Urban Gardening: How to Grow Pumpkins

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ELENATHEWISE
 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! 

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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