Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Happy Halloween everyone! Okay, maybe I’m jumping the gun a little, but if that gave you visions of pumpkins then we’re on the same page. If we wait until October to start talking about pumpkins we’ll be way too late. For the best results next fall, you’ll want to get started right now. Grab yourself a coffee and let’s chat.

Pumpkins are one of those garden crops that take a very long time to build up to the ultimate reward. Any disruptions along the way can lead to a disastrous season with a very disappointing conclusion. Starting now, and preparing for all the season’s challenges ahead of time, will go a long way to ensuring pumpkin pies and Jack-o-lanterns come autumn. So the first thing that we need to establish is that pumpkins are simply winter squash with fairly specific uses. All pumpkins are squash but not all squash are pumpkins, if that helps. Depending where you go in the world, the term “pumpkin” often has different regional meanings. However, since pumpkins are indigenous to North America, we will stick with our particular definition. For our purposes, pumpkins are generally orange, mostly hollow, smooth-fleshed members of the squash family. Of course, as with everything else, there are exceptions. Pumpkins, as we know them, can also come in shades of white, yellow, pink, blue or even multi-coloured. Some pumpkins are also exceptionally warted and misshapen. While we generally think of pumpkins in terms of Jack-o-lanterns and pies, they are also the source of pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) as well as highly prized pumpkin seed oil.

Growing pumpkins in the garden is not particularly difficult as long as you are fairly careful about keeping them happy. Generally speaking, pumpkins do better when direct seeded into the garden. They are one of several garden crops that do not tolerate having their roots disrupted during the transplanting process. With that being said, we have a shorter growing season than most pumpkins like. This makes it worth taking the time to start some seeds early and then simply be very diligent about our transplanting techniques. Also, if you plan to grow pumpkins for edible seeds, “hulless” seeds are highly desirable varieties to grow. Hulless seeds are simply seeds that do not naturally have the hard protective coating typical of most squash seed. This makes preparing them for eating, or oil pressing, much simpler. Hulless pumpkin seeds are difficult to germinate directly in the garden and must be almost invariably pre-started indoors.

So if you’ve decided to try pre-starting a few pumpkins, now is the time to do it. Pumpkins really only need four to six weeks before they are ready to go in the ground. Planting out should coincide with the end of frost danger and when the soil has warmed up. Early June is perfect planting out time for pumpkins in our area. First, you will need the appropriate seed starting containers. Pumpkins are much different to start indoors than are more commonly done vegetables like tomatoes and peppers. Remember that pumpkins cannot tolerate disruption of their roots at the time of transplanting. This means you are best to start them in “pots” that can be planted directly into the garden when the time comes. These pots are biodegradable and the pumpkins’ roots simply grow through them and into the surrounding soil. Large peat pots or coir (coconut fibre) pots work well. Some gardeners also make “soil blocks” but this requires a special soil compressing tool. Others make simple newspaper pots which also work quite well. Be imaginative, there are no real rules. Fill your pots with a sterile seed starting mix and bury one seed in each pot. Seeds should be buried to about three times their thickness. Water well (but don’t make the soil soggy) and place on a reliable heat source like a seed starting mat. Keep a moisture dome over the pots until the seeds germinate and then immediately move them under a bright grow light or to your brightest windowsill. Keep your seedlings evenly moist and take care they never dry out. Feed at least every third or fourth watering with a dilute compost tea, manure tea or fish emulsion. Start hardening your plants off a week or so before it’s time to plant them in the garden. Bear in mind that if you leave trays of seedlings in peat pots in the sun for any period of time they are prone to dry out very quickly. Be vigilant. Protection from sun and wind is also particularly critical for seedlings with large leaves that facilitate desiccation.

It looks like we’ve run out of space for this week but there’s still quite a bit to discuss. For now you can easily get started and by the time you check in next week you should already have seedlings.