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Pumpkin Patches - Site Selection and Preparation

Sometime between selecting the seeds, and the actual planting date, the bed for your pumpkin plants should be prepared. The tips and instructions below, will help you in this very important step. If you do not have the time, or all of the ingredients, do not worry. You can still grow a very large monster. And, perhaps you have your own secret methods, which work even better.


Site Selection:

Pumpkin plants need to grow in full sun. Select a site for your pumpkin patch that receives as much sunshine as possible. As with any garden vegetable, the more sun the better. You want to provide the leaves with maximum sunshine. The object is to help maximize the photosynthesis process, and therefore, produce the largest plant and fruit. Secondly, it helps keep the plant leaves drier earlier in the day and later at night, minimizing the time that moisture and dew is on the leaves. In sultry summer nights, this moisture can promote plant disease, a real danger to your crop.

Some farmers say that the direction of the plant is important and that the vine should grow from East to West. However, the maximum sun exposure of the leaves is not impacted by the direction of the vine. Another suggestion is that an incline with a southern facing exposure is preferable. If your patch is on is a hill, then a southern exposure affords the most hours of sunlight, especially in the waning days of summer, when those final pounds are being added to your fruit, and it's orange color is brightening.

One of the greatest assets for a pumpkin patch, is the existence of a high water table. The roots will dig deeply into the soft and the rich soil you have provided it. Those deep roots are seeing an abundance of water and nutrients. An old Italian friend of mine related his days of farming back in the "old country"(back home in Italy) where he grew up on a farm. He said they used to grow pumpkins near a creekbed, where the water table was closer to the surface of the soil. Each year they would grow monster pumpkins! He said you did risk losing them, if a major downpour flooded out the creek.

It is also important to keep in mind the basic principles of crop rotation. Whenever possible, you should not grow a crop in the same location two years in a row. This applies to all crops. Pumpkins are no exception. Crops deplete certain minerals in the soil. By planting different crops, you minimize this problem. The different crops can also add to your soil, as their remains are tilled or plowed in at the end of the year. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, disease can over-winter in the soil and infest the following years' crop. Ideally, you should rotate your crops in a three year cycle. This applies to everyone from backyard gardeners to commercial growers. As you rotate your crops, think in terms of family. Move your pumpkin patch each year, and do not plant any members of the cucurbita family in that space.


Preparing the Bed:

Start your pumpkin patch, by digging out a four or five foot pit, about two to three feet deep. Fill this pit with manure and compost. I use very little natural soil in the pit. Everyone has their favorite compost ingredients and amendments that they add to the soil. See soil amendments.  By using lots of rich materials, you will have a nutrient rich and soft composition for the pumpkin roots to grow in. Be careful not to compact the soil. Compacting the soil makes it more difficult for the roots to spread, defeating the effort you put in to preparing the soil.

Allow ample time for decomposition. If the material is not well composted, it can be harmful to the plant, burning the roots, or robbing nitrogen from the soil. I like to prepare the bed well before the season. If I can get into the garden in March, I prepare it then. That way, anything I put in is well composted by planting time.

Here is what I put in:

  1. First, put in compost from the heap, especially the stuff that has not completely decomposed.
  2. Place a thin layer of straw.
  3. Add leaf mulch, I get mine already decomposed from the town recycling center.
  4. Now add a thick layer of compost.
  5. Add a thick layer of manure.
  6. Repeat layers of mulch, compost and manure. Note you can mix all of these together, but I do not spend the energy and am not convinced it makes any difference.
  7. I do not mix fertilizer into this mixture, although you may choose to. I believe this is a rich enough mixture . I also water with liquid fertilizer, so there are plenty of nutrients for the young plants.

Everyone has their own secret ingredients to add, using more or less than I've listed above. Many growers will mix these components with native soil. If your soil is rich in nutrients and compost, go ahead and use it. If you have heavy clay or on the other extreme sand, you will want to use only a little of it.


Mounding the Bed:

The overwhelming majority of growers "mound " their soil. Mounding is simply creating a hill or raised area where you plant your seeds or seedling. This mound is several inches higher than the surrounding soil. The concept of mounding your soil is not new to growing. It has been used for centuries. While we often talk about mounding(or hilling) pumpkins and squashes, it is also used on a wide variety of crops. For example, I mound rows of peas.

There are two benefits of creating a mound or hill for your plants and both are for early season growth. First, mounding will allow for better drainage. Spring rains often bring more moisture than the plant needs and could promote bacteria growth, damping off disease or "drowning" of the roots by depriving the roots of oxygen. Secondly, the raised soil allows better heating of the seedling and soil around it in the cooler, early spring days.


Beyond the Bed:

Preparing the soil at the bed where your seedling is planted and main root exists is very important. But, preparing the soil around the whole area where the pumpkins vines will spread is equally important, and may be the difference between a large pumpkin and a prize winner.

Soil condition beyond the bed is important because the pumpkin sends out secondary roots along the entire vine system. Enriching the soil wherever the vine travels, results in bigger pumpkins.

The soil should be rich in nutrients and neutral in pH. Add amendments to the soil such as manures and compost in generous portions. Thoroughly mix the amendments into the existing soil. You can not put too much manure and compost into the area where the pumpkin will eventually grow. At the same time, you probably can not make the soil as rich nor add amendments as deeply as at the planting site for the seedling. It is simply too much work. Just remember to make sure whatever you add is completely decomposed.

One giant pumpkin plant can cover several hundred square feet of space by the end of the growing season. Does this mean that you can not grow a monster in your suburban backyard? Do you have to dig up the lawn all the way to your deck? Unless your backyard is very small, you are in luck. You will need to sacrifice some lawn space during the last half of the summer. But most of the grass under the plants will survive the invasion of your leaves and vine.

For the suburban grower with limited space, plant your pumpkin at the edge of your garden and let the vines grow out along the yard. Cut the lawn near the vines, but do not risk going too close. As the vine begins to spread across the lawn, place compost in a line along the vines path. Three to four inches will suffice. Train the vine along this path. In a short time the vine will grow secondary roots. The grass will continue to grow, but it will not affect the health of the plant to a great degree and you have not caused serious or permanent damage to the lawn. At the end of the season, pull the vines up, and cut the lawn. Add a little overseeding of new grass, and next spring the lawn will look as good as new. Using this approach, you will not be promoting root growth along the secondary vines, but this is a small concession.


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