By DORIS SALIS
Plump, round, orange pumpkins signal the fall season. Pumpkins not only have multiple uses; they are easy to grow. No wonder they’ve enjoyed a long history and tremendous popularity!
The pumpkin is one of the oldest domesticated plants. Archaeologists discovered pumpkin fragments in Mexico that dated between 7,000 and 5,500 B.C. Native Americans used the pumpkin as a staple in their diets centuries before the Pilgrims landed.
The word “pumpkin” originated from the Greek word “pepon,” meaning something round and large. The French called it “pompon,” the British changed it to “pumpion,” and the American colonists called it “pumpkin.”
The pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae plant family, often just referred to as cucurbits (gourds). This family, mostly native to the Andes and Mesoamerica, includes everything from pumpkins and squash to melons, cucumbers, watermelon, gourds and calabash.
In 2017, world production of pumpkins, squash and gourds was 27 million tons, led by China with 29% of the total.
Today, many Americans utilize pumpkins for fall decorations and for carving. Besides jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkins can be used in making pies, breads, cookies and puddings.
Some pet owners use canned pumpkin as a dietary supplement for dogs and cats with digestive ailments such as constipation, diarrhea or hairballs. And of course, there’s roasted pumpkin seeds and pumpkin lattes from the local coffee shop!
While pumpkins can be purchased at many locations in the fall, it’s fun to grow your own. Pumpkins are typically planted in early to midsummer for Halloween harvest, but you shouldn’t plant too early as they may soften and rot.
You can prep the seeds by lightly filing the round edges, making it easier for moisture to get inside and for the root and shoot to emerge. To help with germination, put the seeds in a jar of warm water for an hour or two then drain before planting.
Pumpkins prefer full sun, but they also thrive under partial shade. Be sure to allow plenty of room for their heavy vines, as some extend 20 feet or more. In a raised bed, plant them near the edge of the bed and train the vines over the edge, leaving room for more plants in the middle.
Once the vines start flowering and setting fruit, do not move them around. To save space, try compact pumpkins called “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins.” These reach only 4 to 6 pounds and are sweeter and less stringy than the big varieties.
Once pumpkins start growing, pay attention to pollination. Male flowers show up first, and female flowers appear a week later. Just below the petals, the female flower has a swollen base that looks like a tiny pumpkin. If you don’t see active bees in your garden, pollinate by hand, transferring pollen from male to female flowers with an artist’s brush.
Despite good care, your pumpkins may be plagued with diseases or insects. Phytophthora blight comes from spores in the soil and usually affects pumpkins grown in large field quantities.
A more common garden pest is the squash vine borer, which lays eggs in the vines and destroys the plant. As soon as vines begin to grow, regularly examine them and cut out any signs of the borer or refer to extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-insects/squash-vine-borers for other options.
Some growers suggest mounding soil around the healthy part of the root to encourage new growth. Another pest that carries bacteria that cause yellow vine disease is the squash bug. Herbicides and insecticides can be used on these pests, but follow directions carefully.
Finally, give your pumpkins an inch of water a week, letting the moisture slowly sink down about 6 inches. Then, simply watch your pumpkins grow and get ready to celebrate the season with your very own crop of this ancient and esteemed fruit.
Salis is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Hancock County. Visit Master Gardeners of Hancock County Ohio on Facebook for more gardening information.