Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pumpkin PICKIN'

Try growing fall favourite vertically if space is limited

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Picking the right pumpkin has become almost as important as picking the right Christmas tree. There are countless varieties to choose from, and they come in a surprising range of sizes and colours including orange, white, pink, red and blue.

Cut off the top of a pumpkin and discover a tasty, nutritious treasure concealed inside -- creamy, orange-colored pulp that can be used for pies or as the base for soups. Try it grilled or pureed, or even as a moisturizing face mask.

Pumpkins are big business and are widely grown for painting or carving as part of the annual Hallowe'en tradition as well as for outdoor fall displays -- perhaps combined with gourds, a close relative.

Originating in Central and South America, pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae family which includes cucumbers, squash and melons. Although classified as a warm-season vegetable, botanically the pumpkin is a fruit or berry and develops from the plant's flower structures. Rampant growers, pumpkins are generally planted in hills and can voraciously eat up any available space in a small garden. Most require a minimum of 50 to 100 square feet, with five to six feet between hills and spaced in rows that are 10 to 15 inches apart.

Think you don't have space in your garden to grow vine crops such as pumpkins? If your children or grandchildren are clamoring to grow their own pumpkins, or if you're intrigued by the idea of growing some of the trendy new varieties, why not try growing pumpkins on a vertical support? Unless you're planning to grow a colossal-sized pumpkin variety such as Atlantic Giant (which can grow to 1,000 lbs. or more) in the hopes of winning a competition, growing pumpkins on a trellis can be the perfect option when space is limited.

Mick Manfield, a certified square-foot gardening instructor, decided this year to grow pumpkins vertically on a six-foot-tall teepee-style (A-frame) trellis made from reclaimed cedar in his Lockport-area garden. The base is a mere four feet wide and just six inches deep.

"If you let pumpkins grow normally, they will take up too much space," Manfield said. "Square-foot gardening is condensed gardening in a small space.

"Anything that has tendrils -- watermelons, cucumbers -- will wrap itself around the vertical supports. When you grow them on the ground, they root. But when you grow them vertically, you only get pumpkins from the source plant.

"Another advantage to growing vertically is that the pumpkin is kept cleaner. There is less risk of damage to the skin and less risk of foliar diseases that can result when the plant is lying on the ground. It's easier to pick, too."

Manfiled selected four Cucurbita pepo varieties to grow -- Blue Doll, New Moon, Porcelain Doll and Baby Bear. Blue Doll is a pastel-blue pumpkin with an almost square shape. Deeply ribbed, it can be used for ornamental decoration or the sweet orange flesh can be used for cooking. New Moon is an all-white pumpkin -- even the flesh is white! Porcelain Doll is a pastel-pink pumpkin with deep-orange flesh that can be used for pies and soup. Baby Bear is a bowl-sized deep-orange pumpkin weighing about 1.5 to 2.5 lbs.

Manfield did not support any of the pumpkins with slings, but this is certainly an option to prevent heavier pumpkin varieties from pulling the vine downwards or breaking off. Old sheets or pantyhose can be used to create sling supports.

Because pumpkins require a long growing season, Manfield started them indoors in March and then moved the seedlings into a greenhouse before transplanting them to the ground in the late spring once all risk of frost had passed. (Read the information on the seed packet: The time to maturity is especially important information for northern gardeners who are hoping to have a pumpkin in time for Hallowe'en.)

Next year, Manfield plans to plant heirloom varieties exclusively. One possibility for a vertical square-foot garden might be Small Sugar Pumpkin, an heirloom variety that dates from the 1800s. With deep-orange skin and yellow-orange flesh, this small pumpkin grows to only nine inches in diameter and weighs five to six pounds.

Heritage Harvest Seeds in Carman offers some extremely rare heritage varieties. The seed for Omaha Pumpkin, for example, was originally obtained from the Omaha Indians in the early 1900s and introduced in 1924 by the Oscar Will Seed Company. Distinguished by its unique oblong shape, this pumpkin weighs in at three to five pounds.

Pumpkins are heavy feeders and require medium levels of nitrogen and high levels of phosphorus and potassium. Boost soil fertility with an all-purpose fertilizer combined with well-rotted manure or compost. Avoid wetting the foliage with overhead watering so as to lessen the risk of foliar diseases. Look for varieties with powdery mildew resistance such as Charisma (98 days to maturity).

Pumpkins need to be harvested before the first hard frost in fall, usually late September or early October. Cut them from the vine using pruning shears or a sharp knife, leaving three to four inches of stem attached. The handle adds to the pumpkin's character and its longevity -- without a handle, the pumpkin isn't likely to keep well and will be prone to early decay.

After harvesting, Manfield chops the vines and leaves into six-inch lengths and adds them to the compost pile. The soil in the square-foot box is top-dressed with finished compost.

Store pumpkins in a dry place. Do not store them in the refrigerator or on a concrete floor as moisture will cause your pumpkin to rapidly deteriorate. Discard any pumpkins that have been damaged by frost, bruises or disease which only soften the outer rind and cause the pumpkin to rot. Pumpkins can last for several weeks if they are stored in a cool dry area with a temperature of seven to 10 degrees.

C. Penner Pumpkins (www.pennerpumpkins.com), located on three acres northeast of Steinbach, grows pumpkins by the tens of thousands and sells right off their yard. On a recent visit, I stood in awe in front of the farm's 1950s-era barn filled with about 16,000 pumpkins.

A family-run business that operates as a destination experience, complete with zip lining and farm activities for children, owners John and Shirley Penner have been growing and selling pumpkins for 20 years.

"Families come together to pick out their pumpkins," said daughter Lorissa Penner, adding that people often bring measuring tapes and spend anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours selecting the perfect pumpkin.

"The question most often asked is which variety is best for baking," said Shirley Penner. The answer: Pie or sugar pumpkins are sweeter and have less water. Try grilling fresh pumpkin with onion, garlic, sweet peppers and lovage (Levisticum officianale), a delicious old-fashioned hardy perennial herb that smacks of both celery and parsley-like flavour.

Always on the hunt for both heritage and new varieties, the Penners source seed varieties from as far away as Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. Lorissa begins placing seed orders in January, and a favourite is the bright red-orange Cinderella pumpkin or Rouge vif d'Etampes (10 to 15 lbs). Originating in France, it has served as the prototype for Cinderella's carriage pumpkin.

"It's very flat," Lorissa said. "The inside is a deep orange."

The germination rate of a package of seeds varies with pumpkins, she added. "Usually, the carver orange has a high germination rate. The specialty ones can be hit-and-miss."

Challenges to pumpkin-growing include the squash borer insect, which bores holes in the outer shell and causes the pumpkin to rot on the inside.

"Deer have been known to use pumpkins like soccer balls," Penner added. "They toss them with their hooves and then eat them."

The Penners also grow a huge assortment of weirdly-shaped gourds in solid and speckled colours. Their birdhouse gourds, which can be grown easily as vines, have been trellised. Hanging suspended above visitors' heads, they are reminiscent of ball-shaped ornaments.

Seed catalogues will be arriving in gardeners' mailboxes in another month or two. If you have space for a trellis and want to try growing pumpkins or gourds next year, check out the many fascinating varieties.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

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