Sky-High Pumpkins

ian-with-pumpkin-2010-10-31Cinderella rode to the ball in one. Peter kept his wife in another. At Halloween, we carve them into jack-o-lanterns. Today, we make pies* out of them.

Besides all that, pumpkins are nutritious (lots of Vitamin A, potassium, and fiber), delicious, and just plain fun. It’s not surprising, then, that I get so many questions on how to grow them.

Living at 7,000 feet as I do, pumpkins aren’t a sure bet in my veggie plot. Gardeners at the other end of town, 1,000 feet lower, are able to produce enough pumpkins to make them commercially successful. Here, I have to baby them along and hope for a long growing season.

pumpkins_wineparty-tacoma_20091017_lah_4236If you too garden high and dry, here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years to give your pumpkin patch the best chance for success.

  • Pick a spot that’s sheltered from cold, drying winds, is in full sun, and allows the cold air to drain off. The last place you should plant your vines is in a “frost pocket.” Micro-climates make a lot of difference when you’re gardening on the edge.
  • Pumpkins are heavy feeders, so amend the soil with plenty of compost. I dig in a 3 to 4 inch layer of composted chicken manure and straw. Get a commercial soil test and follow the fertilizer recommendations to make sure your plants will have all the nutrients they’ll need. My chicken compost is high in nitrogen, an element usually in short supply in Colorado soils. Other good sources include blood meal, cottonseed meal, and fish emulsion.
  • Which pumpkin variety to grow? Your best bet is to choose smaller pumpkins that mature in less time. Those giant contest-winners require longer, hotter summers than my garden has to offer. Our summer nights are generally cool, between 55 and 60 degrees. Squash, like corn and other heat-loving plants, stops growing during those chilly dark hours. The result? Double the days to maturity compared to what the catalog or seed packet tells you.
  • Pumpkin seedlings do not transplant easily. The roots are fragile and easily injured. On the other hand, we can’t direct seed until after Memorial Day, and that doesn’t give the pumpkin “fruit” time to mature. A compromise solution is to start the seeds indoors in a large, easily emptied container. I like to use the large-sized yogurt or cottage cheese tubs with drainage holes melted into the bottom. They are tall enough to provide plenty of root space, and the potting mix slides out easily when it’s time to remove the seedlings.
  • pumpkins_wineparty-tacoma_20091017_lah_4352Pumpkins really need heat, and Colorado isn’t known for its tropical climate. Plastic sheeting spread over the pumpkin patch before planting will pre-warm the soil. I run soaker tubing under the plastic so I’ll be able to water my plants as they grow.
  • Plastic tents, bottomless milk jugs, corrugated plastic panels… do whatever you can to protect your finicky squash plants from cold wind, torrential rainfall, and pulverizing hail. On the other hand, don’t fry them either. Our intense sunlight can quickly raise temperatures under plastic to lethal levels. Make sure you provide ventilation, especially on warm sunny days.
  • I even go so far as to preheat my irrigation water. Our well water starts at 54 degrees, which would shock these warmth-loving primadonnas. We bought a hundred-foot roll of black plastic tubing and inserted it between the water source and the drip system. It lies on the ground next to my garden, warming the water flowing through it.
  • If you have plenty of flowers but no baby pumpkins, see my post on zucchini pollination. Pumpkins, another squash family member, work the same way.

For more information on growing pumpkins in general, see the excellent directions at The Pumpkin Nook.

And if you have a great pumpkin pie recipe, let me know!

Carol O’Meara, the extension agent in Boulder County, ran a taste comparison of various pumpkin varieties touted as being excellent for pies. You can read the results in her article in The Daily Camera.

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