The days are getting shorter and Fall is in the air. It's Pumpkin Time. I've been growing about 10 acres of pumpkins for several years now and many people are quite curious about growing the crop; so, in this issue I will include a few pumpkin pointers.
Soil: Like most crops, pumpkins do best on a loamy, welldrained soil, but pumpkins are much less particular than their cousin the watermelon. I have been successful on soil ranging from very sandy to fairly heavy (although not soggy). They will tolerate a soil pH range of 5.5 to 6.8 preferring the higher end of the range. Fertility should be based on soil test recommendations because pumpkins are very responsive to nutrient availability.
Planting: It should be noted that there is not much demand for pumpkins before or after October. Also, pumpkins are a fairly long season crop, ranging between 95-120 days depending on variety. Couple this knowledge with the fact that ripe pumpkins do not usually hold up in the heat of summer, as well as in the cool of fall, and you can compute that the best planting time is around mid-June. Seeds are usually sown one to one and one-half inches deep at a rate of one to two pounds per acre. This depends on row spacing and inrow spacing. Some varieties are semi-bush (vining, but not as extreme) and can be spaced especially if grown dryland. In-row spacing is 1-3 feet. I usually use the closer in-row spacing to get quicker coverage since many weeds do not germinate well in heavy shade. I leave nine feet between rows because I irrigate and because I can get my seven-foot cultivator between the rows to kill weeds and incorporate herbicide.
Varieties: Starting small, the miniature types like Jack-Be- Little are edible but usually used only for table decorations. Next, the "pie pumpkin" with variety names like Small Sugar or New England Sugar are slightly sweeter, have stringless meat and weigh about one pound. Just about right for a pie. The "Jack-o-Lantern" is the mainstay of the pumpkin patch. There is the old openpollinated type like Connecticut Field which is a good producer of a wide variation of size, shape, and even color (well all orange but different hues). The hybrids offer a higher yield and usually much more consistency of shape and size. This can be very important to commercial growers. Some varieties are Howden (the standard), Aspen Autumn Gold, and Spirit. Finally, the giants. We have all heard about the 500-800 pound record setters. Well, do not get your heart set on a world record. Of course it could happen here, but usually those come from the Great Lake states where farm land is rich and deep and the climate is very mild. That does not seem to describe this part of the world. I have grown some 150 pound pumpkins though and that is about as big as you can handle for sales. Some giant varieties are Prizewinner, Big Max, and Atlantic Giant (the world record holder, actually a squash).
Weed Control: This can be a little tricky since there are few herbicides labeled for pumpkins. In a garden you can go organic, but from personal experience, you do not need to be very large scale before Mother Nature gets ahead of you. I usually appy a preplant or preemerge herbicide at planting time. Then, just before the vines start to run, I apply a second application while I can still incorporate it with my cultivator.
Insect Control: For my money, most years, insects are the least of my worries. Usually there are two main pests of concern. Squash bugs are the biggest problem because they can be hard to control. With the right approach they can be kept in check. The main factor to control is scouting. Squash bugs are pretty easy to kill when they are young; so, learning what the different insects look like is essential. The second major pest is the cucumber beetle. They can usually be controlled by the same material that controls squash bugs. The same rule applies to many other insects that may become a problem. Scouting and trap crops can be useful not only to reduce pesticide in the environment but also to reduce cost and protect your bees which are essential to pollination.
Disease Control: This is a step that is often overlooked, especially in the garden. To date I have never seen a mature pumpkin that did not have Powdery Mildew (the white fungus disease that causes the leaves to go down early). Disease control is very important because left unchecked, disease can cause yield reductions and even total crop loss. Again, I can testify from personal experience. Pumpkins are susceptible to several diseases, but the two most prevalent I have encountered are Powdery Mildew and Downy Mildew. These sound the same but are not. The important tips here are: (1) avoid resistance to the protectant by alternating different chemicals and (2) read the label for directions and for safety.
Marketing: This is the part that will vary the most. Pumpkins are popular and not hard to sell but a marketing plan should be in place before you even plant. There may be strong demand or a saturated market. A little research may reveal a special niche that nobody else is filling. Since I started growing pumpkins seven years ago, the wholesale price has hovered around the five to six cents per pound range (picking labor 1 1/2-2 cents per pound). The retail price has stayed between 10-15 cents per pound.
I will close with a few final observations. First, pumpkins and other fall crops used for decoration seem to grow in popularity every year, and people love to get them locally grown, especially if they can get in the patch. Also, price is not necessarily the object. People may quibble over a few cents with tomatoes, okra, or other food crops, but are willing to shell out big bucks for decorations. Finally, pumpkins are fun! People, especially kids, have the time of their life choosing a pumpkin from a great big field of orange. I feel like, in my patch, that I am not only growing a crop, but also fond family memories.