Falling into pumpkin love
Autumn is fast approaching, and for many people, the September/October timeframe is synonymous with one thing: pumpkins.
Pumpkins are a warm-season vining crop. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and textures. They are a good source of vitamin A and fiber but are mostly desired for their decorative value.
Pumpkins thrive in warm weather, being highly frost-sensitive. Plant them after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has begun to warm. Seeds need a soil temperature of at least 70 degrees to germinate. Plantings can also be made during summer, as long as they can mature before the first fall frost. For Halloween pumpkins, it might be best to plant seed in early- to mid-July, depending on the variety.
For more uniform production, start seeds in a container or tray and allow them to grow until they have three “true” leaves. Then, thin to one healthy seedling and plant one seedling per hill. Growers can also sow the seed directly into the warm garden soil and thin at a later date.
Pumpkins need a sunny location with well-drained soil. They will start to die after 48 hours in waterlogged soils.
Incorporating organic matter in the soil and building high rows will help with drainage. This can be done with leaf mold or other composted materials. Best yields are on sandy soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8.
Seeds need to be planted 1-1.5 inches deep at a rate of two to three seeds per hill. Space hills 2-5 feet apart within the row, with 4-8 feet between the rows, depending on the variety selected. This will take about 0.5 ounce of seed per 100 feet of row.
Thin to select the best seedlings after they emerge and have grown for two weeks. Vines may also be trained down the rows by moving the vines in the direction of the row, so the middles are kept open and can be cultivated for a longer period.
To produce larger pumpkins for fun or for local county fairs, plant seeds approximately 120 days before the show date. Vines will need plenty of space to grow.
Prune off the first few female flowers, then let only a few set to baseball size. Finally, choose the best one or two and remove all others.
Remember to turn the developing pumpkins once per week to obtain a well-shaped product.
A soil test will yield exact fertilizer recommendations. If growers do not get a soil test, they should apply 4-6 pounds of a complete fertilizer like 8-8-8 or 8-24-24 per 100 feet of row two weeks before planting.
While pumpkins respond to an additional side-dressing of nitrogen when the vines begin to run, be careful not to over-fertilize. Keep fertilizer off the leaves because it might burn them. Over fertilizing results in excessive vegetative growth, which can lead to delayed yields and a greater risk for fruit rot and foliar disease.
Many gardeners prefer to apply half of the nitrogen and all of the phosphorus and potassium at planting and then apply the remainder of the nitrogen at “vine run.” If potassium is low, fertilize with potassium nitrate, especially in sandy soils.
Black plastic mulch is beneficial for weed control with many vegetable crops. It conserves moisture and fertilizer, helps control weeds, accelerates plant growth and reduces fruit rots. It will need to be placed over the rows before planting occurs. Grass clippings, bark products, pine straw, hay and other products may also be used. Be sure hay or straw has not come from a source that has been treated with herbicides.
Sufficient watering is important to get adequate pumpkin growth and quality yields. If the leaves begin to wilt, blossoms will drop rather than set fruit.
With irrigation, a thorough soaking is always much better than a light sprinkling. Dam up the ends of the rows to flood the middles or use a form of drip/trickle irrigation.
Drip uses less water, reduces disease and only applies it where water is needed, at the roots. Place drip tape 3-4 inches from the center of the bed and 2-3 inches deep or simply place a soaker hose on top of the soil.
If using plastic as a mulch, the soaker or drip hose should be beneath the plastic. One inch of water per week is needed early, and up to 2 inches could be needed during the 30 days before harvest.
Pumpkins are monecious, which means they produce male and female flowers separately on the same plant. Pollen must be transferred from the male flower to the female flower to obtain proper fruit set.
Pollen is transferred primarily by bees. If pesticides are used, it is best to apply them late in the afternoon when bee activity is usually lower. Poor weather – such as rain, high winds and high humidity – can affect the bees’ ability to pollinate.
Pumpkins are harvested when fully mature. The skin will have darkened and developed to the proper color for that variety and will have become tough and hard to puncture with the thumbnail. They will keep well for several months with proper storage conditions – temperatures between 50-55 degrees and moderate humidity, 50-75 percent.
Harvest them by cutting the mature fruit off the vine, leaving about 2-4 inches of stem on the fruit. This helps to prolong storage life. Wiping the pumpkin down with an antibacterial or bleach solution may also help to prevent any disease problems.
Most pumpkin varieties are bred to look good, but some newer ones are bred for rind thickness, stem strength and durability. With all the variability, it is important to select varieties suited for growing in your area. A few choices include:
- Mini: Jack-Be-Little, Munchkin or Sweetie Pie
- Small: Spookie, Triple Threat, Darling, Early Abundance or Small Sugar
- Medium: Corvette, Magical, Jack-O-Lantern, Trick or Treat, Autumn Gold or Spirit
- Large: Casper, Cushaw, Early Giant, Mustang, Jumpin Jack or Connecticut Field
- Jumbo: Prize Winner, Big Max or Dill’s Atlantic Giant
As with any crop, a number of pests and problems can threaten your pumpkins.
- Weeds are a problem with growing any crop. Pre-emergence herbicides kill germinating weed seeds and work well to control annual weeds. These are applied immediately after planting, to a clean plant bed.
- Sethoxydim for grasses, halosulfuron for nutsedge or shielded sprays of glyphosate can be used as a post-emergent on actively growing weeds.
- Light cultivation between rows will also help to control weeds.
- Most common problems: squash vine borers, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and spider mites
- Best control: a regular, scheduled spray program in conjunction with an integrated pest management approach.
- Scout regularly, know pest threshold limits and spray only when necessary with labeled insecticides.
- Products: Permethrin and bifenthrin are the most effective insecticides, followed by spinosad, malathion and carbaryl. Natural products like oils, soaps and pyrethrins are labeled but are not as effective.
- Most common: powdery mildew and downy mildew. Downy mildew attacks when temperatures drop into the 50s and moisture is present for six to 12 hours, usually in the form of dew. Powdery mildew does not require moisture to establish.
- Use chlorothalonil, mancozeb or copper sulfate for these diseases, being sure to get complete leaf coverage. Again, the most effective control will result from selecting resistant varieties and using a good IPM program.
- Several viruses affect pumpkins, and their symptoms vary with the different strains. In general, the leaves and fruit take on a green/yellow mottling and usually become distorted. Insects, mostly aphids and thrips, spread the virus, so eliminating insect vectors is key.
- Growing varieties that have virus resistance is the best control method.
NOTE: Read all labels before applying any pesticides. Using these materials properly is beneficial to the crop, the environment and the applicator. Proper timing, application and amounts used are essential for their safe use. The label is the law; follow it.
Whether choosing a pumpkin to display whole or carve into a funny or frightening spectacle, these pointers will help make sure that pumpkin lasts all season long.
“One of the biggest parts of preserving your pumpkin is selection,” said Alabama Extension regional home grounds agent, Jack LeCroy.
To select a healthy pumpkin, make sure there are no cracks or blemishes present. Be sure to feel the pumpkin for soft spots. “Soft spots could mean the pumpkin is already starting to rot, which will quickly decrease the lifespan of your pumpkins,” LeCroy said.
Rot will be the quickest detrimental factor for a carved pumpkin. It is important to store pumpkins in a location with good air circulation and dry conditions to avoid rot as much as possible.
“When planning your fall decorations, make sure to keep plants that will require watering away from your pumpkins to avoid any type of moisture buildup,” he said.
Placing the pumpkin in a shaded area would be best for its longevity. Sunlight can start to break down pumpkins faster. If there is a heavy frost in the forecast, take care to cover them or bring them indoors.
While Halloween excitement builds as October continues, an important step to preserve the longevity of a carved pumpkin is not carve too early. If you carve too early in the season, rot is more likely to set in over time.
To keep pumpkins fresh as long as possible, a soak in a bleach solution should do the trick.
- Rinse pumpkin with soapy water.
- Mix one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water in a bucket large enough to submerge the pumpkin.
- Submerge pumpkin in the water, holding it under the water for two minutes. Make sure to wear gloves!
- After soaking, let the pumpkin air dry.
These pre-carving steps should help prevent microbial growth, which can set in quickly and wilt the pumpkin.
Another way to prevent this is to spray the carved pumpkin with the same bleach mixture every day. This will keep the carved flesh hydrated while keeping microbial growth from getting out of hand.
Carved pumpkins are more likely to deteriorate quicker than whole pumpkins. The hollowed out spaces allow places for pests to burrow in and feast on the pumpkin.
After carving, make sure to smear the inside and outside of the pumpkin with petroleum jelly to keep it hydrated. If pests present an issue to your pumpkin, mix the petroleum jelly with hairspray, acrylic finish spray and Tabasco sauce.
Here are a few additional tips to keep carved pumpkins from wilting:
- Instead of using real candles to light pumpkins, try using battery-operated lights.
- If the pumpkin does begin to wilt, salvage it by soaking it in cold water. Fully submerge the pumpkin in cold water overnight. Its skin should come out rehydrated and ready to shine again. Make sure it is thoroughly dried before displaying again.
- In addition to using petroleum jelly, spray the outside of the pumpkin with clear acrylic spray. This provides another layer of defense against bacteria and pests.
Making sure pumpkins are prepped and ready for display will provide the perfect spooky addition to festive fall decorations.
GIVE ME SOMETHING GOOD TO EAT
Pumpkins aren’t just pretty to look at; they are also a tasty treat! Try one of these recipes for enjoying different parts of the pumpkin.
Dried Pumpkin Seeds
- Carefully wash pumpkin seeds to remove any clinging fibrous pumpkin tissue.
- Dry the seeds: Seeds can be sun-dried; dried in a dehydrator at 115-120 degrees for one or two hours; or they can be oven-dried on the oven’s warm setting for three to four hours.
- Stir seeds in the oven frequently to avoid scorching.
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
- Heat oven to 250 degrees.
- Mix dried seeds with just enough oil to lightly coat seeds.
- Add salt, if desired.
- Place in a flat pan in the oven for 10-15 minutes.
- Stir occasionally.
Vegetable leathers are made similarly to fruit leathers. Common vegetable leathers are pumpkin, mixed vegetable and tomato.
- 2 cups canned pumpkin or 2 cups fresh pumpkin, cooked and puréed
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp. powdered cloves
- Blend ingredients well.
- Spread on tray or cookie sheet lined with plastic wrap.
- Dry at 140 degrees.
Decorating With Pumpkins
Welcome fall into your home by incorporating pumpkins into your décor. The possibilities are endless.
- Place pumpkins in baskets and wooden bowls.
- Surround them with candles.
- Add them to dining table decorations.
- Use mini pumpkins as placecard holders.
- Add them to your regular decorations.
- Use them with flower decorations.
- Hollow them out and add flowers or plants
- Dress them up by adding embellishments or paint them using different designs.
- Place them on end tables, countertops and cabinets.
- Add height to your décor by placing pumpkins on cake stands or stacks of books.
Information courtesy of the Mississippi State University Extension Service and the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact the Franklin County Extension Office for more information on growing pumpkins at 256-332-8880.