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Harvesting Pumpkins in Tennessee

Welcome, fall—the culminating gift of the growing season. Not only are we still harvesting fruits and vegetables out of the garden, we have the beauty of fall colors in crisp, clear fall air and then the gift of fallen leaves. It is a beautiful time to get the garden organized for a replenishment and a head start on the next outdoor growing season, which can start as early as March.

So, what to do, what to do? First, plant any plants that you expect to see again next year. They need time to establish their root system in the soil before the frosts descend and winter sets in. Then remove all weeds. I know this assignment never ends, but the more you remove now, the easier it will be to maintain a weedless area next year. Did I say weedless? I really think such a thing does not exist; let’s say fewer weeds. Are there plants that need assistance with overwintering? Rosemary and parsley come to mind. Start to give them protection by heaping some peat moss or some leaves around their base and continue to add to it throughout the days of dropping temperatures.

Collect all the leaves that you can. Collect the cut grass clippings. You have the basis here for improving the quality of your soil. You have the option here to make robust, rich compost, which is comparable to flour in cake. Good compost and rich soil are the basis of a healthy growing area, whether it be a garden or the topsoil for your yard. Start, or add them to, a compost pile. Another option is to just pile up the leaves. Or, for the curious mind, do them both and check on the decomposition process of each. Just remember that the earth gives but the earth also needs to receive.

Fundamental to an American fall is our obsession with pumpkins, Halloween and football. Traditions include attending the local games, going on “ghost” experiences and picking pumpkins. Many local farms have pumpkin patches and corn mazes, so watch for their announcements and times.

When you are off choosing the pumpkins for this year, be conscious that pumpkins are grown for different purposes. Assess the possibility of your pumpkin having decorative as well as culinary uses. The smaller ones generally have thicker flesh and make better pie pumpkins. The larger ones are grown for decorating and carving. All have seeds that can be roasted very easily.

It is relatively easy to grow your own pumpkins. Pumpkins are rich in nutrition, providing dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and iron. As you are planning next year’s garden, consider a pumpkin patch. There are over 49 varieties of pumpkins from which to choose, and one acre can easily yield 800 to 1,200 pumpkins.

Timing is important. Planting pumpkins in Tennessee should be done mid-June through July 10, when the soil temperature is 65 degrees. They can go in at a 4-to-6-inch depth. Although many seed packets instruct you to thin the emerging plants, nature has a way that makes the stronger plants grow more quickly. The area should have a good balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Nitrogen can be side dressed throughout the growing season. Pumpkins are a vine crop, so they need room to spread. Some commercial growers grow them in the same area where strawberries had been produced. They require water and sun. Pumpkins are 90% water.

The biggest enemy of the pumpkin is the squash bug. They pierce the vine and basically kill it. You have to get those suckers while they are young. The hard outer shell on the adult squash bug makes them a gardener’s challenge. Don’t let them grow up. Eggs can be eaten by tiny wasps, although hand removal of squash bugs is the most effective control method in home gardens. Look for egg masses on the undersides of leaves. Hand removal and insecticide sprays are the best defense against their army. An alternate option is one I will try when I grow pumpkins again: near and within my pumpkin patch, I will plant catnip, radishes, nasturtiums, marigolds, petunias and mint. Some believe that those plants repel squash bugs, but I have no experience with the technique. Perhaps we could all try it next year and compare results.

Pumpkin harvest should occur from late September through October. Some varieties of pumpkins spoil relatively fast. When cutting from the vine, try to leave a long stem to slow the rot.

Most of the varieties of pumpkins grown in Tennessee are for ornamental purposes. The most common varieties grown in Tennessee are Appalachian, Gold Strike, Magic Lantern, Howden Biggie and Prize Winner.

According to a USDA report a few years back, pumpkin production in Tennessee included a distribution of:
Giant (Big Max, Prize Winner), 50–150 pounds – 10%
“Jack” Types (Big Autumn, Howden’s Field, Jackpot, Magic Lantern, Merlin, Trick or Treat, Wizard) 15–25 pounds – 84%
Ornamental/specialty (Lumina, Rouge VIF), 10–25 pounds – 1%
Sugar or pie types (Sugar, Pie, Buckskin) 5–10 pounds – 1%
Miniatures – 1%

Native Americans once roasted pumpkin strips over campfires, and cooked the pumpkin’s sweet flesh by roasting, baking, parching, boiling and drying. Flattened strips of pumpkins can be dried and made into mats. They also ate the pumpkin seeds as food and medicine.

The final round of free classes offered through the UT Extension will end in October.

farmersmarketlogoOct. 4 – Richard Lee, Permaculture
Working with nature and not against it

Oct. 7 – Shelly Denton, Children’s class
Animals at the Discovery Center

Oct. 11 – Pam Sites, Master FCS Winter Squashes
Using squashes in meals

Oct. 14 – Sunny Fleming, TDEC Natural Heritage
Landscaping with Native Plants

Oct. 18 – Cynthia Allen, MTSU Stormwater, Harvest the Rain
DIY Rainbarrels

Oct. 21 – Louise Armstrong, CMG Plastics
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly
(United Way and Read to Succeed chili or soup lunch fundraiser)

Oct. 25 – Carla Bush, Ext. Agent
Seasonal Eating: Food Preservation Methods

Oct. 28 – Ben Becker, Linebaugh Library
Makreesboro Inventor Demo

Classes are free, open to the public and are held at the Community Center in the Lane Agri-Park on John R. Rice Boulevard. They start at 9 a.m. and last about one hour. Questions about the classes can be directed to the extension office at (615) 898-7710. If you are unable to attend, most classes are recorded and uploaded to the RC Farmers Market YouTube channel.

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