By Skip Richter, Contributing Editor
all brings a welcome end to a long hot summer, and ornate landscape decorations featuring the harvest from our Texas farms and gardens. Central to these decorations are the winter squashes. Before we delve into growing great pumpkins or decorative winter squashes a few words of classification are in order.
Some Basics of Squash Classification
There are two basic types of squash, when classified by their culinary use. Summer squash are harvested when immature. Examples include yellow crookneck and straightneck, zucchini, and patty pan. Winter squashes are allowed to mature and typically have a dense, hard flesh that is fine grained and mild flavored. They are usually used in soups, baking and pies. Unlike summer squashes they store well, often for months without significant loss of quality. Examples include acorn, butternut, kabocha, buttercup, delicata (or sweet potato) and sweet dumpling.
Pumpkins, although technically a type of winter squash, are specifically those types considered to by drier, coarser and with a stronger flavor. They are typically spiced up and baked into pies rather than utilized as a baked vegetable dish. So for the sake of our discussion here we’ll refer to pumpkins and winter squashes separately.
All this culinary hubbub aside, pumpkins seem to be most popular these days as a fall decoration. Carved, painted and even dressed up as the head of a scarecrow, pumpkins are becoming better known as design and décor than as dessert! Other winter squashes are joining the popular pumpkin on the front porch or adorning a table runner as attractive fall decorations.
Pumpkins come in many sizes. There are miniatures weighing in at less than a pound and about the size of your fist. “Jack Be Little” is a flattened orange miniature and “Baby Boo” is a haunting white. There are also small types like “Baby Bear”, which is only slightly larger than most muskmelons and has an attractive rounded shape.
From there the sizes move on up to the 5-10 pound medium sizes, the 10 – 25 pound large sizes and the mammoth pumpkins that can weigh in at over 100 pounds under ideal growing conditions. These large pumpkins have become an obsession for some gardeners with contests for the largest pumpkin driving the faithful to great lengths (and some serious hocus pocus) to achieve the coveted honors. If you are interested in such an addiction, check out the following web site for some like minded, or perhaps I should say “out of their minds”, fellow gardeners.
World Class Giant Pumpkins Home Page:
There are numerous decorative winter squashes and gourds that also make popular fall decorations. Turk’s Turban is a strangely shaped fruit that is cream colored striped with green, yellow, orange and red. A new acorn variety “Carnival” has the classic acorn shape but sports orange and green fruits with cream to white splotches that make it downright perfect to use for decorating or dining. Several decorative gourds, cousins of pumpkins and the winter squashes, also make great fall decorations. Bi-Colored Pear gourd, Crown of Thorns gourd and the bumpy Warted gourd are among the more interesting choices.
These are but a few of the many types of decorative squash and pumpkins you can grow in your garden for sprucing up the homescape for the fall season. Now let’s look at how to grow them successfully.
Growing Great Squash and Pumpkins
Pumpkins and winter squashes love a sunny location and a deep, well-drained soil. A minimum of 6 hours of sunlight is needed to supply the energy to promote good bloom set and fruit production. These vegetables can send their roots 4 feet deep, but will do quite well if you can provide them a foot or two of soil depth and adequate moisture and nutrition. They prefer a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 but will do fine on soils up to 8.0. Soils more acidic than 6.0 should be limed to raise the pH. A soil test will give you an idea where to start in preparing a great soil for these vegetables.
If your gardening spot has shallow soil or if drainage is less than adequate, it pays to build raised beds to increase soil depth and avoid soggy root conditions. Pumpkins can be really unhappy in a heavy clay soil unless you add lots of compost and build raised planting beds. Topsoil mixed with compost is an ideal blend. Your local soil and mulch retailer will likely have several good mixes on hand for creating a great raised bed garden.
After all danger of frost is past plant pumpkin and winter squash seed about 1 / 2 to 1 inch deep in groups of 3-5 plants. These vegetables are not fond of cool soil; so early planting is not recommended here in Texas. May to early June is about ideal. Because many types can take over 100 days to mature fruit you should get them out before the end of June in most parts of the state. Direct seeding into the garden is the most common technique, but you can hedge your bet by growing seedlings in 4″ pots and transplanting them promptly into the garden when they have 3 – 5 leaves.
In the garden follow the seed packet instructions for the recommended spacing between each group of plants. For a general guide plant “bush” types 30″ apart in rows 48″ apart. Plant smaller fruited vining types 3 – 4″ apart in rows 7″ apart, and large fruited vining types 5 – 6″ apart in rows 7″ apart. You can also grow the smaller fruited types on trellises to save space if you provide some type of support for the developing fruits.
When seedlings have developed their second leaf (not counting the original two “seed leaves”) thin the plants to 3 per grouping. Then apply a complete fertilizer product at a rate of one cup per 25 feet of row. Place the fertilizer in a shallow (1 – 2″ deep) trench alongside the row about 6 inches from the plants. Repeat the fertilizer applications 4 weeks later a foot further out from the plants.
Managing Pests and Diseases
Squash and pumpkins have a few enemies in the garden. Vine borers are mainly a spring problem and tend to not be so prevalent in late summer and fall. They can be controlled with various labeled insecticides if you apply them before the larvae enter the vines. Once inside they are protected from sprays. At that point the options are to carefully split vines lengthwise to find and stab the culprits or to inject a B.t. solution in the vines to destroy the developing larvae. Early detection is important or control measures will prove too little, too late. Many varieties will root at each node, which makes the borer attack much less consequential.
Squash bugs are another potential pest problem. The best solution for a small garden plot is to check leaves periodically and destroy their amber eggs, typically laid in between veins on the undersides of the leaves. When this is not enough, a labeled insecticide may be deemed necessary to protect a crop. As always choose the least toxic option and direct sprays at the pests to avoid needless harm to the environment.
Keep in mind that pumpkins and squash depend on bees and other insects to pollinate their blooms or they will not set fruit. Research in Michigan and New York indicates that a pumpkin blossom needs 8-10 visits by a bee to be fully pollinated and that each bloom is only receptive to pollination for a day. This tells us two things. First, it tells us that some folks up north have way too much time on their hands. Second that we don’t want to spray anything that might damage our little buzzing friends or we’ll get to either inherit their job or face a loss of crop and of face down at the coffee shop where the gardeners gather.
There are a few foliage diseases that may become a problem in some years. Powdery mildew is one of the most common and devastating. Several effective fungicide options are available. One very low toxicity choice is a product containing either potassium bicarbonate or sodium bicarbonate. Repeat applications as needed to maintain protection of the foliage.
Viruses can also be a problem. They are transmitted by insects, primarily aphids and cucumber beetles, and as such are difficult to prevent. However virus diseases often seem to be worse in the fall. Plants affected when young will have lower production and any fruit produced may be misshapen and discolored (hey, this sounds like just another great decorative squash). Plant affected after fruit near full size may show little if any symptoms or loss of production. Infected vines should be pulled up and removed when first noticed to decrease the danger of infecting other healthy vines nearby.
Pumpkins and winter squash should be allowed to fully mature on the vines if possible. When fully mature the skin will harden so that a thumbnail will not easily puncture it and the color will change from green to the normal color(s) of the particular type or variety. When the fruits are ready for harvest cut them from the vine leaving a few inches of stem on the fruit. Place the harvested fruit in a warm, humid location for a couple of weeks to allow it to cure and for any wounds to heal over. Then store in a cool location but where they will not be subjected to freezes or frosts.
A Final Fun Tip
After a pumpkin reaches about 2 / 3 to 3 /4 its full size, if it is scratched it will heal over that scratch with a raised ridge of callous tissue. Scratches on young pumpkins tend to result it decay and loss of fruit. Narrow scratches result in raised scar tissues and broad lines usually form flat scar tissues. When the pumpkin turns orange this raised callous ridge remains a cream to beige color. This summer take the kids out and help them write their names or make designs on a few pumpkins in your patch using an awl, ice pick or nail. Then at harvest time their personalized pumpkins will be even more appreciated — and a great subject for “show and tell”.
New Pumpkins Not Just Another Pretty Face
The traditional fall ornament the pumpkin may be on the verge of a major image change. Up to now, pumpkins have been bred to look pretty sitting in a fall arrangement or carved with entertaining faces for Halloween. While pumpkin pie is a holiday staple, most new pumpkin varieties are rather stringy and not the best choice for culinary uses.
Don Maynard, horticultural sciences professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has been working on some close relatives of our pumpkins from the tropics to develop improved varieties destined for the kitchen rather than the front walk. Tropical pumpkins are native to Central America. Commonly called calabaza or calabash, they are part of the group of vegetable we call winter squashes and are very popular in soups, baked dishes, or candied.
You can buy standard types of tropical pumpkin from specialty seed companies, but they have a bad habit of taking over the world (a trait I am willing to overlook for their superior culinary qualities and the fact that they tend to outgrow insect and diseases problems).
Two new varieties “El Dorado” and “La Estrella” are soon to come on the market. Like other calabaza type squash they are similar to a squatty pumpkin in shape but are green to tan in skin color. The orange flesh is high in beta-carotene an important antioxidant in our diets. These new varieties developed by Maynard tolerate heat and humidity well and are not prone to pest problems. They also mature faster and yield more than traditional pumpkins. They are bred to be bushy and compact, a trait appreciated by any gardener who has ever watched their mild mannered garden vegetables be overtaken by a standard type tropical pumpkin.
Sources of Decorative Pumpkins, Gourds & Winter Squash:
Wilhite Seed Co.
P.O. Box 23
Poolville, TX 76487
(Excellent selection of pumpkins as well as small decorative gourds and Turk’s turban from this Texas seed company.)
P.O. Box 22960
Rochester, NY 14692-2960
Phone orders: 1(800)514-4441.
(Excellent selection of pumpkins, ornamental gourds and winter squashes including exclusive sales of Carnival acorn squash.)
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine 04910
Home Garden Order Line: (207)437-4301
Customer Service Line: (207)437-4357
(Excellent selection of pumpkins and many types of winter squash.)