Grow your own pumpkins this spring for a beautiful sukkah this fall

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Each day Jews around the world pray for a “sheltering tabernacle of peace” to guard us and Jerusalem.

What a beautiful image! A temporary booth is a metaphor for the fragile nature of life, peace and security.

For me, this prayer takes on a different meaning when we approach the spring planting season. What should I grow this year that, come harvest time, will help to beautify the festival of Sukkot, our Feast of Tabernacles? What better time than now to think about a sukkah decoration that we’ll need in about six months?

Many cultures celebrate the harvest. With the holiday of Sukkot, Jews just get there a little earlier. Sometime before Halloween, Jews in North America wave the  and etrog, decorate booths and display the bounty of the season.

In New England, nothing says harvest more than pumpkins. A popular variety of pumpkin, Connecticut Field, further grounds this squash (curcurbita argyrosperma) as New England’s very own.

Imagine a sukkah in your own backyard that is decorated with a brilliant orange, eye-popping, 100-pound pumpkin that you grew. 

“Impossible,” you say. “There’s no way I can grow a 100-pound pumpkin in a small suburban backyard garden.”

Cast away your doubts, oh children of Israel. Yes, you can! With the right techniques, preparation and timing, you’ll be marveling over your own 100-pounder by Sukkot. Guaranteed! Well, not really. There are no guarantees when it comes to Mother Nature. But, if you follow these instructions and tips, you’ll have a good chance of success.

The foundation: sun, soil and genetics

Pumpkins require a full day of sun – period. But, what is a full day? Ideally, your pumpkin patch should never be in shade and should enjoy the glorious sunshine from sunrise to sunset. Unfortunately, most suburban homes don’t have this luxury. Shade trees and the close proximity of neighbors’ homes may cut your garden’s sun exposure considerably. But, fortunately, a full day of direct sunlight for pumpkin growing can be as little as six or seven hours with a southern exposure, and it’s best from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you can achieve this, everything else is within your control.

Garden size doesn’t much matter. An 8-foot-by-8-foot garden plot with rich, well-drained soil will suffice. This size garden plot will only be able to support one or two plants, but they can produce several pumpkins. (This is not to say that the pumpkin vines will restrict themselves to such a small space, but more on that later.)

The vast majority of your time growing large pumpkins should be devoted to soil preparation in the early spring. Pumpkin plants have deep tap roots and require about 2 feet of organically rich, loose and well-drained soil. Your biggest challenge may well be removing and replacing much of the existing soil with new material. Once this difficult task is completed, it will be smooth sailing.

All of the rocks and roots, big and small, should be removed from the garden plot. In my own garden, I’ve given up on using a shovel. I dig with a pickaxe to break through the hard pan and heavy clay soil. Skip the gym for a couple of days while you prep your garden; you’ll get plenty of exercise working your plot to the optimal depth of 2 feet.

When the digging is done, you’re almost finished with the hard-work part of this project.

The next step is to supplement the remaining soil with as many bags of composted manure, loose topsoil, peat moss and other organic compost as you can schlep from your local garden center. You can’t grow a large pumpkin in shallow or poor-quality soil. Aim for a 50/50 mixture of soil and composts.

Tip: Do the math. If your garden is 8 by 8 by 2, you will need a total of 128 cubic feet of soil/organic material. Assuming that about half of your plot was rocks that you removed, you would need 2+ yards of replacement soil and organic material.

A typical store-bought bag has 2-3 cubic feet of the good stuff.  You may need 25 bags or more to fill your garden. You won’t have to borrow from the kids’ college fund, but this first-year one-time expense could be $100. The good news is that in subsequent years, you’ll only need to provide small supplements to freshen up your soil mixture.

If your new patch requires more than 2 yards of material, you might want to investigate a bulk delivery of composted manure or screened loam, which is sold by the yard in garden centers. 

If you add a high concentration of manure to your pumpkin patch, the soil will probably be fairly acidic. Pumpkins prefer a sweeter soil, so sprinkle some quick release lime on top of the soil.

You could go the scientific route and have your soil tested at an Extension Service, but with a new garden, this level of precision may not be worth the effort. If you live in New England, it’s safe to assume that your soil is acidic.

You’ll be planting the pumpkin seeds in the very center of your patch, so ensure that the soil is deepest there. It’s also good to plan ahead for weed control and varmint protection. With just a few steps in early spring, your garden will be nearly maintenance-free all summer.

Cover the entire garden plot with black garden fabric, which you can buy in rolls from a hardware store or garden center. It will only take one or two rolls ($15-$20) to cover the whole area. This garden fabric will help control weeds while allowing air and moisture to easily pass through to the plants’ root system.

Tip for the determined grower: Before unrolling the garden fabric, snake a 25-foot soaker hose ($10-$15) throughout the plot. If the summer is dry, this inexpensive irrigation system will get the job done and not waste water. An inch of water a week is sufficient.

If your neighborhood is like mine, there are more rabbits than people. You’ll need a fence to protect the young vines until they reach a length of 6-8 feet. At this length, the plants are tougher and prickly, and have a slight odor that isn’t appealing to rabbits. At this point, it’s safest to remove your fence and allow the vines to run. (Note: Even a fence is unlikely to stop a groundhog on a mission.)

Don’t be surprised if your vines grow 6 inches or more a day in the heat of July. A healthy vine will run 10 feet or more across your lawn in every direction. Don’t think of pumpkin vines as taking over your lawn: Think of less grass to cut.

Genetics matter. You’ll need a variety of pumpkin seeds that is bred for routinely reaching 100 pounds or more. On the other hand, you don’t want a variety like Atlantic Giant, which is designed to grow pumpkins that exceed 1,000 pounds. These monsters require an entirely different growing culture than a 100-pound pumpkin.

My preference is Burpee Prizewinner. These pumpkins are bright orange, have deep ribs and are fairly round. My experience is that this variety is productive and disease resistant. My largest pumpkin from these seeds exceeded 200 pounds.

Other varieties of field-pumpkin seeds will work as well, but select one with a proven track record of hefty pumpkins. And note that the side of the pumpkin on the ground will be flat due to the weight of the growing pumpkin.

Best practices

When to plant? Wait until the weather is consistently warm. In New England, that often means sometime after Memorial Day. But don’t wait too long – you’ll need every warm day you can get since large pumpkins require 110 days from planting to maturity. Frost on a pumpkin at any time, spring or fall, is game over.

Plant three to five seeds in a hill in the center of your patch. Once the seeds have germinated (about six to nine days), and the plants are well established (about 25 days), you’ll need to pick just one or two plants to go the distance. Pluck out the rest. Any more than two plants and the pumpkin size will suffer due to crowding.

Tips

            Speed up germination by soaking the seeds in a wet paper towel inside a plastic bag for 24 hours before planting.

            Plant the seeds directly into your patch with the pointy end of the seed facing down; the roots will come out of this end.

            Warm, sunny weather will speed up germination. The black garden fabric will help to warm your patch and keep the temperature consistent during cool late spring evenings.

            Keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet, until the seeds germinate. Never over-water. Rich soil with plenty of peat moss will retain moisture.

Fertilizer

Give your plants the nutrients they need, but don’t overdo it. Follow a strict regime of fertilizing every two weeks with any rapid release liquid fertilizer.

A fertilizer with a high concentration of nitrogen is good until the fruit sets. Liquid fertilizer will ensure that the plants’ root system won’t get burned with an overdose of nutrients.

Apply the liquid fertilizer very early in the morning. Plants have pores that open to take in the morning dew, but close up as the sun rises to preserve moisture. The best time to fertilize is before 6 a.m.

Give the bees a helping hand with pollination. At about five weeks, you can do some hand pollinating. Peel the petals off a male blossom and twirl it around the inside of a female blossom (with a tiny baby pumpkin underneath it). This will ensure more complete pollination and help out a busy bee. Large pumpkins have four to five ovaries and each needs to be pollinated. 

Beetles and other insects can damage your plants. While I really hate using harsh chemicals, I’ve never had much success with organic pesticides or insecticidal soaps. Consult your garden center staff for a pesticide you can safely apply. And maybe it’s beginner’s luck or just my imagination, but I think first-year gardens are less troubled by insects.

Welcome to the club

You now have the foundation for successfully growing a 100-pound pumpkin. My last piece of advice is to get to know an experienced pumpkin grower if you can – I’ve never met one I didn’t like.

Pumpkin growers take pride in sharing their wisdom and rejoice in others’ achievements. They have associations and know a great deal about the genetics of their seeds. Experienced pumpkin growers can be a lifeline for novices. 

MARC RUSSMAN has been growing pumpkins on and off for 40 years and his pumpkins have appeared at the Four Seasons hotel in Boston and in The Boston Globe. He can be reached at marc.russman@gmail.com.