Plant Pumpkins Now For Fall Faces Later
By Nancy Pierson Farries, South Carolina
If you want a Jack-o-lantern for Halloween, a big pumpkin for harvest season decor, or pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, you can grow just what you need. Growing pumpkins is not labor intensive; you just need time, space, and lots of water.
For a bragging size pumpkin, allow plenty of space. Atlantic Giant (Harris Seeds) grows on 25-foot vines and requires 125 days to mature. Weighing in at 200 pounds-plus, this one can serve as cenaterpiece for a yard arrangement. The standard Howden (Park’s Seeds) needs 10 square feet and produces 20-pound pumpkins in about 90 days. Smaller varieties will grow on a trellis, and Magic Lantern (Harris) is semi-vining. Jack Be Little (Burpee) needs only 90 days to produce three-inch fruits for table decorations.
Most gardeners will need only one or two hills of pumpkins. I put mine near okra, pole beans, and peppers, which continue to bear until frost. This area is cultivated and irrigated through the late summer. Since roots grow to three feet down, and large leaves transpire profusely, pumpkins need regular watering.
Pumpkin seeds should go into the ground three weeks after the last spring frost, or four months before the first fall frost. The USDA tells us “pumpkins have best quality if harvest is delayed until after the vines are senescent or have been killed by frost.” In Low-country South Carolina, hot, dry days make it difficult to start seeds in mid-summer. A bit of Grandma wisdom: “leave a hose dripping on the pumpkin hill until the vines are up and growing.” Grandma also had her own variety of pumpkin which originated generations ago—a medium sized fruit with buff colored skin and orange flesh.
Pumpkins like a pH around neutral (7.0) or just a bit alkaline (7.5). If my pH meter shows a lower reading, I add a bit of lime. I dig a fairly large hole and put two shovelfuls of rotted bedding from the goat barn and henhouse. I cover this with several inches of soil, and place four seeds in a depression on top. I mulch to preserve moisture and keep down weeds which rob the plants of nutrients.
Pumpkins have both male and female blooms on the same plant and bees are the best pollinators. For that reason, I avoid putting poisons on or near the pumpkin patch, especially in the morning, when bees are most active.
Squash bugs may nibble on pumpkin leaves. The dingy brown bug, about a half-inch long, may be seen on top of leaves during the day. In the cool of the morning or evening, squash bugs rest under plants or in the mulch. When crushed, the insect gives off a bad odor, like a stink bug. I destroy clusters of brick red eggs, as well as the bugs. I crush them or drop into a container of water with insecticidal soap added.
If I find a section of the vine wilted, I look for yellow “sawdust” indicating the work of vine borers. I cut off the wilted stem, and slit it open to find the inch-long worm, white with a brown head. Left to mature, these worms burrow into the soil to pupate. In the south, there are two generations during one summer. Obviously, I must stop this worm now.
I also use natural repellants. Since insects find food sources through chemicals produced by the plant, interplanting with something less appealing for the insect may encourage him to go elsewhere for lunch. I plant many marigolds among my vegetables. Their bright blooms decorate the garden and their strong smell confuses insects. Herbs such as garlic, mint, and rosemary, also give off odors that repel insects.
In the pumpkin patch, after several fruits set, I pinch back the vines, which allows nutrients to concentrate on production. I place a piece of cardboard or plastic under each pumpkin to shield it from pickleworms. These little worms come up from the soil and bore through the skin, leaving only a tiny hole, but trailing bacteria get into the fruit so it will rot from the inside.
When the pumpkins turn color and the stem looks dry, I cut each from the vine. The skin is relatively soft, so I handle the fruit with care. Stored in a dry place, away from direct sunlight, the pumpkins will keep for a few months. As I have time, I will get the pumpkins into long-term storage.
To freeze, I cook the pumpkin, cool it, and pack into containers.
To can, I put cooked pumpkin into jars and process for an hour in my pressure canner.
Seeds are washed, then dried for an hour in a slow (250°F) oven. A light spray of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt turns pumpkin seeds into a delightful snack food.
Steamed Pumpkin Bread
• 1/4 cup canola oil
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons molasses
• 1 cup mashed pumpkin
• 2 beaten eggs
• 1/4 cup buttermilk
• 1 cup plain flour
• 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
• 1/2 cup oat bran
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 cup raisins
• 1/2 cup chopped nuts
Place in a greased 1-1/2 quart mold (I use my rice steamer) and steam for about an hour. (Insert a toothpick a little off center; it should come out clean.)
When I had youngsters, I grew enough pumpkins so each child could practice his/her artistry by carving a Jack-o-lantern. When I bake pumpkin pie, I make eyes, nose and mouth from pie dough—bake the pie for awhile, then put facial features on top when the filling is starting to set.
For my family, pumpkins become the faces of autumn.
Originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.