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Cloning Pumpkins The Whole Story

By Marc Sawtelle, Colorado Springs, Colorado

My 2001 plan...

I have been a giant pumpkin grower since 1990. All of my success has been local news only, as I have yet to grow anything larger than 432 pounds. The Colorado state record is 1009 pounds(pictured below), set in 2000 by Joe Scherber, who lives in a western suburb of Denver. Joe thinks I have not grown any of the best genetic seeds, and that is the main reason I have not had the success he has. Well, I was lucky enough to find seeds this year from some of the top growers in the world...but I was also lucky enough to talk Joe into starting a cutting from his record growing plant. Going into the 2001 season, there are so many seeds I would love to grow, but can only grow no more than 2 from seed. This is due to the fact I have kept that cutting alive all winter, and I will grow it to further my cloning experiment. My goal is to break at least the 800 pound range with this cutting. I also plan to breed it with what I think will be the best genetic male plant and produce a silver bullet strain. Two lofty goals for someone who has only a couple of 400 pounders to show for 9 years of growing.

I played around with this picture of Joe Scherber and his 1009 LB pumpkin to poke fun at how serious we all take growing! Seriously though... Joe Scherber never did mind us touching or drooling on his monster. He was the person who helped me get a cutting from this plant, so that others would take my experiment more serious! A big "thank you" goes to Joe.

Plans and goals for the 2 propagated plants...

I will not be the only person growing the 746 Scherber clone. There are many others who have inquired about growing one of the cuttings off this plant. Len Stellpflug has been helping me with my method of sending clones through the mail. He is a part of pumpkin history again, being the very first person to get one of the mailable clones. Other growers will also be sent clones from the 746 Scherber, or a 991 Hunt clone. I will keep in contact with everyone involved in growing these plants so a comparison can be done grower by grower.

This will be interesting to follow, since the plant they are growing will be totally identical to the plant someone else is growing. This should help prove or disprove theories about location vs. pumpkin size. It will at least help to begin a study on how location affects the size of a pumpkin. There are still variables which will affect overall size, such as weather, soil, and techniques. With such factors, a long term study will need to be charted, but at least there is a way to find out.

How this all began ...

In 1997, I took the season off to take care of a family matter. It was the year another local grower {Scott Lewis} broke my 1995 local record with a 352 pounder. I visited his patch the day he harvested, and seen some small side shoots still growing. Since I did not grow that season and was dying to grow something by fall, I got the idea to try to cut off a couple shoots to see if they would root inside for me. I took home 3 cuttings and tried to get them to root. I had luck with one, but I let it die, as I did not think it could be possible to keep it alive all winter. In 1998, I tried this again in the fall with one of my plants, but had no luck. In 1999, I was more determined to make a cutting and keep it going as long as possible indoors. Since I made cuttings from the plant which broke the 352 city record Scott set [my 419], I really gave it 100%...as I thought back then that was a large pumpkin. It died in December, while I was away for the holidays. I was encouraged, though, that I was on to something! I started seeds from that pumpkin right away once I returned to keep on experimenting. I soon discovered the pot to pot method was better to propagate, as tip cuttings did not always root. By springtime,

I had two plants still alive from my experiment. I gave those plants away to two other inexperienced growers, and compared their results to James Kane, as he grew a plant from the same seed stock the clones came from. At harvest time, one clone plant grew one bigger than the one James grew, and the other plant grew one almost as large. I noticed no difference in plant growth or anything else that might be strange. I explained to Joe Scherber what it was that I discovered, and asked him if he would possibly start me a plant from the one that was growing his big one.

The rest...is history...

TIPS TO SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATE PUMPKINS

The methods I am using this winter that seems to work well for me may still not be the best way to propagate plants. Until others begin to experiment and try different methods, what I do seems to work well enough for you to do also.

SOIL IS JUST AS IMPORTANT INDOORS AS IT IS OUTDOORS

Soil preparation inside is just as important as it is outside, something worth saying twice! I use a homemade mix myself, but there are plenty of pre mixed soils you can try. The only pre made bagged soil I can tell you that will not work very well is any bag which is labeled as topsoil. This stuff should be called plain dirt, because that is what it seems to be no matter what brand.

Ask a local garden center expert to show you various superior soil mixes if you are not certain what to purchase. Be sure to let them know what it is your doing as well as what your growing. If your still not sure, buy a couple different varieties and compare the results. Then, once a soil has proven to grow clones better than another, purchase that soil from that point and do not substitute it with cheap stuff.

One screw up with your soil during the winter WILL cost you big time...as you might loose them ALL! If your lucky, you might get by with stunted, injured, stressed, or sick plants, which may or may not recover once you get back to using good soil. I cannot stress this enough! Propagating pumpkin plants from one container to another requires the best possible rooting environment, and only you can control that aspect of growing. The vines will do their part if you give them what they need.

Soil moisture is also a very key factor...I will discuss this more in the Watering and Fertilizing section of this article.

SETTING UP THE IDEAL INDOOR PUMPKIN ENVIRONMENT

If you have your soil method ready, the next major necessity is to establish the best environment for keeping plants alive and growing. You can set this up in various areas of your home, provided the area is not too hot or too cold, and has electrical access to supply power for your setup. I have grown my plants in a basement which does not get warmer than 55 degrees in the winter months. I have improvised the cold environment by covering my setup with blankets, which trap in heat from the shop lights and keep the area at a perfect 78 to 83 degree range. My lights are checked every other day to make certain the ballast's are not overheating, which could cause a fire if the blankets are in direct contact with the lights. I use fire retardant sheet rock propped up over all the lights as a precautionary measure, but still check ballast's to play it safe.

The one thing to keep in mind about indoor growing...if your setup catches fire, you risk losing your plants, or worse, your house or life. So use common sense and good judgment when setting up lights, timers, fans, or any other electrical appliance.

Lighting can be sufficiently provided with standard 2 bulb shop lights, the 4 foot kind you can buy just about anywhere. Two 40 Watt cool white bulbs work just fine all winter, and are the cheapest. There are many other typed of bulbs you can use: plant bulbs...power twists...soft whites...Gro- Lux...Daylight spectrum, and many others. If you decide to use bulbs other than the cool white bulbs, try to mix them all up so you get a wide spectrum of different light rays beaming down on your plants. I have only used cool white bulbs, but another area grower [James Kane] began helping me with this years clone experiment and uses 4 different kinds. James attributes his quick success mastering pumpkin propagation, partially due to his custom lighting setup. More research is needed before I recommend what bulbs, or which combination of bulbs, work the best for premium plant growth and optimum plant health.

Fans are also a vital element of your setup. The best fans are the tiny mini-fans that will give the area a slight breeze, not a hurricane type wind. Air movement is important in your growing area because plants need air movement around leaves for photosynthesis. If air movement is stagnant, all the oxygen the plants transpire stay trapped under the leaves and stunt plant growth by being slightly suffocated. Two of the tiny fans on each side pointed up towards the lights is all that is needed to provide plants with enough air movement. Leaves and tips should just show slight movements when it is set up correctly.

Timers are a must. Trying to manually turn on and off your lights will result in human error eventually, so it is best to buy one if you do not yet have one. The high watt timers are best. These are timers designed to run air conditioners or similar appliances. Since you will be running a power strip into the timer, it is best to have a timer which has the capacity to handle large power demands. The power strip needs to handle high wattage also, so purchase both accordingly. Do not cut corners here...this is also something which may cause a fire, if you are not correctly set up for safety!

Humidifiers and heating pads may be needed, but if the area is enclosed and retains heat from the lights, neither of these two items should be needed in your growing environment. Heating pads may be used on the low setting if quick rooting is desired when rooting into new pots. Special care needs to be given though, ensuring new roots are not being overheated, or that soil is not drying too quickly. Checking the pot for both of these possible problems needs to be done twice daily if using heating pads.

PROPAGATING PUMPKINS USING THE POT TO POT ROOTING METHOD

When plants begin growing indoors, vines still do what they do outdoors. They root where they are buried, and they reach out and grow forwards, inch by inch. As you might guess, this means they will quickly grow out of the pot they are originally in to begin with. This is why it is a must to allow room for a second pot next to the pot with the plant that's starting to grow. Once the vine spreads over the second pot and is 3 to 5 inches past the edge, the vine must be buried in your second pot at that time! It is important to bury the vine down about 1 to 1 1/2 inches. This allows the moisture to encourage rooting on the top and bottom areas of the leaf node. Cuts should be made in the pot which will be rooting the new plant so that the freshly grown vine goes right into dirt, and does not need to be bent down into the soil. Sometimes the vine has a natural bend where the next pot is positioned, and a cut in the pot is not required. More often though, a cut out section is needed to get the new vine buried correctly.

If so desired, the grower may wet the little white nodes at the base of the leaf with a light spray mist of Hormex, and then dab a small amount of Rootone over the area which will soon be rooting. These methods are not extremely necessary, but do seem to help develop more rooting areas, and also a faster rooting time, compared to not using anything at all.

The normal time needed to root in the new pot averages 7 to 10 days. At that time, the plant will be grown out enough to do this process once again. It is advisable for growers who have not done this before, to allow the plant two pots of rooted vine at all times. By the time the 3rd pot has a rooted vine and the tip is ready for yet another pot, the grower should be able to cut away the 1st pot from the plant. This may be also done every 2and pot, once the grower gets the method perfected. Unless you are absolutely sure the second pot has a well rooted vine, I would advise keeping 2 rooted pots instead of one.

Sometimes the original pot will allow a side shoot to grow out and form yet another new plant, if the vine is allowed a few inches of unburied growth before it enters into the next pot. At this time, nobody has yet produced side shoots from areas next to the leaves which did not yet grow out. Side shoots must be growing before the original plant is cut away from the rest of the plant. If no sides are visible at the time the original pot is cut away, none will grow. I am still unsure why this is, as outdoor plants seem to pop side vines out from places which you were certain that you already had cut sides off of before! Indoors, this does not happen...or at least has not happened to anyone who has been a part of the research.

ROOTING PLANTS FOR OVERNIGHT MAIL SERVICE

Sending cuttings to other areas of the country has become a reality this season. Once thought to be impossible, or too costly to send, methods have been discovered which enable a grower to send actual live cuttings overnight across North America to other interested growers for about 20 dollars. That is a small price to pay for a proven plant, when it is compared to how much seeds in various seed auctions sell for. Considering the fact that not all seeds out of a pumpkin will grow silver bullet plants, but yet outrageous amounts of money are shelled out for seeds which others have had success growing. Pumpkin plants which are kept alive through propagation methods are the EXACT same plants which grew a x,xxx pound pumpkin the season before. Given the right conditions, the propagated plant potentially could grow a pumpkin even larger the following season for a different grower. This is not fact yet...but after this season, it will be!

The method to root plants for the purpose of mailing is actually simple if done correctly. Any baggie which can be wrapped around a vine showing white root nodes will work. Both ends are taped shut, and a vermiculite/ perlite mixture is poured into the bag. The medium is slowly and carefully pressed into the bag until the bag is full and no movement is achieved. At this time, the bag is tightly taped closed. The top portions of the bag then are cut, making two holes for watering purposes. Once the bag has been watered down well and the medium is soaked, several tiny bottom air holes can be poked out with a pencil. The excess water then has a drainage area to escape, and air will be able to penetrate the rooting medium. Once roots can be seen growing inside the bag, the plant may then be cut away from its host, and sent away.

On the left (above) is an unrooted cutting. The Clone (Above on right) 1 day after arriving in Len Stellpflug's home in Rush N.Y., from Colorado, Springs, Colorado

This picture above is actually Len dreaming on the night he received his clone.

WATERING... FERTILIZING... AND KEEPING CLONES HEALTHY

Watering and proper fertilizing will ultimately determine your success or failure. Too much, or not enough, and doom is certain! The most important item is the watering. The reason I stress this, is because indoor pumpkin plants do not utilize nearly as much of the water they do outdoors. What size pot you use, and how long the plant is allowed to grow in a pot factors in heavily in a plants water needs. Soil structure and air temperature also play a major role. It would be too difficult to explain how much, or how often you need to water. Only your insight can determine what the plants water needs may be.

I can say it is important to keep ALL levels of the soil at the same moisture level. In larger pots, and pots exposed to high heat or dry air, the upper surface may dry out with lower areas staying very moist. Water in good draining soils tends to drain quickly from the upper soil, and run to the lower areas where it is then absorbed much more than at the top. A soil probe is a valuable tool. It takes the guess work out, as it will show you if the top is dry while the bottom is drenched.

If upper soil is too dry, any roots starting to grow will shrivel up and die. Any tips which are getting ready to root will be discouraged and sometimes never root. If lower levels are too moist, oxygen needed for root formation are not available, and root rot will occur very quickly. Monitoring your soils moisture content is vital if you are to be successful. Failure to keep a close eye on your moisture will doom you quicker than any other problem you may experience.

Fertilizing is not as complicated. If you have a healthy soil, you should not need to fertilize very much. Emphasis is placed on rooting early, using Hormex, Superthrive, or any starter solution with B-1 [ such as Miracle gro quick start 4-12-4 with B-1] are important during initial growth. I would also recommend adding Oxygen Plus to each gallon of water no matter what stage plants are at. It helps give roots the extra oxygen which watering will deplete. There is a new product on the market which I am getting sold on as the days go by. It is made by none other than Ironite, oddly enough. I have been using it for later stages of propagation, as it is a complete formula for indoor pumpkins. I still also have to add B-1 to it, and either a dash of nitrogen, or a dash of phosphorus and potash. It has oxygen, all the minor trace elements, and contains 7-6-6 for nutrients. Once plants have been growing in a pot for more than two weeks, I do give it a weak dose of these nutrients. Otherwise, I stick to Oxygen plus and a good rooting hormone.

Following similar guidelines as outlined will ensure your indoor pumpkins have the right stuff to remain healthy as long as you need to grow them. Weak indoor pumpkins tend to die off, or grow too slow, and tend to not make good host plants down the road.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS...

This article should help explain what methods I have found to work for myself. Since these are just methods I employ, they are not by far, the absolute best ways to keep pumpkins alive during winter. Once others begin to experiment as I have, newer and better techniques will surely be discovered. Since this is a somewhat new thing to most growers, I have put together this information so others have some kind of reference to go by. There is enough information that I could have included, but that may fill an entire book. Perhaps Don Langevin is getting itchy to put out another pumpkin book...eh?

Good luck and best wishes to all future clone growers! A new method of growing and breeding is here. May it help someone to reach the 2,000 pound barrier.

Author: Marc Sawtelle, Colorado, Springs, Colorado.


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