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Weekend Life

Learning to Grow: Pumpkins represent simple comforts of home

When I was a little girl, every Halloween brought with it the promise of not only costumes and candy, but at least one evening spent curled up in front of the television broadcast of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

And scarcely an October has passed since that didn’t find me with a warm drink in hand, waiting to see what would happen to Linus in that pumpkin patch.

If there’s one thing children and adults can agree on, it’s that we all love pumpkins. And after months spent dreaming up new and interesting uses for asparagus, eggplant and kohlrabi, the sight of pumpkins once again dotting porch steps calls to mind the simple comforts of home: pies and hearths and chilly autumn nights lit by the glow of jack-o-lanterns. 

Pumpkins are fairly easy to grow and are such fun at harvest time that it’s well worth devoting some space to them (and some of the varieties we’ll discuss – all good choices for beginners – require little more than a large pot and something to tie them to). Keep in mind they are tender plants, with seeds that won’t germinate in soil that is too cold and seedlings that can be damaged by frost. To avoid injury and still have a crop in time for Halloween, seeds are typically planted in late May in our northern location.

There are both vining and bush varieties of pumpkins, and if you do choose a sprawling vine, care should be taken to ensure adequate space is provided.

Plant in full sun and keep the surrounding area well watered and free of weeds.

• Jack Be Little, Wee Be Little, and Baby Boo. Even if I hated pumpkins, I may have had to write this column solely as an excuse to share these darling names with all of you. (Be honest – I had you at “Baby Boo.”)

As it happens, they are hands down my favorite pumpkins to grow at home. Not only are the miniature fruits adorable in orange and white and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, their diminutive size also makes them easy to incorporate into the garden – ideal if, like me, you are working within the confines of a pretty small space. They can be planted along fences, or trained to grow on trellises, arbors, or even a porch railing. This year I planted the seeds in a container and tied the vines to grow up a trellis along a garage wall. They are simple and fun for kids to grow, and they make great fall decorations in your home.

• Sugar Pie Pumpkins. Sugar pie pumpkins are small and sweet, and their smooth texture makes them a wonderful choice for pies, muffins, breads and soups. Like the miniature varieties, the pie pumpkins can be tied securely to a trellis to save precious space in the garden. Once they grow too heavy for the vine, fashion a sling from strips of fabric (old T-shirts, pantyhose, etc.) to support them.

• Connecticut Field Pumpkins. Here we have the quintessential Halloween pumpkin – perfect for carving jack-o-lanterns or taking first prize at the state fair. This heirloom variety, introduced to New England settlers prior to 1700, is orange with a classic round shape and grows 15-20 pounds, though some may grow even larger. This vining type likes to sprawl and is often planted in hills with 50-100 square feet per hill required.  Hills should be spaced 5-6 feet apart.

No matter which type of pumpkin you choose, the real fun comes with the harvest. When pumpkins are a deep solid color and the rind is hard – typically late September into October – they can be cut from the vine with pruning shears.

Be sure to leave a few inches of stem attached (“the handle”) as pumpkins will keep better. Warm some cider or whip up a batch of hot buttered rum, grab a stack of wool blankets and enlist a few friends to help out in the pumpkin patch. And do keep an eye out for that Great Pumpkin. 
• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information.

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