In the Garden:
Middle South
October, 2011
Regional Report

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This carefully-arranged display of autumn plants and fruits slows traffic to a crawl.

Return of the Great Pumpkin

Sure as shooting, I know autumn has arrived when my neighbor, Lisa, changes out the bodacious annuals in her porch urns for a mix of fall branches and crowds the stoop with an over-the-top display of pumpkins and gourds. Like falling acorns and burgundy-tinged dogwood foliage, Lisa's celebration of the season is an unmistakable sign that it's time to hunker down and get ready for the short days and cold nights ahead.

Not many in my neck of the woods are lamenting summer's end this year, however. Here, as in most other parts of the Middle South, an unusually hot and dry July was followed by an even more extreme August, so recent cool temperatures and rainfall have been a blessing to both gardener and non-gardener alike.

Like Lisa, I'm always excited by autumn's arrival. Though I no longer live on a farm, memories of my agrarian childhood create a great sense of expectation when it's time to gather in the crops. And recently, when I walked a field of ready-to-pick pumpkins with my mother, I pined for the harvest days of my youth and the loving grandparents who shared, and passed on, their love of the land.

Lisa's Display
The display on Lisa's front porch is also rooted in family tradition. Lisa's father was the first to purchase and deliver masses of pumpkins to her home in October and then help her arrange them on the front stoop. Since his passing seven years ago, she continues this cherished celebration with her husband and children, making new memories as she relishes the old.

An accomplished painter, Lisa puts her trained eye for color and form to work in her autumnal displays. Two large urns planted with ornamental potato vines and stuffed with a vertical arrangement give height to the design and provide a backdrop for the fall fruits. Faux flowers and berries in seasonal colors set the theme, while okra stalks from the backyard vegetable garden, standing tall with drying pods on their tips, provide an extra measure of charm.

Bright orange pumpkins of all sizes sit upright or are turned forward, so they showcase their serpentine tops and dried stems. Color contrast is provided by variegated green and white fruits, and several purple-tinged ornamental cabbages.

The large pumpkins are probably 'Big Max', a hybrid squash-type of pumpkin believed to be bred from Hubbard squash. The larger of the two variegated fruits is Green Striped Cushaw, a winter squash cultivated by Native Americans with yellow flesh that is very similar in taste to pumpkin. The smaller is Speckled Swan, a decorative gourd with a round body, life-like crooked neck, and small bulb at the stem end that gives the semblance of a head.

Growing Big Pumpkins
It takes lots of garden space and attention to successfully cultivate any type of pumpkin, but mammoth fruits are especially challenging. To grow big pumpkins, start by selecting one of the large varieties such as 'Big Max' or 'Big Moon', which mature in 115 to 120 days. Both are partially resistant to downy mildew and should produce fruits that weigh 50 pounds or more.

Choose a location in full sun and appropriate 50 to 60 square feet per plant. Prepare each hill area by incorporating copious amounts of compost and one to two pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer into the soil.

Plant the pumpkin seeds in the first two weeks of June (or, if outside the Middle South, 120 days before fall frost), with three to five seeds per hill. After germination, remove (by cutting) all but the healthiest vine.

Three weeks after seeding, begin applying a half or full cup of nitrogen fertilizer near the perimeter of the vine every two to three weeks. When fruits are softball size, remove all but one or two fruits, and cut away the tip of the vine to keep new fruits from forming.

Keep plants well-watered throughout the growing season and continue fertilizing. Harvest when fully colored and stems begin to dry, then "harden off" or cure fruits in a warm, dry location for at least 10 days.


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