Growing Pumpkins

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MOTHER’s Kitchen Garden: Pumpkins are a vegetable of many virtues. Learn about growing pumpkins, harvesting pumpkins and a few of MOTHER’s staff favorite pumpkin recipes.

Growing Pumpkins

A pumpkin isn’t always a pumpkin — sometimes it’s a squash. The huge Big Max, for example, is technically a squash but is often a winner in pumpkin contests, while the cushaw, resembling a crookneck, is actually a pumpkin. It’s no wonder it’s hard to distinguish between pumpkins and winter squash; varieties of both are found distributed among four species of the Cucurbita genus: C maxima, C. pepo, C. moshata and C. mixta . Pumpkins are generally more sensitive to frost than squash are and also to soaring summer temperatures. Because they tolerate semi-shade, they’re often planted in the corn patch — a good way to conserve premium garden space.

While lack of space may be the main reason gardeners bypass the pumpkin, many growers also feel that a few jack-o’-lanterns and pumpkin pies don’t justify the effort of raising this vegetable. What they haven’t caught on to is that the versatile pumpkin can be made into a generous assortment of delicious soups, breads, cakes, puddings, pickles, salads and main dishes. In addition, the protein-rich seeds are a nutritious and tasty snack and can be used as garnish for soups and salads. (In some parts of the world, pumpkin seeds are considered beneficial to the prostate and are eaten by men to increase sexual potency.) Pumpkin flowers are also edible. They can add color to salads or be dipped in batter and fried. (One of the largest collections of fresh pumpkin recipes can be found in Pumpkin Happy by Erik Knud-Hansen, a former crew member of the Clearwater, the Hudson River sloop dedicated to environmental causes. The booklet is available from The Clearwater, Poughkeepsie, NY, for $3.50 postpaid, and proceeds go to the Hudson River Sloop Restoration project.)

Like corn, tomatoes and potatoes, pumpkins are native to America and are thought to have been cultivated in Mexico and Central America as long as 5,000 years ago. They were a staple of the Indians in this country for several centuries before the Europeans arrived.

Choosing Which Pumpkins to Grow

It’s important to choose a pumpkin variety that will fit the size of your garden and suit your purposes as well when growing pumpkins. If, for example, space is limited, pick a compact bush variety, such as Cinderella, which matures in 95 days, produces 10-inch fruits (not much bigger than summer squash) and requires about 3 feet by 3 feet of space. Its only drawback is that it doesn’t seem to keep as well as vining types. Spirit, a semibush type good for both cooking and carving, requires a 4- to 5-foot growing circle and yields smooth, 10- to 15-pound fruits in approximately 100 days.

For the best eating, you can’t go wrong with the fine-grained, sweet meat of Small Sugar (100 days), which matures at 6 to 10 pounds and is just the right size for pie making. The slightly bigger Sweet Spookie (90 to 105 days) is another candidate for carving and cooking.

If you’d like pumpkin seeds without the hulls, you might try Lady Godiva (110 days). This yellowish pumpkin usually has green stripes or markings and weighs about six pounds, but — as the seed catalogues say — “its meat isn’t of table quality.” Other varieties prized for their hull-less seeds are Trick or Treat, Triple Treat and Streaker, all of which take around 110 days to mature. Triple Treat’s sweet meat is excellent for pies. Though technically squashes, both Sweetnut (a compact bush variety) and Eat-All (with 5-foot vines) produce seeds that are small but deliciously nutty, and the flesh of both is very tasty.

Not surprisingly, the best Halloween pumpkin is called Jack-O’-Lantern. These 10-pounders mature in 110 days, and their smooth skin cuts easily. But if your ambition is to take the prize for the biggest pumpkin at the county fair (keep reading), plant Big Max. This blue-ribbon winner, however, requires 120 days to mature and has a shell that is hard to carve and pale flesh that is coarse and somewhat stringy. Furthermore, a single one of these giant pumpkin plants — alone and unaided — can cover an area 10 to 20 feet in diameter!

For the unusual, try the large, buff-colored, box-shaped Large Cheese (its sweet meat keeps extremely well), the white-skinned Little Boo or the Green Striped Cushaw, whose long, curved neck is full of fine-tasting flesh. (This cushaw does best in warm climates.)

When and How to Plant Pumpkins

Because many pumpkins are slow to mature, gardeners with short growing seasons should pick a 90-day variety or start plants indoors in April or May. For early starts, place two seeds each in 3-inch containers or peat pots. (There are 100 pumpkin seeds to an ounce, and the seeds remain viable for five years.) Push the blunt end of the seed into the growing medium. When the seedlings are big enough to handle, cull the weakest of the two. Harden off the young plants by exposing them gradually to the outdoors before planting them in the garden. Four to six weeks after the last frost, transplant the seedlings without disturbing their easily damaged roots. Seeds can also be started earlier outdoors by simply sowing them where they are to grow and placing upturned glass jars over them.

To sow seeds directly in the garden otherwise, wait until mid to late spring (about the same time you’d plant beans) when the soil has warmed to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. (Cold-area gardeners sometimes speed up the soil-warming process by covering the pumpkin patch with black plastic.) Crops planted in early May will mature around the end of August. If you want a later crop, plant during the first week in June.

Pumpkins can be grown in hills by sowing four to five seeds per mound, then thinning to two plants; or in rows, by planting two or three seeds together, keeping only the strongest seedling. Space pumpkins according to the directions for the variety grown. Generally speaking, allow 10 to 12 feet between hills of vining types. Hills of bush varieties are usually spaced at a distance of four to six feet. Vining types planted in rows should be three to four feet apart with eight to 12 feet between rows. Plant bush types on two- to three-foot centers with rows set four to six feet apart. (Bush types usually do best in rows.) When sowing vining pumpkins in the corn patch, plant in every third row of corn, allowing eight to 10 feet between the vines in the row. Once the corn is harvested, knock down the stalks to allow the pumpkins to bask in full sun. (Pumpkin yields in the corn patch might not be as high as they are when the vines are given a private spot of their own, but such intercropping saves a lot of space. And space can be critically important to a gardener.)

Another efficient way to grow pumpkins is to create a pumpkin-vine “house” — a hideaway that children will love. To do this, cover a five-foot-square frame with chicken wire on three sides and the top. Plant seeds of one of the smaller pumpkin varieties 12 inches apart in prepared strips along two opposite sides. Water regularly and support the maturing fruits with slings made of old pantyhose.

When planning your garden, keep in mind that, while pumpkins won’t cross with other vining cucurbits like cucumbers and watermelons, they will cross with some types of gourds, squash and zucchini if planted too close to them. Such cross-pollination won’t show up in the current harvest, but if you save your seeds, next season’s crop may contain some strange vegetables.

While considered easy to grow, pumpkins do require fertile, well-drained, neutral soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7. Early-maturing types thrive best in sandy and sandy-loam earth. Pumpkins need a lot of water, though, and heavier soils help hold this essential ingredient. The big vines are heavy feeders as well, so plenty of well-rotted manure should be worked into the site prior to planting. (Dig a hole where your vine is to grow, fill it with a shovelful of manure or compost, and sprinkle dirt on top.)

Cover the seeds to a depth of one inch, and tamp the soil lightly. Thin the seedlings when they have two or three leaves. If you have a problem with surface crusting, which can prevent the seedlings from emerging, scatter a thin layer of loose soil over the seeded area. Once their rapid growth begins, pumpkins can compete well with weeds. Until then, do shallow weeding to keep from damaging the seedlings’ roots, and mulch between hills and rows with straw, hay, grass clippings or leaves.

Make sure pumpkins get a lot of water, and apply it slowly so it can soak down to the feeding roots two to three feet beneath the surface. Try, however, to avoid wetting the foliage, since this can encourage disease. Side-dress the crop at midseason with more well-rotted manure or compost. Once the fruits begin to fill out, water the plants with fish emulsion or manure tea every 10 to 14 days.

Pumpkins have both male and female flowers and must be insect-pollinated to set fruit. If such flying friends are in short supply, do this job yourself by using a camel’s-hair brush to transfer the pollen from the males to the females. The latter can be recognized by the immature fruit lurking below their petals. Another pollinating method is to strip the petals from a male flower (which has no embryo beneath it) and push the yellow anthers into the female flower.

Pinch off the growing tip of the main stem to encourage more fruit-bearing side shoots to emerge, then help these form their own roots by heaping fertile soil over them. To prevent long vines from wandering out of their planned growing space — and getting into no end of trouble — pin them to the soil with staple-shaped pieces of soft wire. Otherwise, pinch off the fuzzy ends of too-rampant vines. (These trimmed-off stems can be cooked like spinach.)

When the pumpkin babies reach two or three inches in diameter, remove all but three or four fruits on each vine, culling those growing near the ends of the plant while saving those nearest the base. Any small pumpkins that form too late to mature before the first heavy frost should also be picked off — as painful as the process may be.

What Pests to Watch For

With the exception of scab, a fungus that mainly attacks cucumbers, pumpkins are susceptible to the same diseases and insects common to other cucurbit crops. In fact, squash bugs (also called stink bugs because of their obnoxious odor) and squash vine borers prefer squash and pumpkins to other members of the cucurbit family.

Squash bugs (brownish black and about 3/4-inch long) feed on plant tissues until the vines wilt and die. They can be handpicked, as can their brick-red eggs found lying in clusters on the leaves. These pests can be controlled by sowing repellent plants, such as radishes, nasturtiums or marigolds, around the patch. For severe infestations, trap the bugs under boards, dust them with diatomaceous earth, or–if necessary–use rotenone. Squash bugs are generally more of a problem with the smaller bush-type varieties, so if you can’t spend much time in your pumpkin patch, you may want to plant one of the field types, which are less attractive to these insects.

Squash vine borers (white, one-inch-long caterpillars with brown heads) tunnel into stems, causing the plant to wilt. To keep ahead of this problem, look for small holes with sawdustlike droppings. If you spot one, slit open the stem, pull out the pest, and put the stem back together with masking tape or cover it with dirt at the rupture point so it will reroot. Bacillus thuringiensis, lime dust and wood ashes also discourage these destructive borers.

Cucumber beetles (1/4-inch long with black heads and yellow or green wings with black spots or stripes) can chew the leaves off the vines. Even worse, they spread bacterial wilt, which begins with the wilting of a single leaf, followed by the gradual demise of the entire plant. Again, radishes planted nearby will tempt the disease-spreading beetles away from the pumpkins, or you can control the bugs with pyrethrum or rotenone. Other defenses are to cover the young plants with cheesecloth and to mulch them heavily. If a plant is struck down with bacterial wilt, destroy it to keep the disease from spreading.

To prevent anthracnose (a soil-borne fungus which shows up on leaves as hollow, water-soaked spots that become large and turn brown) and downy mildew (irregular yellow or purplish spots on leaves, which later curl up and die), plant a resistant variety of pumpkin and practice crop rotation on a three- or four-year basis. And while you’re at it, eliminate perennial weeds around your plot, so downy mildew will have no place to overwinter.

How to Harvest and Store Pumpkins

A few weeks before the first fall frost, cut the tips off the plants and pick any small fruits to encourage the growth of the remaining pumpkins. The pumpkins are mature when you can’t pierce the skins easily with a fingernail. Another sign is that the vines of ripe pumpkins usually begin to wither and the stems become dry. Cut the stems a few inches from the fruit with a sharp knife, and cure the pumpkins in the sun for a few weeks. As the stems dry, they form a barrier to the bacteria and molds that cause pumpkins to rot. Be sure that those you intend to store are harvested before the first frost, to prevent the shells from growing soft. Store them in a dry (60% to 75% humidity) basement, storage room, shed or attic at about 50 degree to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and they will keep from three to six months.

You can preserve your pumpkin harvest for longer periods by canning, freezing or drying the meat. To can or freeze it, wash the whole pumpkin, cut it into pieces, and cook it until tender in boiling water, steam, the oven or a pressure cooker. Scoop the pulp from the skin (removing seeds and strings), and mash it or press it through a ricer, sieve or food mill. For canned pumpkin, place the mashed pulp in clean jars topped with canning lids, and process them — 65 minutes for pints and 80 for quarts — at 10 pounds of pressure. The results will be a bit mushy, and frozen pumpkin is more like fresh. To freeze, completely cool the cooked meat by stirring it in a saucepan or bowl set in ice water. Pack the pumpkin in containers, leaving about 1/4 inch of head space for pints and a good 1/2 inch for quarts. Seal, label and freeze.

To dry pumpkin, select only those fruits that are mature and firm. Cut them into chunks, scrape out the seeds and strings, peel, and carve into thin, one-inch-wide slices. Blanch these in boiling water for about one minute or in steam for two-and-a-half to three minutes. After draining and patting dry with paper towels, place the slices in a single, even layer on cookie sheets or on racks. Dry these in the sun, over a woodstove, in a dehydrator or in a low oven from four to 12 hours until no moisture remains. (Thinner slices may be brittle.) Store them in a dry place or airtight container. Rehydrate each cup of pumpkin in three cups of boiling water for about one hour.

To dry pumpkin seeds, first wash them thoroughly in cold water to remove all pulp and strings. Rinse and drain them well, and pat them dry with towels. Spread the seeds in a single, even layer on paper towels on cookie sheets, and place these in a warm, dry spot for 12 to 24 hours. Such seeds can be used for planting the next season, or they can be sprouted. To do so, place one-and-a-half cups of seeds in a one-quart jar or a sprout tray. Let them soak for 10 hours, then rinse the seeds two or three times daily for two to three days. Harvest the sprouts when they’re an inch or so long. This should yield about a quart of sprouts to use in soups, salads and stir-fry dishes.

For snacks and garnishes, roast washed and dried seeds in a 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes or until crisp and light brown.

Cooked pumpkin is surprisingly nutritious. One-half cup contains about 7,500 units of vitamin A, along with an assortment of B vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and iron — but only 27 calories. It’s also known to help elevate low blood pressure.

The following pumpkin recipes are favorites of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff:

Simple Pumpkin Soup Recipe

2 tablespoons margarine
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups chicken stock or broth
2 cups pumpkin puree
2 cups milk
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
Parsley sprigs for garnish

Melt margarine in a large pan. Add green pepper and onion, and sauté until vegetables are soft but not brown. Blend in flour and salt. Add remaining ingredients and cook, stirring constantly, until slightly thick. Garnish each serving with a sprig of parsley. Serves 6.

Pumpkin Muffin Recipe

1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup canned pumpkin or pumpkin purée
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup raisins
1 egg, lightly beaten

Sift together dry ingredients. Cut in butter to consistency of coarse meal. Stir in pumpkin, milk and raisins. Stir in egg until lightly blended. Grease and flour muffin tin. Fill cups 2/3 full, and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 18 to 20 minutes. Makes 12 muffins.

How to Grow Giant Pumpkins

According to the Guinness Book of World Records , the biggest pumpkin ever grown weighed 612 pounds and was 135 inches in girth. You may not be able to top this 1984 giant from Chelan, Washington, but any county fair worth its salt will sport entries topping 100 pounds. Here’s how pumpkin growers achieve greatness:

First, choose a jumbo variety like Big Max or King of Giants, and put a whole bushel of aged manure covered with dirt in a pumpkin hill. Sow three to five seeds, and when the seedlings have two or three leaves, remove all but the strongest plant. Let the vine produce two or three pumpkins, removing any flowers that appear later. Next, pull the fuzzy tip off the end of the vine, and — once the pumpkins reach baseball size — pick off all but the largest one. Give the plant plenty of water every day. Some gardeners even slit the vine and insert a wick that rests in a dish kept full of milk. Just be sure to have some help handy when it’s time to cart this behemoth from the field.