Questions on: Pumpkins

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: Hi! It's been a long time since I've contacted you. You helped me get started with my pumpkin "farm." As you may recall, I have been giving all of my earnings to build churches in India. I'm happy to report that 11 have been built. It is great fun and I enjoy it more every year. Here's my question. I have two plots that I rotate for my pumpkins. Last year my husband rigged up an irrigation system from the nearby slough that sprays water on almost all of one plot. The other plot doesn't have irrigation. I know you shouldn't plant on the same ground two years in a row, but since one plot doesn't have irrigation, I'm tempted. What do you think I should do? (e-mail reference)

A: Congratulations on such a major accomplishment just from selling pumpkins. Pumpkins have been grown for many decades without supplemental irrigation. You will get better production from irrigated plantings, so set your expectations a little lower on the nonirrigated plot.

Q: I work with children ages birth to 6. One of our caregivers had the children plant pumpkin seeds to see if they would grow. The children have cared for them intensely and the seeds are growing! Since these are young children, we have to be concerned about ingestion. Iím talking about the vines and leaves, not the pumpkins or seeds. I know that many vegetable plants are poisonous. Can you tell me if a pumpkin plant is poisonous? (e-mail reference)

A: Pumpkin vines are not poisonous. However, being members of the cucumber family, plants could accumulate toxic levels of nitrate in their foliage if the nitrogen level is excessively high during growth. Don't overfertilize because it isn't good for the plant. To get the pumpkin plant to set fruit, it will have to flower. Usually, the first flowers are male, followed by the female flowers. They are easily distinguished, so what you and the children will have to do is wait for the pollen to mature on the male flowers. You can test it by touching the end of the pollinator, which is the pistil. The pistil will leave a yellow residue on your finger. Take the male flower and dust the pollen on the end of the stigma, which is the female part. Do this several times. When the female flower begins to discolor and wilt, the pollination and fertilization is complete, so a new pumpkin will begin forming behind where the petals were attached. Enjoy!

Q: I would like to know what kind of pumpkins to grow for seed and where to purchase them. We like to roast the seeds for eating. (Tappen, N.D.)

A: All pumpkin/squash seeds are edible. While the hulls are edible, the seed is more easily consumed if it is a hull-less cultivar such as triple-treat, Hungarian mammoth or Lady Godiva. Other cultivars to consider are snackpack and trick or treat. Most major seed companies such as Burpee, Ferry-Morse and NK should carry an assortment.

Q: Are white pumpkins safe to eat? We have some white ones but donít know the variety. The flesh was a nice orange when we cut into them. (E-mail reference)

A: Should be okay to eat but donít eat it if the flesh has a bitter taste. The variety is probably Lumina, which is a common white pumpkin.

Q: I'm sure you have heard the theory that if you want to grow large pumpkins, feed them milk. Is this true? My mission this year is to grow a large pumpkin. I have three different varieties of large pumpkin seeds and I will be planting them in different locations around the farm. I've read a lot of articles on selecting the female plant and choosing one flower to produce the pumpkin but I was going to try some of these legendary growing tips to see if they work. Do you have any advice? (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Talk about an old farmer's tales! This one takes the cake. It is purported that some farmers would custom-grow their pumpkins to the size desired by the customer via milk injection into the vine. A rubber tube was connected to the needle, the other end inserted into a quart of milk, and the pumpkin supposedly pulled the milk. More credible stories have involved pumpkins grown under a cloth with gallon milk cartons under and next to the developing plant. One of them would have some pinholes in it, the other would have hot water. They would be placed by the developing plant at nightfall with the one with holes supplying water slowly and the other keeping the air and soil around the plant warm to encourage growth. I have heard that some people keep their pumpkins shaded under the cloth to keep the plants from reaching the heat stress compensation point. That is where the plant carries on respiration faster than it does photosynthesis. Others have a family concoction of black tea sweetened with honey and milk that they feed to the plant every other week. Perhaps the easiest trial to follow is to simply select the first female blossom, hand fertilize it, keep all other blossoms picked off, and try to maintain a balanced water and nutrient regime. Quite frankly, largeness in pumpkin has never attracted me as I have always preferred the more manageable sizes that make good jack-o-lanterns or delicious pies! Good luck and let me know what works for you.

Q: I've tried to grow pumpkins before with no luck. This year we planted a few again (purely for fun - no large quantities or for selling) and I'm having the same problem. The vines produce an abundance of male flowers but very few females. The females that do appear fall off before the flowers even open. I've read that it's probably due to lack of pollination, so I wanted to hand-pollinate them. I went out in the morning as instructed and found ready, open male flowers, but the female flowers were tightly closed up with no access to the lobes that I'm supposed to transfer the pollen to. Any ideas? (E-mail reference, San Jose, N.M.)

A: I don't know why the female flowers are not opening. Where did you get the seed? It could be a variety (cultivar) problem where your day-length, temperature extremes, or sunlight intensity is not conducive for reproductive activity. It may also be a fertility problem: pumpkins are greedy feeders of nutrients, but an imbalance of too much nitrogen could cause problems as well. Or, since reproduction requires an outlay of energy, perhaps the female flowers are not opening or aborting because they are grown in partial shade and simply have not accumulated enough carbohydrate reserves to develop pumpkin fruit. I would suggest getting the soil tested for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, soluble salt levels, pH, and organic matter content. Also, check to see what the amount of direct sunlight contact with the vines are. They need full sunlight to be productive.

Q: I have a youth group that is going to plant a "pumpkin patch." I need some variety recommendations so they will have a variety of sizes. (E-mail reference, Ashley, N.D.)

A: Here are some varieties to consider: Baby Bear (1-3 pound pumpkins), Autumn Gold (10-15 pounds), Baby Boo (6 ounce fruits - white), Jack Be Little (3-6 ounce fruits), Connecticut Field (15-25 pounds), Small Sugar (4-10 pounds - good pies!) And Lumina (10-20 pounds).

Q: I am thinking about getting into commercial pumpkins. What are weed control options for grassy weeds and broadleaves, specifically kochia and milkweed. (E-mail reference, Linton, N.D.)

A: Roundup is labeled for pumpkins, but of course the spray must be directed away from any pumpkin plants. This (actually Roundup Ultra) is applied up to three days before seeding or transplanting. Dacthal is another one that can control some broadleaf and grassy weeds, and it must be applied to weed-free soil. Finally, there is good-old Poast which is the ultimate grassy (emerged) weed control. In every instance, you are responsible for following the directions and adhering to the information contained on the label.

Q: In 1999 I grew Prizewinner, a pumpkin hybrid. For this year some of my friends thought we should have a contest using the seeds from my largest 1999 pumpkin (170 pounds). Will the seeds produce equal to my original seed, or will they be stunted? (Grenora, N.D.)

A: Taking the seed from the largest pumpkin will certainly help in producing other large ones. Once a fruit has been set, keep others from developing on the same plant, and keep it well watered and nourished. Hopefully, over the years you will be able to grow some real prize winners.

Q: We have a large patch of volunteer pumpkins. Last fall we apparently spread the guts of our Halloween jack-o'-lantern out in the pasture for the birds. As a result, we now have vines with at least 40 large pumpkins! This is a happy accident, as I have tried many times to grow pumpkins, and they have never matured. It sounds like we may have frost tonight. Should we harvest the pumpkins now? Where/how should they be stored?   (e-mail)

A: That is so typical! TRY to grow pumpkins or tomatoes and you get a mediocre yield; allow a few to rot in place, and next year you get a bumper crop! 

First frosts seldom cause problems for the fruit but damage the foliage. I would suggest leaving them on for the night unless a hard, long frost is predicted. If that is the case, then I would cover them with a blanket, some sheets or newspaper. The longer they can stay on the vine at this time (without getting overripe, of course), the better they will cure and taste.

Always cure pumpkins and winter squash at warm temperatures--low to mid 80s--with a relative humidity of about 80 percent for 10 days. Don't stack. Following this, store them at lower temperatures, around 50 F, with a reduced humidity.

Q: All of my squash, gourd, pumpkin, melon, and cucumber plants have begun to die. It begins with one runner wilting and yellowing and then proceeds to the entire plant. There are no bugs, ground rodents etc. visible. Plants have been sprayed and fertilized. The plants are scattered throughout the garden and were not previously planted in current locations. Any ideas? (Avon, S.D., e-mail)

A: It sounds like Verticillium wilt to me. This is a fungus of the root system that attacks plants under the right environmental conditions, and we are seeing a lot of it this year--on cukes, squash, flowers, trees and shrubs. All you can do is remove the dead plants this year, and plant resistant cultivars next year--looking for the initials VFN after the names, which indicates Verticillium, Fusarium, and nematode resistance. 

Q: I would like to know why my pumpkins had lots of vines but no fruit for three years in a row? Also, how do you keep rabbits away from trees in winter? They killed trees this winter. (Glenfield, N.D.).

A: There are several reasons why you get all vine and no fruit on your pumpkin: too much fertilizer, not enough sunlight, cool, rainy weather at bloom time, or no pollinating insect activity.

Keep rabbits away from trees with a tree wrap of hardware cloth or plastic. Be sure it is above the expected snow line by at least 2 feet.

Q: I started a tray of pumpkins a couple of weeks ago, just for a trial run. I put them in newspaper-lined plastic strawberry pint-size containers. They are doing great
and the roots are easily passing through the newspaper. Here's my question. Since they are so fussy about disturbing their roots when transplanting, is it going to be a
problem since some of the roots are intertwined with their neighbors? (e-mail)

A: Probably. Best to do the transplanting in the cool of the late afternoon or early evening to minimize stress. Of course, handle with care. They should
recover with a little TLC without any problems. I still think you are a little early. Good luck!

Q: Help, I have a problem. My pumpkin and zucchini aren't maturing. After closely examining my plants I found cucumber beetles inside of the blossom, which, I believe, is causing the fruit to slowly die off after they start to set and grow. Early in the season I had cucumber beetles on these plants and I used Garden Guard and had no problems after that. The plants are big and look very healthy. I hope you can help me. (E-mail reference, Hosmer, S.D.)

        A: I don't know that I can be a big help at this stage, but if there is still evidence of the insect being present, I would
        suggest spraying with Sevin insecticide to control the population at 10-day intervals until harvest. 

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