Archive for Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Pumpkins take plenty of water, patience to grow

October 29, 2003

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One of the trickiest vegetables for home gardeners to grow consistently and in large quantity is the pumpkin. You wouldn't know this from looking at the mountain of pumpkins piled in front of your local supermarket, but it's true. Only masochists and martyrs plant pumpkins.

The pumpkin is the only vegetable to have an entire holiday organized -- and marketed -- around it, and it's the only vegetable that most consumers don't buy for its food value. In that sense, a pumpkin has more in common with a decorative gourd than the squash that botanists say it is.

But that's not why I'm down on raising pumpkins. From a gardener's standpoint, pumpkin-growing is rigged from the beginning. First of all, pumpkins take a long time to reach maturity -- usually 100-plus days from germination -- which means more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Think of pumpkins as big balloons linked to spigots on a water line. If anything happens to the vine during the three and a half months the pumpkins are sitting in your garden, you're done. Among the perils that can befall a pumpkin vine during the length of a summer are squash bugs and vine borers, as well as raccoons and other critters that happen by.

Even gardeners who use chemicals to control insects may not have a real edge if they have to keep applying them all summer. Suddenly, the pumpkin that can be had for a couple of dollars at the grocery store costs real money in your own garden.

The pumpkins themselves can be susceptible to soft spots and molds, although if the vines stay healthy, pumpkins that sit on mulch rather than the bare ground have a pretty good shot.

But the more basic and possibly even greater challenge in growing pumpkins is keeping them supplied with water, particularly in a dry summer like the one we just had. Anyone who nursed pumpkins through this year's drought using rural or municipal water has some pricey jack-o-lanterns. This summer many people just cut their losses and let their pumpkins dry up.

The folks who promote pumpkin-growing never tell you this stuff. What you find in seed catalogs are photos of enormous, blemish-free carving pumpkins accompanied by reassurances that anyone can duplicate these results with little effort.

My favorite seed catalog for reading the pumpkin descriptions is Gurney's, which always pictures the lunker pumpkins next to objects that can be easily dwarfed. Small, grinning children often serve this purpose. Or a man in a seed cap might be resting his elbow on a pumpkin, but the lush vegetation around the pumpkin makes it impossible to tell whether the man is standing or kneeling.

If the proportions in the photographs don't hook you, the text beneath them will try again. For example, Dill's Atlantic Giant is described as an "outstanding performer -- current record-holder at over 1,000 pounds. Even without special treatment, you get eye-popping 200- to 300-pound squash-type pumpkins with flavorful orange flesh."

A pumpkin on steroids? The catalog never defines these "special treatments" but I suspect that thousands of gallons of supplemental watering are part of the plan.

One thing is for sure, though: This is one pumpkin the neighborhood kids would be hard-pressed to steal off the front porch.

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