The Pumpkin Patch

By Susan Littlefield

Whether for jack-o'-lantern carving, decorating, or baking into pies, October is pumpkin time! Gardeners wait eagerly all season long to harvest this quintessential fall crop, beginning in early summer when seeds are tucked into warm soil, through the summer months as the vines run and the fruits begin to size up, and finally on into fall when the large pumpkins are ready to pick at last. How we treasure this colorful bounty!

Pick the Perfect Pumpkin

The key to the perfect pumpkin starts with choosing varieties well suited to the use you plan to make of them.

If you'll be baking lots of pies, select a variety bred for sweet, tasty flesh. These are generally smaller varieties having smoother, denser flesh with a higher sugar content than the large varieties bred for carving and decoration, although some selections offer both size and good eating. In addition to its delicious taste, bright orange pumpkin flesh is high in fiber, low in calories, and loaded with healthful beta-carotene.

If your goal is to carve the spookiest jack-o'-lantern on the block, a medium sized, 20-25 pound variety is easy to handle. For a really eerie look, grow the white-skinned 'Lumina' for its ghostly effect.

Or perhaps you want to go for the wow factor and grow a variety such as 'Dill's Atlantic Giant' that's bred to reach mammoth size. Who knows? Maybe yours will break the 1200 pound-plus world record that was set with this variety. Just be prepared to find someone with a bucket loader to help you get it to the fair for a blue ribbon!

And don't forget the mini-pumpkins, perfect for fall decorating. Combine these palm-sized pumpkins with other seasonal garden produce like gourds and Indian corn for lovely autumn decorations.

Here are some the many pumpkin varieties we offer for carving, decorating, and eating.

'Halloween or Jack-o'-Lantern (100 days)—These medium-size, round to slightly oblong pumpkins are in big demand for carving.

'Jack Be Little' (95 days) —A true midget pumpkin variety, not a gourd, these little fellas are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

'Small Sugar' Pumpkin (115 days) —Great for pie making, the 6-8 pound fruits have bright orange, thick, sweet, dry flesh.

'Little October' (95-100 days) —A new dimension in mini-pumpkins, this 3-4 inch diameter variety is properly proportioned in size, shape, and handle to mimic a larger pumpkin.

'Lumina' (105-110 days)— This large white pumpkin adds a unique look to fall decorating or jack-o'-lanterns.

'Howden' (115 days) —This heavy yielding variety produces deep orange fruits that average 20 pounds and keep well.

Growing Pumpkins

Like other members of the squash family, pumpkins like it warm. So wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F before planting, usually a week or two after the last spring frost date. Gardeners in northern areas can speed things along by spreading black plastic to warm the soil for a couple of weeks before planting time. Pumpkins do best in light, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8 that's been enriched with organic matter.

If you garden in a short season area, you can get a bit of a head start by planting seeds early indoors in peat pots 2 to 3 weeks before your last frost date. Pumpkin seedlings grow quickly and young vines transplant best, so don't start seeds indoors any earlier.

Sow seeds one inch deep. You can either plant seeds in hills, sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest vines, or in rows, spacing plants 3-5 feet apart in the row and allowing at least 8 feet between rows. When growing semi-bush varieties, plants can be spaced 1-3 feet apart in rows 4 feet apart.

Row covers placed over newly seeded or transplanted pumpkins are a great way to keep out pests such as cucumber beetles and squash bugs, but they need to be removed when the plants begin to flower so bees can get in to pollinate.

Keep your vines vigorous by giving them a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks. And make sure your vines get consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture.

To help keep your vines in bounds and encourage pumpkins to mature faster, you can pinch off the tips of the vines after they have set fruit. As your pumpkins grow, you may want to carefully rotate them so they develop a symmetrical shape.

Harvesting Pumpkins

Pick your pumpkins when they have fully developed the color for their particular variety, when the rind is hard enough that you can't dent it with a fingernail and when the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to pick them before the first hard frost. Otherwise they can suffer chilling injury that will keep them from storing well. Cut, rather than pull, pumpkins from the vine, leaving several inches of stem attached. But never carry a pumpkin by its stem. If its stem breaks off, the pumpkin won't keep long.

Storing Pumpkins

For the longest storage, cure your pumpkins to dry and harden their shells completely. Place in a warm (75-85 degrees F is ideal), well-ventilated spot for a week or two -- perhaps near your furnace or on an enclosed porch. Wipe the pumpkin's outer rind with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 4 parts water to kill mold spores. After curing, store pumpkins a cool, dark spot (50- 60 degrees F), such as an unheated spare room or cool closet. Check them periodically and remove any that show signs of rot.

Pumpkin Carving

To prolong the decorative lifespan of your carved pumpkin, coat the cut surfaces of the Jack-o'-lantern with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil. And don't forget to "harvest" the edible seeds, too! Separate the seeds from the stringy pulp by washing the seeds well. Spread them on a cookie sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt if desired. Toast them for 3 or 4 minutes at 375 degrees, stir, and toast another 2 or 3 minutes until they're evenly golden. Cool them to room temperature, and enjoy!

Question of the Month: Cleaning Up the Vegetable Garden

Q: What should I do to clean up my vegetable garden at the end of the season?

A: It's a good idea to get rid of plant debris (including weeds) in the vegetable garden at the end of the growing season because this plant material can provide a spot for insects pests and diseases to spend the winter. A good fall garden clean-up can help to reduce future problems. While it's great to add much of this plant material to your compost pile, leave out anything that is obviously disease or insect infested, as well as weeds that have already set seeds and the roots of perennial weeds. Most home compost piles don't heat up adequately to ensure that this harmful material is killed. It's best to bag up the "typhoid Marys" and send them either to a municipal composting operation (these do get hot enough to take care of problematic material) or to the landfill.

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