet that I blithely assumed would provide sufficient space for a dozen plants. Hmm, not so much. They overran each other and then they overran everything else. The next year, I cut back to three hills, three seeds each and still had plenty to harvest.
And, keep in mind, vines want to climb. Any nearby fence, shrub or tree is fair game for seeking tendrils. (And suddenly we’re into Stephen King territory—well, it’s Halloween, right?) In Year 3 of my pumpkin-growing adventures, I even added stick teepees in the middle of the lawn in a zany attempt to “corral” the vines. (And, yes, they just ignored them.)
Oh, and don’t do what I did the first time: plant Cinderella pumpkins on the side of a hill. Actually, everything went pretty well until October, when the weight of the hefty Cucurbita maxima yanked on the vines and compromised the whole system. Oops.
Finally, if you’re growing squash on lawn rather than pasture, be prepared to restore the grass afterwards. We now keep a dedicated area for pumpkins, and after harvest, let the cold-sensitive plants gradually decay, feeding the soil as they go. No turf is harmed in the making of our fall festivals anymore.
READY, SET, GROW
Although stores sell seedlings, it is really not necessary to pay extra for that convenience since it is so easy to start pumpkins yourself. Once the soil is above 60 degrees, two to four weeks after average last frost, you can plant directly into that carefully chosen plot. Refer to the seed packet, but with most varieties, sow two to three seeds per hill, four to six inches apart, and then thin to one to two plants per hill after several true leaves have formed.
In Four-Season Harvest (available from the Countryside Bookstore), Eliot Coleman says that squash do especially well with compost amendments, but I’ve never had any trouble just using good quality potting soil. Carol Deppe from The Resilient Gardener suggests covering nodes on vine varieties with extra soil to gain additional nutrient uptake from auxiliary rooting. She points out you can’t do this on lawns, though, since the roots won’t penetrate most turf.
Whatever you do, avoid over-crowding. Since squash are so simple to start, you may be tempted to under-thin. Resist! Healthy plants need good airflow to avoid diseases, like powdery mildew, that stagnant conditions foster.
WHERE’S THE BUZZ?
Odd as it may seem, pumpkins and other cucurbitaceae produce both male and female blossoms. Illinois Extension’s Vegetable Directory explains: “The pollen on these first male flowers attracts bees and alerts them to the location of the blooming vines.”
A neat system that can be thwarted, however, if you’re unlucky enough to live in a bee-depleted area. If needs must, you can refer to Deppe for instructions on hand-painting pollen, or look for examples on YouTube. Stock your yard with enough flowering companion plants, though, and your future pumpkins should be able to manage their DNA without your assistance. Watch closely and you might get to see a specialized squash bee (Peponapis or Xenoglossa) that loves cucurbits almost as much as the Peanuts gang.
Once your pumpkins get going, word will spread to all the neighbors—and I don’t mean the people kind. Squirrels, raccoons and groundhogs are just some of the varmints with a knack for knowing when fruit is ready for a destructive nibble. (And why is it always just a nibble? Why not eat the whole darn thing and not waste it! Sheez!) If you’re lucky, the pumpkin can handle a few exploratory scratches, but if it shows signs of decay, you’ll have to discard so it pays to consider protection strategies going in.
There are two separate phases of vulnerability: 1) seedling; and 2) fruit. For the former, you can set up a temporary barrier to deter ground-level foragers who will trample, root up or devour nascent squash plants. In the past, I’ve successfully deployed poultry fencing that we’ve zip-tied to stakes, enlarging the area as the vines develop. With a large patch, however, that’s a lot of fence to maintain (not to mention, a bit short on aesthetics) so think about that when determining scale.
At the fruiting stage, of course, you’ll need even more robust protection to keep wily rodents from wrecking Halloween. As I’ve learned the hard way, squirrels will go up, over, under and sideways to get at a tasty treat. Total coverage is the only way to keep them thwarted. This year we graduated to fruit cages topped with mesh roofs. A bit pricey, but they look and function better than plastic DIY. Ask me next year whether the upgrade withstands the rigors of winter and raccoons.
If you don’t want to spring for permanent housing, consider individual body-armor for each fruit. (I wish I were kidding.) Without a fully enclosed pen, we’ve been known to construct custom wire cages around each pumpkin to keep critters at bay. This can be tricky since the fruit is still attached to the vine (and growing) but it can work. Don’t forget, in some areas, burrowing animals mean having to use underground protection as well. Let’s just say, I spend a lot of time patrolling my pumpkin patch in the month of September.
ORANGE YOU GLAD?
After running the gauntlet of seedlings, bees and critters, you should be rewarded with at least a few green pumpkins. Green? Don’t worry. Once nighttime temperatures start to drop, the Halloween magic happens. At first, a few speckles of orange, then more and more, until one brisk morning, you realize it’s time to stock up on candy corn.
According to Storey Publishing’s The Backyard Homestead, a pumpkin is ready to be trimmed from the vine “when your thumbnail doesn’t easily cut the skin.” I’m never this lucky or organized, however, and depending on the vagaries of varmints and weather, sometimes I have to rescue not-quite ripe fruit and hope it doesn’t rot. Pumpkins that cure in the field tend to store longer, usually at least until Thanksgiving. If we’re just going to carve ours anyway, as long as they make it to October 31, I’m good with that.
After the holidays, we always toss our used pumpkins into the vegetable garden as compost and within seconds (okay, minutes), the squirrels carry them off (okay, devour them). I’m sure the furry brats are thinking, silly humans, why did you take all that time and trouble? We would’ve gladly eaten them for you last month.
PUMPKIN PATCH QUICK TIPS
• Make sure you have enough space or support for vines to grow.
• Consider fencing or caging your patch if you have critter issues.
• Choose varieties that suit your growing season.
• Don’t overplant!
Resources: The Backyard Homestead, Carleen Madigan, editor; Storey Publishing; North Adams, MA; 2009.Four Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman; Chelsea Green Publishing; White River Junction, VT; 1992, 1999.The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, Carol Deppe; Chelsea Green Publishing; White River Junction, VT; 2010.