By Charles Gleaves
We do indeed grow pumpkins and for a specific purpose. Our biggest event of the year is the Great Pumpkin Glow. Thousands of people visit us over two days in October for this event featuring lots and lots of pumpkins. We buy many of them but also grow our own. As a horticultural institution it seems only reasonable that we apply some of our skills for growing things to the task. Last year we displayed 1,833 pumpkins of which 1303 were carved and illuminated and we grew over 700 ourselves. The biggest challenge for us is not the growing of pumpkins per se, but growing pumpkins on this scale. Gardeners, such as us, don’t typically get into field production.
We started using plastic and perhaps we would have stayed with that technique if we had a machine that would lay out and tuck in the plastic. We found that although the plastic was a big help with keeping down weeds, it was an added expense and was very awkward to lay out in the spring and pull up in the fall.
Last year we grew half on plastic and half without. This year we plan to use no plastic and to grow them in rows rather than the traditional hills.
We buy our seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds which seems to cater to not only home owners but also small scale commercial produce growers.
Seed selection is an important part of the process. We buy, to the extent possible, large varieties suitable for carving, short vining varieties that won’t run beyond their bounds, and powdery mildew resistant types that are less likely to be damaged by that most prevalent pumpkin disease.
Powdery mildew inoculum can accumulate in the soil from growing pumpkins in the same site year after year, which unfortunately, we are obliged to do because of space limitations.
Racoons discovered our pumpkins last year, but have done minimal damage so far. They cause a mysterious symptom. They gnaw one hole about three-inch round in a pumpkin and then reach in and scoop out the insides. I had no idea what sort of creature was doing that until I happened upon a podcast about a reputed endangered Caribbean raccoon subspecies that was decimating pumpkin crops.
Unlike the typical home vegetable gardener, we are not concerned about getting our seeds into the ground as early as possible. We want our pumpkins ripening by the end of September or the first week of October. Pumpkin seeds germinate well in the warm soil of June, and with 90 to 100 days from germination to maturity an early to mid-June planting is about right.
We can’t afford the time to attend regularly to the pumpkins, so once the seedlings are well established we might do some initial weeding while the plants are still small and perhaps some emergency irrigation if there is a crisis, but otherwise we leave them alone until harvest time.
People often ask us why we don’t try to grow giant pumpkins. That is a logical question, because the skills necessary are right inside the wheel house of our gardeners. They seem to be very tempted, but the challenge is time. Kingwood’s gardens need lots of attention, and giant pumpkins may be a luxury we just don’t have the time to indulge in. We’ll see.