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The Secrets to Growing Big Healthy Pumpkins
Growing your own pumpkins is really good fun. Watching the vines grow, the flowers bloom and the little pumpkins take shape is truly exciting. They require 6 to 8 hours of sunlight per day, rich soil amended with compost and plenty of space or something to climb. They are extremely easy to grow and can burst out of your compost without any help from you. The variety, well who knows, depends on what you bought at the supermarket and what seeds went into the compost pile. They have some vague traits and it can be very frustrating when the vine is extremely healthy and you only get male flowers. It can also be extremely devastating if you think you’re going to pick up a pumpkin only to find it has fallen. Why do you ask yourself, what happened, what did I do wrong? My answer is – probably nothing. Pumpkins are notorious for not producing fruit.
Pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita and the family Cucurbitaceae which includes zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, cucumbers and gourds. The word pumpkin originates from the word “pepon” which means “big melon” in Greek. It is classified as a vine and needs a lot of space to grow. Pumpkins are monoecious which means you have both male and female flowers on the same plant, so you only need one plant to produce fruit.
Pumpkins like a soil pH between 6 and 7.2. If your soil is on the acidic side then I suggest you add some horticultural lime and if it is on the high – alkaline side – then you can lower it by applying sulphur. To prepare the soil for pumpkins, I suggest incorporating lots of compost and cow or sheep manure. A good handful of blood and bone plus potash will be helpful. Pumpkins are an annual crop and need a rich organic soil in order to grow quickly and bear fruit before the cold of winter sets in. The soil should also drain well and if your soil is clay then I suggest making a mound using a good quality potting soil. This will lift their roots up above the clay and poor drainage.
Placing your pumpkin
Pumpkins need a lot of space and can crowd out other plants if left unchecked. Now, if you have a small garden and don’t want to be overrun by triffid plants, then I suggest growing them next to a fence or shed or putting up a trellis and string training. The good point of their connection is that it gets the fruit off the ground away from pests like slugs and snails and diseases like mold. If space is not an issue, then just let them roam. You will find that you have a floating sea of large pumpkin leaves enveloping your garden. If they get into any mischief, just prune them back, it won’t hurt them!
Propagation of pumpkins
The best time to plant pumpkin seeds is spring, when the soil and air temperatures are warming. If you start them in the vegetable patch, the soil temperature must be at least 20C for germination and the air temperature 22C. You can start them in pots in a hot house if you want, but the garden soil should still be above 20C when you plant them. They do not like cold or frost.
When sowing seed directly in the garden, make a mound about 1/2 meter wide and plant 3-4 seeds about 4-5 cm deep. Depending on the warmth of the soil, they should germinate in about 7-10 days. When the baby seedlings have 4-6 leaves, remove the weakest plants, leaving the strongest. If you don’t remove the weak ones, the mound will be crowded and none of the pumpkins will bloom. If you don’t want to ignore them, replant elsewhere in the vegetable patch.
Pumpkins grow in the summer, take 70-120 days before they are ready to harvest, and usually in early to mid fall. Pumpkins do not like scorching temperatures and will shut down and stop growing. They have shallow roots, wilt easily and therefore it is important to prepare the soil with plenty of compost and animal manure to help increase the water holding capacity of the soil. If the soil retains its water, then it is available to the plant to replace the moisture it is losing through the leaves. Pumpkins do not like to be water stressed and do not like the flood and starvation irrigation regime. It can cause them to separate. They like a nice even watering and the best time is in the morning. If you water at night and the leaves get wet, powdery mildew can appear. Pumpkins do not like wind and must be protected from it. Heat and strong winds can cause woodiness, which makes the squash very unpleasant to eat. It is also thought that excessive wind can cause scarring in the flesh.
It takes about 10 weeks for the vine to start producing flowers and the males are the first. They are on long thin stems (called pedicels) and there are more of them than females. If you reach the top inside the male flower, you will find a long thin structure called the stamen which produces the pollen. Female flowers have a shorter stem and are closer to the vine. If you peak inside the female flower, you will see the stigma which is where the pollen is collected. The ovary is at the base of the petals and is where the seeds develop.
Fertilization of the ovary
Flowers open only for 1 day; just before dawn, the flower petals begin to unfold and open for a period of 4 hours. By the middle of the day they have begun to close slowly and by dusk they have closed permanently. Pumpkins are pollinated by insects, especially native and honey bees, so it’s important to encourage them in your garden. It is common for the ovary of the female flower to swell and begin to look like a pumpkin is forming. But unfortunately, it turns brown and falls. This is because it has not been fertilized due to the lack of bees. There are a few things you can do to encourage them:
- Do not use systemic sprays (poisons that are absorbed into the plant and can last for several weeks), as many of them kill bees when they feed on flower nectar.
- Plant French lavender Lavanduala denatateblooms almost all year round.
- Plant lots of Iceland Poppies – honey bees love them
- Provide water for the bees, they will tell their friends and more bees will visit.
Now, if the weather has been too hot or too cold and you notice that there aren’t many bees buzzing around, you can try fertilizing them yourself. There are 2 methods, hand pollination using the male flower or using a toothbrush. To pollinate by hand, pick male flowers, remove the petals, and then apply pollen to the stigma of the female flowers. I once tried the toothbrush method, where you gently run your toothbrush over the stamen, then gently brush it over the stigma, but it didn’t work. I suggest you try the first method.
To save seed from harvested pumpkins, store for a month, then scoop out the flesh, wash and dry the seeds on a paper towel. Then store them in a clean, dry glass jar in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. It’s also a good idea to label the bottle with the variety of pumpkins and dates. I guarantee if you don’t you will have forgotten in a year what kind it is.
Pumpkins are notorious for cross-pollinating with each other, so to make sure the true type is true, save seeds from a variety grown in isolation. You may need to pollinate it by hand to make sure there is no pollen contamination.
Why is my pumpkin not producing fruit?
I mentioned earlier that pumpkins are notorious for not producing fruit and there are many reasons why.
- Pumpkins are sensitive to weather and temperature. If it is too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, then you may not get fruit. I suggest you try hand pollination, especially if temperatures are above 30C. Remember, if the weather is exterminating and the temperatures fluctuate a lot; then many plants are closed until conditions become more suitable.
- Seed younger than 3 years old is thought to produce more male flowers than female flowers.
- Lack of insects in your garden. Bees, ants and other insects are vital in the process of pollen transfer. If they are not present, then the pollen will not be transferred to the female flower – so there are no pumpkins
- Heavy rain can damage the pollen, which means that even if it is transferred by insects, it will not fertilize the flower and so again there will be no fruit.
- One trick to encourage more female flowers is to remove the apical (also known as terminal) bud (top growing point) and encourage lateral (side) growth.
- Make sure when you prepare the bed that you put some potash (encourages flowers) into it and don’t put too much nitrogen e.g. blood and bone, which causes excessive leaf growth.
Pests and diseases
There are normal pests such as slugs and snails that attack the leaves. You can try picking them by hand, especially after rain or use a snail trap with beer in a glass jar 1/2 submerged in the ground. They crawl, get drunk and drown. There is also the circle of finely crushed eggshells that you place around any plant that they hate to crawl on. There is a new product for the pot, which is a copper strip that you tie around the pot. There is also a spray to remove them, but I haven’t tried it.
If you have problems with caterpillars then I suggest you use an organic spray called Dipel which is the active ingredient. Bacillus thuringiensis. It will not harm you, your children, pets or other beneficial insects. Pyrethrum Longlife is also good for sap-sucking insects like whitefly and aphids, but it also kills caterpillars.
There are good and bad about ladybirds. The pests are known as spotted 28 and eat the leaves, so you have to be careful and pick them by hand.
Pumpkin disease is also more prone to powdery mildew and can spread very quickly in hot, humid conditions. To try and control this disease you can use cow’s milk, sprayed on the leaves every two weeks with a solution of 1 part cow’s milk to 10 parts water. Good ladybirds are distinguished by their yellow and black stripes and they eat mold, so don’t kill them. I also recommend watering in the morning, no overhead watering, but watering at ground level to prevent spores from splashing onto the leaves.
Harvesting and storage
The best part of growing pumpkins is harvesting them. You’ve seen them grow, you’ve fed them, no pests or diseases have touched them, and then you think you don’t know when to harvest them. It takes 3-4 months, they should be a nice color, sound good when you tap on them, and the skin should be firm and not show any indentation if you press your fingernails into them. It is very important to cut them with at least 5-10 cm of stem attached. This prevents mold from entering the pumpkin and helps extend their shelf life.
Choosing the right storage space is essential if you want to have pumpkin out of season. It should be well ventilated, without direct sunlight and cool. It should also be dry and not wet. The pumpkin should also be healthy, with no breaks in the flesh and no signs of mold. If there is, then eat it immediately, it will not be stored.
The last tip to help them grow healthy and strong is to feed them every two weeks with a potash potash and liquid fertilizer. It can be cow manure, sheep manure or liquid worm manure.
For pumpkins to grow successfully, they need rich organic soil, full sun, good weather and regular moisture. If you follow these simple instructions and the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, you will have beautiful healthy pumpkins that you can store, eat and eat. when it’s off season.
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