Trowel & Error

Growing pumpkins?

Think big. Even smaller varieties need room to roam

By Nancy Crowe
This is the time of year to stroll through fall festivals, look at dozens of pumpkins and other brilliantly colored gourds and wonder about growing them yourself.

I actually did grow a pumpkin when I was about 6, using a kit that came as a cereal-box toy. I started the seed in a little Petri dish, and when it sprouted I scoured the yard for a place to plant it. If it had occurred to me to ask, a plot might have been provided in a sensible place. Instead, I spied the perfect bare spot of turf — right smack in the middle of the back yard. Into the earth went the little pumpkin plant.

Soon, vines several feet long snaked across the yard. Charlotte and Everett, the ever-patient souls who took care of both the lawn and me, deftly worked around the invading greenery. Then it appeared on one of the vines: a perfect little pumpkin. It grew to a beautiful oval shape and classic orange in plenty of time for Halloween.

That was the end of my pumpkin patch, but could I pull it off again decades later? Nope. The “Baby Boo” and “Jack Be Little” seeds I planted a few years ago yielded only a few fruits, which were devoured by pests before they could ripen. Late planting was part of the problem.

Then I found Purdue publication HO-8: Growing Cucumbers, Melons, Squash, Pumpkins and Gourds (which of course should have been perused much earlier) and realized they also needed a little more fertilizer and a lot more space. Even the smaller pumpkin varieties require a 6-foot diameter for the vines to roam. Although I’ve read that pumpkins, squash and gourds can be grown on a trellis — out of the path of civilized, lawn-mowing society — I haven’t seen it done.

So if you have or can create the space to grow these beautiful and versatile vegetables, go for it. According to Purdue’s Indiana Vegetable Planting Calendar (HO-186), pumpkins should be planted between April 20 and June 1 in our area. Make sure the soil is in good shape, and work some manure or compost into the soil before planting. Pumpkins like plenty of sun — the more, the better — and consistent water, about an inch per week. Apply a balanced fertilizer every two weeks.

One of the most notorious pumpkin pests is the squash vine borer. It literally bores a hole in the base of the stem and lays its eggs. When the larvae hatch, they munch away at the inner stem, which basically stops the flow of water and nutrients. It also results in what looks like sawdust coming from a hole in the stem, courtesy of the little munchers.

According to an archived article I found from pumpkin grower William Brown at www.vegetablegardener.com, you can mitigate squash vine borer damage by slicing into the stem, removing the larvae with tweezers and then gently binding the wound in the stem with breathable first-aid tape. Early in the season, row covers can help prevent egg-laying adults from settling in. Other solutions involve the use of pesticides; as always, use caution and follow the instructions on the label.

There are worse things in life than not growing your own pumpkins. Never going to a pumpkin patch to pick one from the field, visit with a horse or two and grab some fresh cider or a pumpkin spice latte would be among them.

Nancy Crowe

Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.

Posted Fri, 10/19/2012 - 12:56 pm