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Pumpkins - A Classic

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pumpkin 05-230x153Pumpkins are a classic vegetables for an Autumn harvest. 'Hard skinned' varieties are valuable Winter keepers which last for months when properly stored. Pumpkins are ready to harvest when their supportive vine dies easily separates from stalk.

Leave the Pumpkin stalk attached to the Pumpkin top. If it breaks away exposing the tender Pumpkin flesh, that Pumpkin should be used immediately as it will not keep. Only those with stalk attached and no flesh wounds will keep long-term. Store these in a very airy, frost free position; preferably up off the floor away from chilling drafts or dampness and safe from rodents.

They are best stored at cool to moderate temperatures and rather low humidity. Pumpkins are a very ancient crop grown extensively by Indians throughout much of the Americas. Today's universal garden community around the world grows many hybrid varieties and all their species.

These have mostly originated from three species:
Cucurbita pepo includes most of the common, hard-skinned, long-keeping Pumpkin varieties, Winter-keeping Squash and small-fruited Gourds.

Somewhat different C. maxima and C. moschata produce much larger fruit often with furrows running in segments from top to bottom around the fruit. These do not keep for as long but are valuable for exhibition, soups, stews and as stock food. Triamble, Queensland Blue and Crown are hard-skinned small/medium size varieties which are all excellent keepers and easy to grow.

For something with a big difference try Giant Atlantic, a soft orange Pumpkin-Squash which can weigh in at over 200kg. Many of the massive 'giant' Pumpkins originate from this variety.  Beautiful 'Golden Harvest' is a classic bright orange Jack-O-Lantern type Pumpkin of perfect proportions and small/medium size. Baby Bear is a smaller more rounded or elliptical variety.

Jack-Be-Little is an adorable mini-Pumpkin/Gourd in golden orange that keeps very well but is more decorative than edible.The old-fashioned classic Kentucky Field Pumpkin is a medium/large Pumpkin-Squash which is excellent for carving, pies and soups. These medium sized orange-fruited varieties often keep for several months. Pumpkins are started from seed planted Late Winter under glass or outdoors once weather conditions moderate. The vines take four to five months of warm weather to produce mature fruit. So in climates with short, cooler growing seasons, they are usually started indoors in small containers.

These are planted outdoors once conditions are thoroughly warm. That point in the season occurs as soon as the last deciduous trees leaf-out in Spring. Transplant Pumpkin seedlings with the greatest of care. Their root system is surprisingly tender for a plant that can be so durable and robust. Even the slightest root damage at the time of transplanting can seriously stunt the plant, and eliminate or reduce harvests. The easiest seedlings to shift are those grown in peat pots or containers where the root ball slips out effortlessly.

The classic really easy way to plant Pumpkins is to sow their seed outdoors where they are meant to grow. Choose a warm, sheltered, sunny site out of severe winds, especially chilling drafts. Soil should drain well and can be enriched with mature compost, well-aged manure and a good quality balanced general plant food. In acid soils, Pumpkins grow better when Garden Lime, Dolomag or Dolomite are generously dug into the soil at least a week or two prior to planting. But overly rich soil, especially when enriched with Nitrogen fertilisers like Blood and Bone, can result in most impressive leafy vegetation at the expense of quality and quantity of fruits.

Seed is planted outdoors only once soil and weather has thoroughly warmed. Seeds will often fail if planted too early into cold ground. Plant several seeds in a group 1-3cm deep and thin to the strongest plant a few weeks later. Pumpkin seed is often planted in 'hills' which are really low, spreading mounds of enriched earth shaped like a broad and very shallow volcanic crater. The seeds are individually sown on the inside sunniest wall of the crater. This way they are sheltered from chill winds/cold drafts where they can grow in full, warm sunshine with their roots spreading into the bottom of the crater where they can be easily irrigated and liquid fed.

During, dry, hot Summer weather, the crater can be filled with mulch or compost which will help feed the growing vine as well as maintain a more constant supply of moisture. Pumpkin and Squash plants are large. They produce large leaves with a big spread which is meant to smother-out competition. That makes them an ideal vegetable plant to grow over pasture or weedy land. Give them  2 meters square between plants as both the vines and root system can sprawl extensively. In the wild, Pumpkin and Squash often scramble and sprawl over the ground and up over shrubs and small trees. Their fruits hang most ornamentally along the vines where they are lightly supported and protected within the shrubby canopy.

Thus they will most willingly climb a fence or trellis which works well when growing small-fruited varieties in smaller garden spaces. Because of their size and weight, big Pumpkins will need to be grown on the ground. Sprawling vines are often cut back once one or two fruit set if these are meant for exhibition. This saves space and forces energy into the fruit rather than the vegetative vine. To avoid rot or scaring of the developing fruit, these are often grown upon a board, water-resistant mat or shallow patch of fluffy leaves or straw. Keep vines moist especially during warm weather when the vines are in active growth. Liquid feed several times during the season.

Exhibition growers feed their Pumpkins lightly with every watering. When vines are full of flowers, the tip can be pinched out of each runner to induce fruiting on developing lateral shoots. Once one or two fruit appear on a runner again pinch out the tip so that growth will go into the fruit instead of the leaves. Exhibition fruit are often limited one fruit per vine. But a well cared-for and generously fed large Kentucky Field Pumpkin vine can grow to cover a vast area with sometimes 40 or more Pumpkins successfully ripening to mature harvest.

Pumpkins and Squash have few diseases and pests. Often the worst is Powdery Mildew which can be controlled with an organic baking soda, cooking oil and liquid soap spray mixed with water and sprayed on regularly. For insect pests add the strained juice of Garlic and Cheyenne Pepper to the spray mix.  Alternatively, a general garden fungal / insecticidal spray will control most all diseases and pests. This is best applied early in the season to inoculate and protect the young vines from predation. Then reapply at regular intervals in situations where predation is likely.

When  damaged leaves or vine tips are removed or vines are cut back, bend over or tie-off the hollow stem ends that could become a home to unwanted quests like Squash borer, caterpillar, grubs, and slugs.

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