Monday, June 28, 2010

How to Grow a Backyard Pumpkin Patch

Last fall, I grew my own pumpkins for the first time.  Now, I have to say that I feel a sense of pride when I grow my own vegetables, but the way I felt about my pumpkins was altogether different, maybe bordering on a little weird. I can't even explain why, but I loved my little homegrown pumpkins. I babied those things.  It was a lot of fun, especially when harvested them and used them to decorate for Halloween.

So why mention them now, months before fall and Halloween?  Because if you haven't planted any yet, there's still time! Pumpkins take anywhere from 90-120 days to mature, so even if you plant yours this week, you'll have beautiful, orange pumpkins by late September or mid-October (it all depends on the variety).  If you've got room for even just one pumpkin hill, I highly suggest growing them. All three of us -- me, the husband, and the boy -- really enjoyed watching our little pumpkin patch throughout the summer.

There was only one problem: I didn't do it entirely right last year.  Pumpkin novice that I was, I just let a bunch of little pumpkins grow because I was so excited to see them.  This meant small, not-so-carveable pumpkins.  It was kind of disappointing.

My husband's jack-o'-lantern turned out awesome (it even won our city's contest), but the pumpkin, unfortunately, was not from the garden. I am determined that my husband's amazing carving skills will grace a homegrown pumpkin this year! So now I've educated myself and thought I'd share what I've learned.

Pumpkins come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  You can go really huge or itty bitty.  In my garden this year, I've got a couple hills of the 'Trick or Treat' variety, which, if you hadn't guessed, is ideal for jack-o'-lanterns (remember, I'm bound and determined this year!).  My third hill of pumpkins (that I just planted on Saturday) are the 'Small Sugar' variety.  So what should you use?   Here are some popular choices:
  • If you want REALLY big pumpkins, as in ridiculously large, state fair-winning pumpkins, go for the variety 'Atlantic Giant'.  Do a Google image search - they're amazing (here's just one of the images I found). Of course, you don't have to grow a pumpkin the size of your couch to warrant using this variety.  'Atlantic Giant' could be a great variety to grow if you want a jumbo-sized one for Halloween.
  • 'Trick or Treat'  is known as an excellent variety for jack-o'-lantern because they're easy to carve. The color is bright orange and can weight around 10-15 lbs. I like this one because my space is somewhat limited and this variety is a semi-bush type (more on space requirements later). The seeds of this variety are supposedly the best to eat, too, because they don't have a hull.
  • 'Small Sugar' is a great pumpkin to grow for both decoration and consumption. You typically don't carve these pumpkins since they're smaller, but they're nice for autumn/Halloween decor (we stick our little pumpkins in our flowerbed amidst our fake headstones and gargoyles). However, the best thing about these pumpkins is that they are great for eating because the flesh is finer-grained and sweet. Translation: this is the pumpkin you make pie with (I looooove any baked good that has pumpkin as an ingredient).  Making pumpkin puree is really quite easy and you can find the step-by-step how-to I posted here.
  • One fun pumpkin variety that I will try when I have a bigger space is 'Lumina'.  My mom used to grow at least one of these when I was kid because they're totally white on the outside.  They make for a really interesting twist on the jack-o'-lantern.  The 'Lumina' grows to about 8-10 inches. If you want a miniature pumpkin that's white, check out the variety 'Baby Boo'.
  • Speaking of miniature varieties, my favorite is 'Jack Be Little'They're really small, only about 3-4 inches big, so they're perfect for indoor autumn/Halloween decor.  Last year, I grew one that was about the size of my thumb.

Pumpkins are quite easy to grow -- they require only a little attention, a sunny location, regular water, and some space.
  • Pumpkins come in vining and bush types.  Both types need room to grow. According to my Western Garden Book, a single vine can cover 500 square feet, and bush varieties can spread over 20 square feet.  My space, my little pumpkin patch, isn't that big. I like keeping my garden in boxes and beds (so now rows), so my husband built a long, rectangular box that's about 50 square feet.  Since my 'Trick or Treat' pumpkins are a semi-bush, my hills are about three feet or so apart (maybe a little less).  So they may be a little crowded, but I let them climb out my boxes a little, too. Despite their cramped quarters, the area worked pretty well for me last year, so don't be discouraged if you don't have a ton of space. Your garden doesn't have to huge to accomodate a few pumpkins. 
  • Start your pumpkins after the soil has warmed and the risk for frost has passed.  Pumpkins like rich soil, so be sure to add some nice organic compost to your area before planting. 
    • For vining pumpkins, you'll want to sow your seeds in mounds 6-8 ft apart, with about 6-8 seeds in each hill. Once the seedlings have sprouted, thin them to two per hill (remember, 'kill your darlings'!. That was my mistake last year with my pumpkins -- along with some other things I grew). 
    • For bush pumpkins, plant in mounds about 3 feet apart, with 4-6 seeds per mound. Like with the other type, thin seedlings to one or two per hill. 
  • If you want to grow large pumpkins, concentrate on growing just a couple.  You'll see once your pumpkin plants start blooming that you get a bunch of little pumpkins. They're hard to get rid of, but you've got to if you're going to get a nice big one.  If there are fewer fruit on each plant, there will be more energy and nutrients available to make the pumpkins flourish.
    • Here are the exact directions from the Western Garden Book (second mention, I know, but I think every serious gardener should own this book. It's like a gardening Bible.):  "Giant pumpkins aren't special varieties; they are ordinary full-size pumpkins grown in a special way (though gardeners aiming for colossal fruits do have favorites, such as 'Atlantic Giant'). As plant develops, cut off all but two main stems. After blossoms set, remove all but one fruit on each stem. Along the length of each stem, mound a 4-inch-wide hill of soil every 2 ft.; roots will form there."
  • In late summer, as your pumpkins get bigger and bigger, it's a good idea to put some kind of protection -- like a piece of wood -- under each pumpkin. This will protect it from the wet soil and keep it from rotting. 
  • Be sure to water regularly and fertilize periodically.
  • Pumpkins are ready to be harvested about 3-4 months after planting (look to your seed packet for exact amount of time).  The shell should be hardened. It's a good idea to pick them after the first frost kills the plant, but I picked mine a little sooner because I wanted them as decoration throughout October (we don't get our first frost usually until right around Halloween). 

Pumpkins are a lot of fun to grow. Try it out.  My son planted ours this year and checks on them about as often I as I do. Soon enough, you'll be walking out to your own pumpkin patch, checking on your own orange little babies.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

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