There’s something a bit magical about pumpkins.
From fairy tales read to us as children to fall photo ops with kids to the ever-endearing tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns pre-Halloween, pumpkins may be one of the most coveted crops for fall finery.
We see them everywhere: gorgeous, heirloom varieties gracing the dining room buffet; squat, white pumpkins, adorned with succulents and moss; traditional, Clemson-orange orbs, carved into funny or frightening faces. Pumpkins represent fall fun as much as football games, apple picking, and leaf peeping. They’re the icon of autumn, fall’s logo, and a cheerful addition to outdoor décor, even if it is 84 degrees in SC on Halloween.
Fall Traditions: Apple Orchards and Pumpkin Patches.
When the kids were little, we always ventured to our local apple orchard, where acres of pumpkins also grew. We’d search the rows, helping the kids navigate the tangle of vines, looking for the perfect pumpkins.
I loved our pumpkin patch outings. The family-owned orchard, with its farm animals, hay rides, and playground, served as the perfect autumn outing for our family, as well as many families in the community. Every year, our children’s preschool planned a field trip to Nivens’ Apple Orchard, and most years, we’d play at Nivens in those awkward afternoon hours on Halloween, when you feel like something festive needs to happen—but it’s too early to trick-or-treat.
Sadly, Nivens is no longer a fall tradition in our community. The owners of the orchard decided that it was time to retire, planning to travel and finally see the country in their RV. I hope they’re enjoying their journeys, because we all know a farming life doesn’t allow for many vacations.
Breaking Traditions…It’s Hardest on Mom.
And just like that—our traditions changed. Our youngest decided not to trick-or-treat. He’s 11. What the heck is he thinking? I’m not ready for him to give up on the fun yet. I’m not ready for him to outgrow costumes and silliness and boatloads of candy. Our afternoon pre-trick-or-treating outing is now in limbo. Instead, we’ll probably finish a few decorations for our Witches’ Garden and Magik Market.
But…our pumpkin tradition?
This is the year of the homegrown pumpkins.
New Traditions: Growing Pumpkins for Holiday Harvest.
OK, for the record, we did buy the big pumpkins to carve, because I’m so enamored with my homegrown pumpkins that I didn’t have the heart to butcher them!
Yes, I’m just that silly.
Plus, I’m hoping the babies that I nurtured in the garden will last throughout November, since we host Thanksgiving at our house. What’s more festive than garden-to-table decorations, right?
Honestly, I’m not sure what I did right this year to score our pumpkin harvest. If you’ve read the blog for awhile, you know about my sun-challenges in the garden. Growing pumpkins in a kitchen garden located in the middle of a forest is not ideal. In fact, the only time I successfully grew pumpkins prior to this year involved a compost pile and volunteer vines from the previous year’s jack-o’-lantern seeds. (The two pumpkins ripened in July—and we carved summer scenes and placed them on the front steps. Yes, we’re that crazy!)
For years, though, I’ve dreamed of growing gorgeous heirloom pumpkins. Cinderellas and Jarrahdales—I can’t tell you how many seeds I’ve wasted, trying to grow those beauties, only to have the vines melt from pests and disease. Still…I try every year. This year, though, I decided to break with tradition. After attending Veggie Trials in California last year with the National Garden Bureau, I added a few hybrid varieties into the mix.
Yes, hybrids. Me, the Heirloom Queen, planted hybrids. And guess what?
I grew pumpkins.
Once again, no heirlooms survived our SC heat and humidity, or perhaps the culprits were pests and diseases and lack of adequate light. However, let’s not dwell on the negative. Instead, let’s celebrate successful new traditions!
How to Grow Pumpkins.
First of all, choose good seeds. Really. Don’t be afraid of hybrids. So many people confuse hybrids with GMOs, and they’re not the same. Frankly, home gardeners won’t see GMO seeds sold to us—they’re only sold to commercial growers. So, yes, feel free to be riled up and indignant about GMO crops and their impact on small farmers, but that’s not an issue that has anything at all to do with hybrids for home gardens. You know that hybrids can occur naturally through cross-pollination, right? Well, plant breeders take the best characteristics of parent plants and combine them into new plants that provide disease resistance, increased yields, and sometimes, practical attributes like shorter vines for smaller spaces. Plant breeders really do want to make it easier for home gardeners to succeed. (Of course, I’ll always grow heirlooms, too, but with my previous pumpkin challenges, I knew it was time to incorporate hybrids into the garden.)
If you read all of the expert advice about growing pumpkins, you’ll see information about creating “hills” to plant your pumpkins. Feel free to take the time to do this, if you’d like. And maybe really consider it if you have areas prone to drainage problems, because you don’t want to grow pumpkins in standing water or soggy soil.
But if you’re an impatient gardener, like me, just stick those seeds in the ground and walk away.
OK, perhaps that’s a bit too simplistic.
You do want to plant your seeds in good, manure-rich soil, in a location with plenty of space for vines to sprawl. Full sun is important, so look for a location in your garden that receives about eight hours of sun per day. Make sure you have a water source nearby, because pumpkins are thirsty—they’ll want about an inch of water each week. If you’re in a drought condition like we are in SC (seriously—we’ve had one hour of rain in the Upstate since mid-August)—you’ll be watering a lot. Try to avoid spraying water on leaves, as the moisture can contribute to powdery mildew, one of the nasty diseases that can make your pumpkins unhappy. Drip irrigation is best.
Most pumpkins require a long growing season—about 100 days from seed to harvest, depending on the variety. If you live in northern climates, start seeds in biodegradable pots inside, and plant the entire pot in the garden once the danger of frost passes. Pumpkin roots are fragile and don’t transplant well, so biodegradable pots are best for indoor seed starting, as you won’t disturb the roots when planting. Otherwise, direct sow seeds in the garden when the soil temperature is at least 70 degrees. Pumpkins don’t appreciate chilly soil.
While you may want to plant several seeds fairly close together in case of poor germination, you’ll need to eventually thin the plants to provide adequate space and airflow. Plant seeds one inch deep, six to 12 inches apart in rows six to 10 feet apart. When the plants are about three inches tall, thin to one plant every 18 to 36 inches.
Growing Pumpkins in a Beautiful Edible Garden.
Remember how I’ve been talking about beautiful edible gardens? I’ve been working all spring, summer, and fall on projects based around the premise that an edible garden should be beautiful—even more so than formal landscapes and flower beds. Well, when you grow pumpkins…all bets are off.
I’m just keeping it real here.
As part of my plan to incorporate pumpkins into my “beautiful edible garden,” Peter and I created some cool, inexpensive trellises that arched over the paths between raised beds, planning to train the pumpkin vines to cover them.
The plan worked. Several lovely pumpkins grew vertically on the different supports placed throughout the garden, including the new archway trellises.
But then, the garden turned into a horror movie: “Attack of the Deadly Pumpkins.”
No matter how often I redirected vines to the trellises or gently moved them out of surrounding beds, the pumpkin vines wrapped their tentacles around helpless tomato plants, choking poor eggplants, and smothering zinnias. It was like watching The Thing take over the garden.
In fact, the vigorous vines slithered out of the raised bed, crawling over the four foot high compost bins, and promptly producing two lovely pumpkins.
Well, at least the pumpkins are lovely, even if the vines wrecked havoc in my “beautiful” edible garden.
Most likely, my poor pumpkin vines misbehaved due to the limited sunlight our garden receives. Remember, do as I say, not as I do. We have maybe four hours of full sun in our big kitchen garden, instead of the eight most veggies prefer.
The struggle is real.
Also, sometimes gardeners become frustrated by lots of blooms—and no pumpkins. The first few blossoms on the vines are male—and don’t produce fruit. Both male and female blooms need to be present for fruit production. Then, of course, bees need to pollinate the blooms, so without bees or hand pollination, you’ll have monster vines—with no rewards.
When to Harvest Pumpkins.
The easiest way to know when to harvest your beautiful edibles or delicious decorations is by color. Wait for the pumpkin to turn its expected color, according to the variety you’re growing. Then, take a look at the stem—it should begin drying. Press your nail into the pumpkin’s skin; if it resists puncture, it’s ripe. Don’t harvest too early, because the pumpkin can turn mushy. (Trust me.) Also, make sure you use a sharp knife or clippers to harvest, leaving several inches of stem attached to the pumpkin. Harvest pumpkins before first frost.
Once harvested, place the pumpkins in a sunny location for about a week to cure. The skin will harden, allowing for longer storage.
If you plan to use your pumpkins in meals or desserts, you can store them in a cool, dry location for up to three months, depending on the variety. You can also display pumpkins that will become future soup or pie until you’re ready to cook them. Place the pumpkins out of direct sunlight, and make sure to place a piece of cardboard or a layer of straw underneath to help prevent rot. (Don’t place pumpkins for display on wood tables or carpets, because you might ruin your furniture or flooring if the pumpkin begins to disintegrate.) Also, to preserve your pumpkins, make sure they are protected from frost.
New Traditions: Homegrown Pumpkin Happiness.
Our pretty mid-sized pumpkins and little bitty pumpkins surround our purchased jack-o’-lanterns on the front steps. Soon, the jack-o’-lanterns will head to the compost pile, since they don’t last long in 80 degree temperatures.
However, the homegrown pumpkins will move inside, where they’ll be used for Thanksgiving decorations. I haven’t quite decided how I’ll display them yet, but they’ll have a place of honor in our harvest décor.
Then, because we’re all about creating new traditions this year, I believe we’ll make something yummy from our homegrown pumpkins—because we still have more pumpkins ripening on the vines with no first frost in sight!
Sure, I’m missing some of our fall traditions, and I’m a tad verklempt that these kids of ours are growing so quickly. But even though we may no longer meander the neighborhood in search of candy or cram onto a wagon with a bunch of strangers for a hayride through Nivens, we’re making new traditions.
Maybe next year, I’ll actually be brave enough to carve our homegrown pumpkins.
Do you grow any fall decorations? How do you incorporate garden goodies into fall decorating?
Happy fall, friends!
P.S. HOORAY!!! Mikey decided to trick-or-treat after all! Not all traditions are dead—woot woo!