Once upon a time there lived a woman in a smallish town with a smallish yard and a not-so-smallish desire to grow pumpkins…
She considered growing pumpkins on a trellis, but she’d grown small pumpkins on a trellis last season, and her larger trellis was already busy supporting the weight of hardshell gourds. Besides, her heart was set on growing Cinderella pumpkins, romantic French heirloom Musquee De Provence pumpkins, and scrumptiously delicious Sugar Pie pumpkins.
“Ahhhh,” she lamented. “My northern climate can be harsh and unpleasant. Some years pumpkins don’t grow at all. Ohhh, and my small, small yard. It’s not suited to wandering vines.” She knew it would be a challenge. But gardening and challenges go hand-in-hand so onward she pressed…
Growing Cinderella Pumpkins & More
If you’ve ever wanted to grow pumpkins, but thought them too difficult or space consuming…read on. You may not have room to grow them every year (we’ll lament together), but dedicating some space to them once in a while is a very satisfying endeavor. If you scroll through the above filmstrip, you can view my journey from pumpkin dreamer to grower to harvester. Let me share with you how this woman re-evaluated her yard and grew a wonderful crop of pumpkins in a place she’d never thought of before….
Space & Soil
Sometimes it’s hard to see how beautiful our own gardens can be when all we remember is the yard we fought with during prior seasons or someone else’s larger plot. But if you look hard, you may just see something new right in your own small plot. I know I did. On the northeast side of my house is a slope that’s caused me no end of trouble for the entire decade I’ve lived in this home. While lush in the spring, it’s crusty by fall. But as it turned out, this year’s pumpkin patch was marvelous in last year’s undesirable space for grass.
It took some work, but using a large sod cutter my husband and I removed approximately 35′ by 20′ of grass from that undesirable sloped sideyard. We then hauled in 2 yards of compost/aged manure and tilled. It’s a windy location so I planted Ninebark bushes and a row of sunflowers along the garden edges to give the plants a little weather reprieve. On the other two sides I installed my keyhole garden and a stepping stone path. I now had a planting space about 20′ by 15 feet. It wasn’t large, but it was nice! By nice, I mean the soil was glorious and protected from harsh winds. Lesson number one: No amount of babysitting or fertilizer will make up for beginning with bad soil or unprotected plants. Trust me. I’ve learned this lesson over and over. Whatever amount of labor/cost you invest to properly prepare your soil and planting foundation will increase your chances of reaping a healthy harvest in the fall. It’s not a guarantee, but it does increase your chance of a happy ending.
After prepping my space and soil I waited. (It was torturous!) I wanted to plant in that newly tilled dirt so badly. It was fresh and soft, beckoning for seeds to be started. I was incredibly excited to get my pumpkin patch started for the season, but I held off. Why? It was too cold!! Pumpkins need soil temps from 60 – 100°F to germinate, erring on the warmer side is always better. So I busied myself in other areas of my garden and waited until June to direct-sow my seeds.
Once the soil warmed, I made several small dirt hills, planted 3-4 seeds per hill, watered thoroughly, and covered each hill with a homemade cloche. (Plastic pie lids work great!) True to the Old Farmer’s Almanac I had vines growing in less than 10 days. Once the vines had four leaves, I removed the cloches.
At that point I expected my vines to begin growing rapidly. But even with weekly rain and the gloriously rich soil I had planted them in, they languished. Pumpkins need a lot of nutrients to produce those thick vines as well as healthy fruit. I’ve used fish emulsion with great success in other gardens, but this time I used a natural fertilizer (Espoma’s Organic Garden-tone herb and vegetable food) with a 3-4-4 ratio (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). I applied the fertilizer when the plants were a foot tall. Only once. That’s all this year’s crop needed. Once I applied the fertilizer, they began producing vines and fruit rapidly. My pumpkin story began to pick up speed.
Water, Pollination & Vine Care
Water is vital to any veggie crop and I was fortunate to have rain at least once a week. Pumpkins need at least an 1″ of water a week. I’ve always found those measurements difficult. What exactly does 1″ of water look like in a garden? My rule of thumb is to not let the soil dry out completely, but guard against creating a sloppy wet mess. Standing water and overly wet conditions contribute to pest infestations and powdery mildew. However, you really can’t control the weather. My plot did get too wet, too hot, and too humid at points in the season. So, I did have some bugs chomping on my leaves, and my crop did incur end-of-season mildew, but it remained healthy enough to deliver a substantial number of pumpkins per plant….which made me a happy grower.
Probably the most time intensive part of growing my pumpkins in a small space was managing the vines. Those vines grow in all directions at once! However, you can gently pick them up and redirect them if they begin growing outside your borders. Also, later in the season once fruit has set, you can simply lop off a vine when it gets to long. This is helpful to the fruit being produced. More energy is directed towards growing the pumpkins rather than maintaining an extensive system of vines and leaves.
In addition to water and vine care, the most helpful pumpkin growing strategy was to plant pollinator and beneficial insect attracting herbs/flowers near-by. In addition to the Ninebarks and sunflowers I mentioned above, I also planted calendula, borage, milkweed, yarrow, and basil. Pumpkins produce both male and female flowers. The more bees, beneficial insects, and butterflies you have in your garden, the more likely the pollen will be successfully transferred.
At last it was time to harvest! The old fashion thump-on-a-pumpkin-until-it-sounds-hollow is a pretty good method. The rind should feel firm as well. Once they are dry, it’s time to harvest. Using a sharp knife or pruners simply cut the stem from the vine. It’s good to leave several inches of stem. Then LEAVE THE PUMPKIN IN THE FIELD for a few days. Pumpkins need to cure and it takes about 7-10 days. Then, wash them with water, disinfect with a weak bleach solution, dry thoroughly, and move them to a cooler spot. Pumpkins store well in temps of 55° F. However, most of us are using them as decor these days, so have some fun!
My small pumpkin patched yielded four large Cinderella pumpkins, two Musquee De Provence, seven fully-ripened Sugar Pie pumpkins useful for cooking, and four smaller Sugar Pies that I’m using in my fall decor. I am incredibly happy with my crop! It was a good season.
Next year, I’ll give my small space patch a rest from pumpkins and plant something different. I’m not sure what….but I’ll let you know. I promise it will be something you may not expect!
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