Picking a perfect pumpkin

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

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P Pumpkins planted in midsummer are ripe for carving by October.

I used to think that those yellow to gold to orange round fruits with a green stem that were used for pies and jack o'lanterns were pumpkins until I read Dennis the Menace in the Sunday comics. Margaret told Dennis that a pumpkin was really a squash. Of course Dennis said that explained how they could get those big things in such little pies. I now stand corrected. (I often get valuable information in the comics.)

Pumpkins and squash are all members of the curcubita family. Most of the pumpkins and squash are members of the species Curcubita pepo. This group can be further broken down into what is commonly known as summer squash and winter squash.

Summer squash usually starts producing fruit from 50 to 70 days after seed germination. They continue to produce all summer long. Some of the better known summer squash are zucchini, yellow crookneck, yellow straightneck. After harvest they usually last on 7 to 10 days before becoming overripe. These fruits can be prepared a number of different ways in the kitchen. I have had them steamed, stir fried, fresh in salads, or in the famous zucchini bread. I'm sure there are a lot more ways to prepare them.

Winter squash (and most of the pumpkins) produce fruit for 75 to 120 days after seed germination. Winter squash also includes cultivars from other species of Curcubita, such as C. maxima, C. mixta, and C. moschata. They produce just one flush of fruit at the end of the growing season. This group includes the Jack O' Lantern pumpkin, Connecticut Field pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash, and spaghetti squash just to name a few.

Winter squash (pumpkins) are generally more nutritious than their summer relatives. Even their seeds can be roasted and eaten. From stir fry to pies, the number of different ways to prepare these curcubit fruits is beyond counting.

Ready for harvest

Pumpkins, the harbingers of fall, should be ready for harvesting around the first to middle of October. Depending upon which variety you plant you should plant these curcubits around June 15 to July 4. If you plant a 90-day variety on July 4, it would be ready about Oct. 4.

Most gardeners start these vines by planting two or three seeds per hill in their garden. Leave plenty of room between hills because each vine will spread from 10 to 20 feet. If you have a small garden, look for a bush variety.

A few gardeners prefer to start their seed in Jiffy 7's indoors and then transplant them to the field. Purchase the Jiffy 7's at your local garden center. Place them in water for a few minutes. After they have expanded, place two pumpkin seeds per Jiffy 7. Keep them wet until the seed has germinated. After the new plants have developed to the point that they have secondary leaves, you can transplant them to hills in your garden.

Insects can attack

There are two major insects that attack pumpkins while they are growing. The first of these is the squash vine borer. The larvae attack the vines by entering into the vine at the ground surface. They then bore into the center of the vine stem and continue to feed inside the stem until they have destroyed all of the vascular tissue of the vine. When that happens the vine wilts in a matter of a day and then dies.

In order to protect your plants from the squash vine borer, place thiodan or thuricide dust around the seeds at the time of planting. This should protect your vines from this damaging insect.

The second major pest is the squash bug or stink bug. They are called stink bugs because they stink when crushed. The squash bug has hypodermic needle-like mouth parts. It inserts these mouth parts into the fruit of the pumpkin and into the leaves and vines of the plant. Where the mouth parts are inserted, a blemish is left which decreases the value and appeal of the fruit. These insects also may carry the spores of several plant diseases that may attack pumpkins and their vines.

Squash bugs can be controlled by hand picking the bugs off the vines. This, of course, requires constant vigilance. You can also control the bug by spraying thiodan on the developing vines and fruit. Periodic applications about every two weeks should get you pretty good control.

Pumpkins and their vines require good nutritional levels in the soil. I always use a high phosphorous plant starter fertilizer such as 9-59-8 when planting. Then on a biweekly basis I apply a good unbalanced garden fertilizer such as 11-15-11 plus micronutrients. The soil pH should be around 6.5 to 7.

Now that you know how and when to plant pumpkins, maybe next year you can enjoy these gold garden fruits a lot longer with your kids and grandkids. You can start your pumpkins from seed, watch them grow, and then carve your favorite characters on them in late October. You can even save a few for the delicious pumpkin pie that everyone enjoys during the Thanksgiving holidays.

Send your gardening questions to Paul Schnare by e-mail at news@semissourian.com or by mail to P.O. Box 699; Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699.

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