Living in Florida it’s difficult to tell the seasons apart but certain holidays have a way of reminding me that things are about to change in most other areas of the country. Halloween is one of those occasions. My kids start weeks ahead discussing their costumes and getting excited about which friends with and where to trick-or-treat but it’s the sign of pumpkins showing up in the grocery store that really drives it home for me. The glossy orange orbs piled high at the entrance to the stores and scattered around the lawns for the local church fundraiser mean that fall is here.
According to the History Channel, the use of pumpkins as Jack-o-Lanterns originated in Ireland where a guy named Stingy Jack tricked the Devil. The Devil got back at him by turning Jacks sole into a burning clump of coal and carried his glowing sole around the countryside in a bucket.
These days it’s not only the standard pumpkins you see on display but also a wide range of sizes and shapes from the cute little miniatures to Giants exceeding 1,000 lbs. It’s these gargantuan monsters that intrigue me the most.
2008 was the first year in may that a new world record was not set. The current world record for the biggest pumpkin stands at a whopping 1689 lbs. raised by Joe Jutras, of Scituate Massachusetts…hello, that’s more than a Volkswagen Beetle or better yet 1,500 plus pumpkin pies.
I’d love the try my hand at growing one of these oddities but I’m afraid the Florida climate just wouldn’t cooperate but if you live in the to the north I’d suggest giving it a try. There are a few suggested steps that make horticultural good sense to me.
1) Start with good seed. A giant pumpkin can produce 500-800 viable seeds each.
2) Prepare the soil well. To have the best luck you will need to plant several plants and each plant can cover 100 sq feet. I suggest at least a twenty by twenty plot. Start your soil preparation in the fall by clearing the spot and covering with a 6-10′ layer of thoroughly composted material. Once the possibility of frost is passed in the Spring use a roto-tiller to incorporate the compost into the native soil as deep as possible.
3) Start your seeds- Approximately 4 weeks before the last frost you should germinate your plants indoors in 4″ peat pots. Simply place then in a warm location and keep moist. Plant only one seed per pot, pointed end up.
4) Allow the plants to grow indoors for about three weeks or until they have their first true set of leaves open and the roots have started poking out of the bottom of the pot.
5) Transplant outside. I suggest moving them outside in the small pots for a few days to help acclimate them before planting in the soil. Place them evenly around the plot spaced at least four feet apart. Be gentile because too much root damage will set you back.
6) Fertilizer is the key element to growing the giants. Of course water, sunshine, good genetics are also important but fertilizer is the steroid that builds these mammoths. Here is your fertilizer strategy.
a. Grow lots of big healthy roots first. For the first month after planting use a fertilizer that is high in phosphorus like a 15-30-15. I suggest a water-soluble fertilizer and apply per manufacturers recommendation at week 1,2 and week 3. This is a specialty fertilizer so don’t wait until the last minute to locate a supply. It may need to be ordered. A good hydroponic store may be place to start.
b. Next we focus on big healthy leaves and stems. That means high Nitrogen. Starting in week 4, 5 and 6 shift to a water-soluble high nitrogen fertilizer weekly, 24-6-8 or something along those lines.
c. By week 8 you should start to see flowers develop and the first few fruit set. Now our strategy changes to focus on growing giant pumpkins so we shift our fertilizer to provide more Potassium. Again in a water-soluble form we apply 15-11-29 weekly as directed by manufacturer.
**A note of caution with fertilizer. Your inclination will be to over fertilize and this can cause the pumpkin to grow so fast that it will burst. My suggestion is to follow the manufacturers directions and to start your plants as early as possible for the longest possible growing time. Be like the turtle, slow and steady.
7) Pollination. In most instances I would suggest that you simply allow mother nature handle the pollination of your pumpkin flowers but since we are growing superstar athletes here the longer they are allowed to grow the bigger they will get so by hand pollinating we can give them a head start. It is an easy process really and all you need is a small painters brush. The female flowers are easy to distinguish from the males because they have a small-enlarged area at the base, the pre-pumpkin. Take your paintbrush and swab the pollen from a nearby male and then very gently brush the pollen onto the exposed female stigma. I suggest repeating this from various males to various females so that you are sure to a viable match. I suggest a goal of having your first flowers pollinated and beginning to swell by mid July if possible.
8) Positioning your future giants. It is suggested that you turn the young pumpkins so that the attaching stem is perpendicular to the vine. In this position the pumpkin will proceed to grow without crushing the vine.
9) Pick your winner. As several pumpkins begin to grow on each vine it is necessary to remove all but the most vigorous one. Pick the largest two on each plant and monitor their growth for a week, measuring daily. The one that seems to be growing faster is the one to keep. Remember one pumpkin per plant. You will be tempted to leave a couple but the energy will be divided and neither will be huge.
10) Pruning your plants. As your giant is maturing it is important to force all the plants energy into growing the pumpkin. About the first of September I suggest tipping all the lateral growing vines. That means cutting off the soft tips of each branch. It takes a lot of energy to develop new leaves at a time when we want to force all energy into the pumpkin so removing these buds will shut down the new foliage growth.
One last thought. Plan ahead for moving your mammoth. If you are lucky and all the stars align properly your hard work may result in an award winner. Transporting these trophy winners is where all your effort can be lost. Broken pumpkins are not allowed into competition. You may need a tractor of forklift to pick it up and move it to a trailer for transport. My point it to plant your pumpkins in a spot where it can be accessed by equipment or you may be the only one to enjoy your Giant pumpkins.
One more last thought. Buy your seeds early. The offspring of the biggest will probably be gone by March 1st.
Have fun trying your hand and send me some photos to post!