Growing the great pumpkin
May/June 2009 California Country magazine
By Pat Rubin
May and June are kind months in the garden, prime times for getting seeds and plants started for the summer vegetable garden.
And somewhere out there a gardener is planting giant pumpkin seeds. One of those pumpkins will likely close the gap on the 2,000-pound mark. Giant pumpkin growers have already breached the 1,600-pound goal and are aching to set new world records.
That grower could be you.
Of course, these aren't your ordinary jack-o'-lantern or pie pumpkins. They're actually crosses with thick-shelled squash and are often misshapen and lumpy, even greenish or yellow instead of the typical pumpkin orange.
It's a fun project whether you top 200 pounds or get near that elusive 2,000 pounds. So next time you visit the local nursery, stop at the seed rack and look for giant pumpkin seeds.
First of all, make sure you have plenty of room. Giant pumpkin vines can gobble up 800 square feet in a few months.
Using a nail file, file down the edge of the seed just a bit to nick the seed coat. This is to break the protective coating so moisture can enter the seed and signal it to germinate. In the race for giant pumpkins, even a head start of a day or two can make a big difference in the eventual size of the pumpkin.
If the weather cooperates and is sunny and mild, you can sow the seeds directly in the ground where they will grow. I like to plant them on small mounds.
Or you can start seeds indoors. Lay them between two moist paper towels and put them someplace warm. If you don't have heating mats for starting seeds, put them on top of the refrigerator. Check them regularly and don't let the paper towels dry out. In a few days you'll see a root coming out of the seed. Now you can plant the seeds in a pot filled with planting mix. It should germinate within another week. When the seedling gets its second set of leaves (these are actually the true leaves), put the plant in the ground where it will grow.
If you have several plants in the same spot, snip away the weakest plant. Pulling it can disturb the roots of the remaining plants.
Water plants as needed and fertilize with fish emulsion or time-release fertilizer.
Let the vines get 8 or 10 feet long. They'll send out male flowers first, then female. The female flowers have the tiny pumpkin at the base. Let three or four pumpkins grow on each vine and, once they're well established, remove all but the strongest one or two. Many growers dig a trench beneath the leaves so the vines can root as they grow. The idea is that this provides even more nourishment for growing pumpkins.
Put stray or smooth wood under the growing pumpkins when they are small so they don't develop rotten spots where they touch the soil and so rodents don't sneak underneath and eat them. Once the pumpkins get large and heavy, don't try to move them since you could break the stem.
For more information on growing giant pumpkins, visit www.howarddill.com or www.bigpumpkins.com . You can buy seeds from pumpkins that matured in the 300- to 500-pound range, the 500- to 700-pound range and so on. Both Web sites offer lots of how-to tips, as well as books on pumpkin growing. A great book on the subject that takes you step by step in the garden is "How to Grow Giant Pumpkins" by Don Langevin.
Pat Rubin is a long-time gardener and garden writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.