Friday, April 9, 2010

Hauntcast Pumpkins Transcript

I almost forgot I had promised to post my Hauntcast "How to Grow Pumpkins" transcript from the last show. Here it is, sans sound clips:
Here we are again, my dears. Spring has arrived, garages are thawing, and the sweet scent of carpet latex is in the air. Slowly, the ground is warming up, and those of us with hopes of having a green thumb this year are visiting our local nurseries and pawing through seed catalogues to get the perfect specimens for our gardens. Your Mistress of Mayhem will take a moment away from her thriving carnivorous plants to give you a little horticultural advice about growing the perfect pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to come and visit this year.

Just to let you know, I’m an advocate of organic gardening and I promote the use of heirloom seeds whenever possible. If you’re hooked on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, I hope to open your eyes to a healthier way of gardening.

When you’re planning this year’s garden, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you need to consider the space requirements and the best place to locate your pumpkins. Pumpkins are space-intensive vines, so a tiny plot may not be the best place for them. Since pumpkins are susceptible to pollination problems in temperatures reaching the high 80s and above, it’s a good idea for those in hot climates to provide afternoon shade for them at the hottest time of the day. Take a few days before planting to observe where your shade hits the ground at around 2:00 in the afternoon or even earlier, if your climate is anything like mine and can get to 100+ degrees by 11:00am. If you are really dedicated to growing your own pumpkins in hotter areas and don’t have any protected areas in which to grow them, consult with your local nursery to find the best shade covers for your garden. Habitual overachievers should know that some pumpkin-growing enthusiasts have been known to build tents for their little darlings and place ice around the plants to lower the temperatures around the fruit. By the way-that level of dedication will not be happening in my garden anytime soon, so don’t feel badly if you don’t want to invest the time or money in a pumpkin tent.

The next thing you should keep in mind is your soil quality. Pumpkins are heavy feeders-meaning they need a lot of the right kind of nutrients at the right time. If you have poor, clayey, or sandy soil-which is sometimes a regional problem and sometimes a result of long-time use of chemical fertilizers- it’s time to start adding some organic material to build up your soil quality so you have a loose, easy-to-dig soil. If you don’t currently own a composter, maybe this is the year you should. It’s a great way to recycle your yard waste and save some money. Do an internet search for the best composter for your needs, and be sure to read people’s reviews of them before you commit to buying or building one. Check the net or your local library for information on how to compost.

Oh, and there’s a product I should turn you on to that will save you hours of weeding later. It’s called, funnily enough, Weed Block. Weed block is a weed blocking fabric that you lay down on the ground in between and around your seedlings. You then put mulch over that, such as straw, and you accomplish several things at once: you reduce your watering needs because your soil doesn’t dry out as quickly, you keep your plants free of dirt and debris, which can cause disease, and you save hours of weeding later on. An easy method of weeding is to place your garden hose in the area to be weeded at dusk and turn it on at a trickle for an hour or two. Check to see that the area is thoroughly wet before you turn it off, and move your hose as needed. Shut it off before you go to bed and get up early to pull your weeds. The moisture loosens the soil around the roots and makes them easy to pull out. Do this early in the season, before you put down your weed block, and you’ll be amazed at how little effort you’ll put into weeding later in the season.

Now that your soil is prepped and weed-free, you need to choose the variety or varieties of pumpkins you’re going to grow. A nice feature on every seed packet is how to start your pumpkins, when to start them, how far apart they should be planted, and when to thin the seedlings. There’s even a handy reference called “days to maturity.” I called over to my favorite certified organic seed store, Seeds of Change, to clarify exactly what that means. I was told that it means from the time you put the seed in the ground to the time you can harvest your first fruit. For instance, the pumpkin variety called “Howden” is your classic 15-30 pound pumpkin when it’s ready for harvest. The seed package says 110-120 days to maturity. So you go to your calendar and count 120 days back from Halloween to see when you should plant your seed, right? Well, not exactly. Remember the part about first fruit? If you plant at exactly 120 days before Halloween, you may only get one or two fruits by then. The lady I talked to told me to think about planting two to three weeks before the 120 days to give the plant more time to produce a bigger crop.

A pumpkin’s life cycle is pretty quick. Competitive giant pumpkin growers, whose pumpkins reach 1600 pounds+, start their seeds indoors around April 24th, and plant a backup crop around April 29th. I’ll probably start mine outdoors in the last week or so of May, after I soak them in a damp paper towel overnight and make sure to add nitrogen to the soil. I’ve had great results using Liquid Kelp and other kelp-based fertilizers, although the purer ones do make the yard smell like a fish-packing plant for a day or two if you use them as a foliar spray. Since I have slugs and snails in my area, I’ll also be using a pet-safe slug and snail killer around my seedlings. Just before the blooming period, switch to a high phosphorus fertilizer such as bat guano. Pumpkins also need calcium to build a nice thick skin that won’t crack, so supplement them throughout the growing period.

This is the time to keep a daily watch for bugs and to destroy them by hand if you can. Cutting off bad bugs’ life cycles now, before they can lay millions of eggs, will ensure a healthy harvest. Read up on the pumpkin’s worst enemy, the squash vine borer, and how to handle an infestation before it gets out of control and ends your growing season before it starts. BTW, a good organic bug killer can be made with half a hot pepper, some water and some biodegradable dish soap. Cut up the pepper, throw it in a blender with a squirt of dish soap, and mix well. Fill a spray bottle with lukewarm water and add your mixture, give it a shake and you’re good to go. Don’t spray in the middle of the day, since you could burn your plants. When spraying for bugs, remember that you need beneficial bugs to pollinate your plants and that bug killers kill them in addition to the bad bugs. If you need to spray during the pollination period, spray in the early evening, after the flowers have closed and the beneficials have gone home for the day. Consider buying Bee-Allure from to attract bees to your garden, if you don’t have bee-eating pets or fear of bees, that is. Otherwise, go online to find out how to hand-pollinate your plants.

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your soil moist and not wet so far, and have avoided getting water on your plant’s leaves so it doesn’t get powdery mildew or fungus. Now is when the exciting part starts: the first blooms will start to appear. Here’s where new pumpkin growers may panic: “Where are the fruits?” Well, they’re not here yet. Pumpkin flowers come in two varieties; male and female. The male flowers show up first, sometime in July. If you look at the flowers, you can identify the males by the fact that they have a thin stem. The female flowers show up a week or two later and have a bulbous shape behind the flower. There are usually several males to every female. August and September will bring shorter days and slow the growth of your pumpkin, but your now-yellow fruit will be darkening towards the coveted orange we so love. In October, of course, you can look forward to harvesting your pumpkins and maybe even hosting your own Pumpkin Massacre party, like the one Pumpkin Rot mentioned in one of his October 26th 2009 posts.

In all the mayhem that ensues when gutting your pumpkins, be sure to set some seeds aside for next year’s garden, as well as some for toasting.
You may want to reference this post on where to get pumpkin seeds, too. One thing I forgot to include was that in most places, you can actually buy beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, green lacewings, and praying mantis. I do every year. To get ladybugs to stick around, water your garden just before sunset and release them just as it's getting dark. That way, far more of them stick around. Do some research on what these beneficial bugs look like in their larval form so you don't squish them by accident. Remember, a ladybug can eat up to 50 aphids a day, plus they make you smile, so release some and enjoy the whole beauty/cannabalism thing in all its glory. Make sure the kids see it, too!

Enjoy your growing!


  1. ShellHawk,
    What a plethora or pumpkin growing know-how, if I had half this info last year I probably would have grown more than two pumpkins from the 50 feet of vines in my back yard.
    I was recently speaking with a friend of mine that claims he met somebody that actually instills organic milk into his pumpkin vines with a set of IV tubing and a tiny needle. Have you ever heard of such a thing??

  2. I never did hear of that, but that's not surprising! I'm sure there are a bunch of "folk" tricks to use for growing just about anything!
    What is the milk supposed to do?

  3. Well pumpkins here we come :)

  4. Very nice info, thank you so much for posting this. Shell, what do you do about pumpkins sitting on the ground and maybe getting mushy? I haven't grown any pumpkins in years. I was thinking maybe hay under them, or is that a bad idea? Just thought I'd ask here before going to do Internet research. Thanks again. I now have 17 sprouts of an inch on higher!

  5. Captain- My guess is that your soil is probably not well drained or that you're watering too late in the day to allow the water on the surface to evaporate. Make sure you hand water and keep the leaves dry if at all possible to avoid powdery mildew, which can kill your plants.

    That said, putting them on top of some straw will work just fine. You can also put a board under them, but keep turning them from time to time to keep the round pumpkin shape.

    Right now is the time you need to give them nitrogen. Chicken manure compost is great for this.

    Hope that helps!


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