University City

It’s time to start pumpkins for Halloween in University City

In our frantic ADD world of tweets and instant gratification, there are still times to slow down, plan ahead and enjoy the unfolding of things in their own good time.

Case in point: growing Halloween pumpkins in University City.

Hold on a minute, you may say. The Headless Horseman isn’t supposed to show up until the end of October!

True, but if you (and your kids) want to share the joy of harvesting your own pumpkins for Halloween, the time to plant is now, in mid-summer.

Old-timers say the best time is the week of July 4th. Enjoy the fireworks, wave Old Glory and toss some pumpkin seeds in the ground.

The math is straightforward: Pumpkins take time to grow; good varieties require more than 100 days. That’s October, already.

With warm soil and summer conditions, direct seeding is the easiest and cheapest way to go. Buy a packet or two of pumpkin seeds, plant them and water them (if needed, given all this rain lately). They will pop up in just a few days.

It’s a good idea to cover them at first with recycled berry baskets or row covers until they get big enough to “run” and thrive on their own.

Pumpkins like rich soil, with lots of high-quality compost or composted manure worked in.

Southern organic gardening authority Barbara Pleasant is a former North Carolinian who now farms and writes for Mother Earth News in Virginia. She said pumpkins are easy to grow if you protect young plants from insects and give the vines lots of space to grow.

Most pumpkins – even those cute little mini-pumpkins grown for fall decorations – grow on sprawling vines that can completely overwhelm traditional gardens, especially box systems.

On the other hand, pumpkins can work great along driveways and in odd spaces, as long as there’s plenty of sun.

The traditional method of planting in mounds has many advantages. In community, school or church gardens, one clever idea is to create a dedicated pumpkin patch where everybody grows them together as a group project.

Pest control

Controlling bugs and diseases organically is a challenge. Relentless hand picking helps control squash bugs. But we have another native pest here, the squash vine borer, that plays havoc with pumpkins, even when the plants are large and well established.

It’s a heart-breaker to visit the garden in the morning to find your pumpkin vine, thriving the night before, sprawled like a dead copperhead dried out on a hot black top road. The borer larva eats the plant from the inside, “Alien”-style.

The “Mildew Sisters” – Downy and Powdery – can also make a real mess of your pumpkin patch. These fungus diseases send life-sucking growths through the vine, then sprout unsightly growths from the leaves.

This all sounds like “The Night of the Living Dead” for gardeners. But with care (and a little luck), you can keep these problems in check organically.

To control borers, plant resistant varieties of pumpkin, such as Fairytale or Long Island Cheese. These are moschata species squash, which borers don’t like.

Select old-fashioned types where you can mound a little soil over the vines every 4 or 5 feet as they spread, so they grow extra roots. You can also dig the borers out with a sharp knife and close the stem with duct tape (another of its many uses).

The two mildews have different controls. A baking soda solution can help with downy mildew.

Powdery mildew is a common garden problem here, not just with pumpkins but with other garden plants, too, such as zinnias. Diluted milk (1:10 to 1:3 milk to water, using the cheapest powdered milk you can find) is effective against it.

Growing the right kind

There are numerous pumpkin varieties. Pleasant has a terrific list at . For jack-o’-lantern, the variety Howden is tried and true.

Jackpot gets good reviews and has a somewhat smaller semi-bush vine. Fairytale is a moschata type, naturally resistant to borers.

As Pleasant and others point out, though, jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are not the best varieties for making pies. Gardeners with enough space (a rare thing in the city) grow both kinds.

Cabarrus County Extension Agent David Goforth reports tremendous success using “plasticulture” (planting into sheets of plastic) with sprawling squash, melons and other crops. That technique should work well with pumpkins, too.

Newspaper or brown “planters paper” is an alternative; the latter is more attractive in cityscapes. Organic mulches such as straw or leaves have the disadvantage of hiding borer eggs and laying sites, so Dr. David Bradshaw, now retired from Clemson University, recommends against them.

Keep weeds under control, water as needed, and tend your vines through the summer and fall. Harvest at maturity, leaving a good length of stem.

And if it doesn’t work out, no boo!-hooing, even if it is Halloween. Hodges Farm just up Rocky River Road grows local pumpkins, so you can walk right out into the field to pick your favorite.