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Growing the Great Pumpkin

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Halloween brings images of Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Charles Schulz’s tales of Linus’ great expectations also touched the gardening part of me. What would it be like to grow a pumpkin so big that it dwarfed small children? As Master Gardeners, my wife and I finally got the chance when we volunteered for the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Garden Program, teaching inmates to grow vegetables to supplement jail food.

There’s a lot more to growing a huge pumpkin than putting a seed in the ground and adding water. It takes a big space! I learned this the hard way at both the Jail Garden and the Mother Lode Regional Juvenile Detention Facility. You need an area 30×30 feet to begin with and we didn’t have that at the juvenile facility garden. We had it at the jail garden, but the plants did not survive a midnight goat attack. Two failures the first year! So, besides a 1000-square foot planting area, what else does it take to grow the great pumpkin?

First, do your research and prepare the bed. Now is the time. Do a soil test; the pH should be 6.0-6.8. Add lime or other soil amendments to get the pH right. Add a lot of compost, manure and fertilizer to your bed and turn it in well. It takes a lot of fertilizer to grow a big pumpkin and you will need to add more in the spring before you plant, as well as supplement with foliar fertilizers during the growing season.

Then, order your seeds. Good genetics plays an important part here. If you want a huge pumpkin, use Atlantic Giant seeds; they grow to over 400 pounds. If you want a record breaker, over 2600 pounds, you will need to enter the secretive world of the great pumpkin growers and get record breaking seeds or hybridize your own.

Start your seeds indoors early in 12-inch pots. You need a long growing season. After the last frost, plant the three best plants in your growing area. After a few weeks, choose the best plant and remove the rest. Do this with individual pumpkins as well. The fewer the pumpkins on your huge sprawling vine, the bigger they will get.

Watch your pumpkin like a hawk. The deputy and his crew were in the garden every day making sure there was enough water and no pest problems. Powdery mildew and aphids are just a couple of the pests that can attack your prize pumpkin plants, so be vigilant.

It takes a lot of sun and water to grow a big pumpkin. Full sun and good trickle irrigation or soaker hoses on a timer are needed. Keep your pumpkin off the ground and shade just the pumpkin so it doesn’t rot or sunburn (we used straw).

After all that, you need to be careful moving a big pumpkin so it doesn’t break. Plan ahead for sharing with friends; a 2000-pound pumpkin makes a lot of pies! Make sure you get your letter to the Great Pumpkin written early. See you in the pumpkin patch on Halloween.

Jim Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.

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