Urban Gardening: How to Grow Pumpkins

Learn how to grow rooftop pumpkins by coaxing the vines to grow upwards rather than outwards.
By Patrick Fanning
July/August 1977
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 Question: How do you grow spraddled-out pumpkin vines on a cramped suburban lot? Answer: Make them spraddle up, the way Patrick Fanning of Richmond, California does! 

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We've always wanted to grow pumpkins, but the small size of our yard (20-by-30 feet) made it seem impossible. Last summer, however, we raised pumpkins in spite of ourselves! And here's how:

It all started when the seeds from our Halloween jack-o'-lantern found their way into the compost pile. Naturally, we expected microbial action and the heat of decomposition to kill the seeds ... but instead, a series of cold winter rains kept the pile of wastes from heating up as it should have, and in the spring — after applying the soggy mulch/compost to our plants — we began to see little pumpkin vines popping up all over!

We pulled dozens of the seedlings out of the strawberry patch, from around the roses, and from the onions ... but one vine — hidden behind the peas — escaped our notice. When the peas finally gave out in June, we discovered the volunteer vine — which was some three feet long — thriving underneath.

Rather than uproot such a healthy specimen, we decided to see if we could coax the young vine into growing upwards rather than outwards. To do this, we drove a spike into the eave of our patio roof, looped an old hunk of manila rope over the nail, and tied the two longest pumpkin runners to the dangling ends of the rope with strips of rag.

Because pumpkins are ramblers — not climbers — by nature, we found it necessary every four or five days — after the vines had grown another foot or two — to tie the growing end of the vines to the rope with wide strips of rag to keep the plant from flopping over and heading for terra firma again. Still, there was no question that the vines were indeed making their way up the rope.

The higher the plants got, the more sunlight they saw and the faster they grew. By the Fourth of July, the two original vines had traveled three feet along the ground and eight feet straight up to the patio roof. (Two more vines had made it halfway up a nearby post.) Of the dozens of blossoms that appeared, five had become pollinated and started to grow. These five pumpkins — which were about the size of softballs — dangled from he vines at various heights, growing bigger and heavier by the hour.

Pumpkin vines are tough, but not tough enough to support the weight of their mature fruit. Because of this, we decided to make individual "hammocks" out of pieces of old sheets to hold the fruits up and keep them from snapping off the vine. (At this point, our patio had become quite a strange sight, what with a solid green wall of foot-wide leaves covering one side of the patio and numerous white slings — each with a pumpkin in it — hanging down from the eaves like so many broken arms and legs. It looked as if our whole pumpkin plant was in traction!)

The vines leading across the patio's white fiberglass roof eventually developed more pumpkins, some of which had to be shifted to keep them over the rafters or chocked so they wouldn't roll off the pitched roof. Cars on the street behind our house had begun to slow down as they drove by, and passing aircraft wobbled dangerously.

Our elevated "punkin" patch may have looked weird, but it certainly was productive. The airborne vines got plenty of sun all day, and both the fruit and the vines were well clear of all the damp and rot and mildew and pests with which earthbound pumpkins contend. The result was a bumper crop of gigantic orange fruits!

Next year? We'll grow pumpkins, all right ... but not by default. First of all, we'll pick a tastier, smaller variety than the "jack-o'-lantern specials" we grew last year. Second, we'll plant our seeds closer to the patio, use rigid stakes instead of rope, and trim away unwanted vines to stimulate the faster growth of those that we train to reach the roof. If we get an early start — and practice heavy feeding and trimming — we may be able to do away with the hanging fruit and have all the pumpkins rest on the roof, thereby eliminating the need for slings.

True, it's more work to tie up our pumpkin vines than to let them ramble ... but when you have nothing but a cramped, 20-by-30 foot yard to work with, the only place to go is up!

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