Most of my vegetable garden space is devoted to practical pursuits—enough tomato plants to ensure a winter’s supply of canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, and salsa; green beans by the freezer bag full; and a variety of squash for the summer and beyond.
My one extravagance is the pumpkin patch. I could raise pumpkins for food, but I’ll admit that for the most part, I grow pumpkins for the sheer joy of it. The sight of those bright orange globes nestled in their green robes on a crisp fall day just makes my heart happy.
If I don’t use my pumpkins for food, then what do I do with them, you might ask? Years ago, when I was a teacher, I started growing pumpkins because I wanted to take my students to a pumpkin farm, and all the pumpkin farms in my area charged an arm and a leg for entrance. Imagine the fun of taking a busload of kids on a field trip to my house to pick pumpkins. Each child picked one sugar-pie pumpkin to take home.
I’m no longer a teacher, but I still grow those sugar-pie pumpkins for the neighbor kids. They’re easy to grow, suffer few diseases, and they’re the perfect size for little hands. These are also the best pumpkins to grow if you want to make pies or can pumpkin puree.
In recent years, I’ve become addicted to heirloom pumpkins with their charming shapes and muted colors. I use these mostly for decorating my house and the front porch. Finally, my kids insist on growing one giant pumpkin plant every year. Last year, the deer got to our giant pumpkin before we could harvest it, but we have high hopes for this year.
If you’ve never grown pumpkins before, you’ll be happy to know that they’re fairly easy to grow. Start with a large space—at least twelve feet by twelve feet—and amend the soil with compost or manure. Plant pumpkins in late spring—when temperatures are predictably above 65 degrees. Pumpkins don’t tolerate cold, wet weather and they need at least eight to twelve hours of sunlight daily.
Plant two or three seeds, spaced a few inches apart in a hill. Space the hills five feet apart in an alternate grid pattern. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. Once the plants stand three inches high, thin them to one plant per hill. Fertilize the pumpkins with a nitrogen vegetable fertilizer every four to six weeks once the plants start to flower and produce fruit. Don’t fertilize them at all before then.
Watch out for pumpkin pests and diseases. In my area, the main problem is powdery mildew, a condition that causes a white growth on pumpkin leaves. In severe cases, it can kill the plants, but I usually just ignore it and the pumpkins seem to weather through. Treat it with a fungicide or horticultural oil, though, if it seems serious.
Squash vine borers can cause serious damage in the pumpkin patch. Unfortunately, you may not know they’re there until it’s too late. Squash vine borers eat their way through vines, eventually causing them to collapse and die. Look for tiny holes on the vines and piles of sawdust-like excrement on the ground. Cut the vine open with a knife at the point where the hole is and kill the white grub-like borer. Destroy borers by squishing them or dropping them in kerosene or hot soapy water. Then, bury the portion of the vine that you cut in the soil. With luck, it will produce new roots and the plant will survive.
Harvest pumpkins when the rinds are hard and brightly colored, but before the first heavy frost occurs. If the vines die prematurely due to disease, cut the pumpkins and store them in a warm, dry spot. Cut pumpkins from the vine with a knife, leaving at least a one-inch stem.
Growing the Great Pumpkin
Giant pumpkin growing has become a competitive sport, with prizes as high as several thousand dollars for the largest pumpkins. If you’d like to try growing a giant pumpkin, follow these tips:
- Start with a giant pumpkin variety. Atlantic Giant is still the favorite for most serious competitors.
- Start seeds indoors three to four weeks before planting time. Keep the soil warm and moist.
- Plant two or three plants, spaced at least ten feet apart, in a sunny location. Amend the soil well with manure or compost.
- Pay special attention to moisture levels. Water as soon as the soil one inch beneath the surface feels dry.
- Remove weeds and control insects.
- Fertilize pumpkins with a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks after they start to flower.
- Remove the first two female flowers that appear on each vine, identified by the small bump at the base of the flower.
- Allow only one fruit to develop. Remove all other female flowers.
- Gently move the vines so they don’t root into the ground. The weight of the growing pumpkin can break them. Move the vines, if necessary, so the pumpkin doesn’t press on them.
Essentially, you’re doing all the things you would normally do to raise pumpkins, at a more intense level. Baby those big boys, and they won’t let you down.
Small Sugar or New England Pie: I’ve grown these almost every year for at least ten years. Perfect for processing or giving as gifts to children.
Spooktacular: This disease-resistant hybrid is ribbed and bright orange.
Sugar Treat: Hybrid, bright orange.
Winter Luxury: This old-time variety makes great pies.
Big Boys (Giant Pumpkin Varieties)
Atlantic Giant: The first giant pumpkin and still a favorite. Produces pumpkins weighing 100 to 500 pounds.
Prizewinner: This large pumpkin variety doesn’t produce the largest pumpkins, but it’s the most reliable.
Cinderella Pumpkins: Gorgeous, ribbed pumpkins with a unique flattened shape. Comes in shades from sage green to rust.
Long Island Cheese: Another old favorite, this pumpkin is pale orange (like rounds of cheese) and has a pleasing, flattened shape.
Fairy Tale: A French “cheese” pumpkin from the south of France. It was introduced to American gardeners in 1899 by the Vaughan’s Seed House of Chicago. It has superb eating qualities and a deep orange flesh.