Garden Variety: Plant pumpkins this month for an October harvest

In Kansas, early to mid-June is the best time to plant pumpkins, squash and gourds in the garden for harvest in October. Growing them is a fun solo or family activity which yields fruit for cooking, jack-o’-lanterns, fall displays and future birdhouses.

When most people think of pumpkins, they generally think of a round or semi-round orange fruit with a hard rind and fleshy interior. You may know that pie pumpkins are different from jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, but what about the white ones or the giant ones or the green ones with the bumpy skin?

Technically, all of the things described are squash. Pumpkins and gourds, as well as zucchini, yellow summer, crookneck, scallop, acorn, butternut, spaghetti, cushaw and other varieties, are all squash. There are four species of Cucurbita and multiple varieties within each of those that vary greatly in size, shape, color and palatability.

Why does it matter? If the seed package has a picture and description, that is more important than what common name is listed. But if you are searching for giant pumpkins, birdhouse gourds or those odd-colored, bumpy pumpkins you saw last fall, they may be labeled as squash instead.

To get started growing these crops, find seeds or plants of desired varieties first. Seed directly into the garden, or use transplants if desired and if they are available.

Select a site in full sun (six-plus hours of direct sunlight per day) with well-drained soil and plenty of space for the plants to vine. If space is limited, use bush- or semi-bush-type plants instead of vining-type plants. This information should be on the seed packet.

Cultivate the soil prior to planting or plant directly into a prepared site if practicing no-till production. Follow spacing and planting recommendations for the varieties being grown, even if it seems like plants are spaced very far apart. The vines will fill the space in a few months.

Once plants begin to grow, challenges include weed control, insect pests and plant diseases.

For weed control, cultivate soil lightly to destroy weeds until vines begin to spread. Spread straw, hay or other mulch over the bare areas to discourage weeds or use plastic mulch. Pull remaining weeds by hand through the season or chop them out with a hoe.

As vines fill in, they will cover and shade the bare areas, reducing the number of weed seeds that germinate.

In commercial production, herbicides are often used for weed control. If this approach is preferred, take care to shield plants or only use selective (grass killer) herbicides to avoid damage to plants. Preemergent products can also limit the number of weeds that grow.

The major insect pests that affect various pumpkins, squash and gourds are squash bugs, squash vine borers and cucumber beetles.

Squash bugs are the hardest to control, especially if zucchini or other squash are being grown nearby. They can be handpicked into a jar of soapy water, but plants should be checked at least daily. Experts often recommend placing boards, old shingles or other materials on the ground near the plants. The bugs will congregate there overnight. Then, flip the materials over first thing in the morning and destroy as many as possible.

Squash bugs can also be controlled with insecticides if desired. Read and follow all label instructions to avoid killing beneficial insects.

Squash vine borer is a clearwing moth that lays eggs near the base of the plant. The eggs hatch soon after and larvae bore into the vine, where they begin feeding. Plants wilt as damage worsens, and eventually the plant will die. Check for damage regularly. If holes are noticed or wilting is observed, larvae can be removed manually from stems and killed.

You can also try trapping adults by placing yellow buckets or dishes with water in the garden during the adult flight season. Adults are said to be attracted to the color yellow and may get caught. This method might work best if row cover is placed over the plants after the first adult is detected and left on for a few weeks. The flight season is usually in late June to early July.

Cucumber beetles are problematic because they transfer a disease called bacterial wilt from plant to plant. Pumpkins and the types of squash described above are more resistant to the disease than cucumbers and cantaloupes but can still succumb to it.

Yellow sticky traps placed in the garden near plants can help detect cucumber beetles. If numbers are low, no control is necessary. If there are many cucumber beetles present, insecticidal control may be desired.

There are many diseases that affect pumpkins, squash and gourds. If disease is suspected, seek out positive identification before attempting treatment. Local county extension offices and the Kansas State University Plant Diagnostic Laboratory can help identify plant diseases.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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