The weather has turned crisp, the leaves have begun their annual metamorphosis into fiery colors of red and orange, and your neighbor, Del, has the most stunning patch of pumpkins you’ve ever seen, yet again. Your kids envy this section of his garden, and eagerly wait for his go-ahead to select the year’s jack-o-lanterns. Even the fall light seems to favor his property better, glancing off the rotund orange spheres in a scene that could not be more autumnal. You’ve decided enough is enough. Next year, you want a pumpkin patch just like this, all of your own. Read on for a few helpful tips on preparing the yard for the vines, and how to ensure they ripen not in the heat of summer, but just in time for next year’s Halloween.
Prepare Your Soil
As I begin every garden-related article, preparing soil is crucial. This will, of course, require some forethought. You’ll have to start in the spring, by tilling or hoeing manure, compost or even leftover leaves into the soil. The pumpkins will appreciate your efforts, as they tend to grow best in loose soil, with plenty of nutrients. During this process, make sure you clear enough space for your pumpkins to grow. These suckers’ vines can grow up to 18 feet or so. Also ensure you put them in a sunny spot–at least eight hours a day of direct sun is preferable. Pumpkins are not fans of the shade.
Timing is everything. Many a pumpkin harvest have I picket in the August heat, with the sun sweltering and the carved fruit rotting long before the first leaf turns. To grow giant pumpkins (the most common type) for Halloween, you need to plant between mid-May and mid-June. If you happen to be pretty far north, and are worried about a May frost, start the pumpkins indoors for the first week, but try not to exceed two. If the threat of frost is really bad, put a black tarp on the site you plan on planting a week or two beforehand, to trap heat in the soil. Then, cut holes in the tarp and transplant the pumpkins you started indoors, keeping the tarp in place until the threat of frost is fully over.
Anyone who’s ever carved a jack-o’-lantern knows they’re very damp inside. Pumpkins don’t just like water, they love it, probably due to their similar penchant for warm sun. Here’s the trick though, the leaves are susceptible to mildews and fungi, so make sure you JUST water the soil. Too much direct water on the leaves can harm the plants. (Note: don’t worry about the rain. Nothing you can do about that, and it rarely adds up to enough to damage the leaves, in my experience, though I haven’t a clue why. Possibly something to do with the nitrogen content).
More is Less, and Less is More
Quality or quantity is the name of the pumpkin game. Want big pumpkins? Pick all flowers off the vine once you have two to four pumpkins growing. If you want a lot of pumpkins, but smaller, just remove the female flowers during the first several weeks of growth. These can be identified by a swollen or puffy area of green stem at their base.
Wait to pick your pumpkins until the entire batch has a similarly deep orange color, with a hard skin that resists easy denting. That said, make sure you shear them off the vine (leave five or six inches for stem) before the first freeze, which will kill the vine and, if its bad enough, the pumpkins.
Pumpkins should cure for eight to ten days, in a moderately humid environment around 80 degrees. After this, pumpkins should be stored somewhere cool and dry–think mid 50s to low 40s–with plenty of ventilation between them. The fruits will last two to three months like this giving you a plenty large window to enjoy them for Halloween, or whatever fall traditions your family keeps. Who knows, they may even come in handy in a catapult, though I personally would wait till they’re rotten to ruin such precious work. Happy October!
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”