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Plan Now for the Perfect Pumpkin

UGA CAES File Photo

The perfect pumpkin takes time, planning and managing to grow in your garden.
Pumpkins have become the Christmas trees of fall festivals, the Easter bunnies of Halloween. From jack-o'-lanterns to the formal centerpiece, pumpkins are a focal point of autumn.

But if you want the perfect pumpkin come October, start planning now. Oh, sure, you could just drive to your local retailer next fall. But that would take the challenge out of it.

To grow your own Great Pumpkin, first choose the variety you want, so you can go ahead and order your seed.

All Sizes, Three Vine Types

Pumpkins come in all sizes, ranging from a few ounces to well over 100 pounds. The world record tops 1,000 pounds.

They also come in three basic vine types: bush, semibush (or semivine) and vining. If your space is limited, you may want a bush or semibush type. However, most of these types don't grow really large pumpkins.

If you want the blue ribbon at the county fair or a pumpkin you can carve a small playhouse out of, you'll probably want to grow a "Prizewinner" or "Dill's Atlantic Giant."

If you're looking for a large jack-o'-lantern type, try "Harvest Jack," "Pro Gold 500," "Jumpin' Jack" or "Autumn King." Good semivine types in this size are "Appalachian," "Magic Lantern" and "Aspen."

Little Jack-o'-Lanterns

Some of the smaller jack-o'-lantern types also come on semibush vines. "Wizard" is an excellent choice. Vining types in this size are "Gold Fever," "Gold Standard" and "Pro Gold 300."

If you want something different, try "Lumina," a white pumpkin. For the little guys, "Munchkin," "Jack-be-Little," "Li'l October" and "Li'l Goblin" fill the bill.

Now find a site that's well-drained and gets plenty of sunlight. The best place is nearby and close to water, with plenty of room. If you want to incorporate soil amendments such as manure or composted leaves, work them into the soil when you till it.

Prepare the Soil

Turn the soil first, then till it deep. Incorporate about 1 pound of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet during your final tilling and form a well-tilled, smooth seedbed.

The soil pH should be between 6.2 and 6.6. Incorporate lime a few weeks before planting to adjust soil pH. If you start with low-pH soil, you'll be disappointed.

The plant spacing will depend on your vine type. As a rule of thumb, plant rows of pumpkins 8 to 12 feet apart. With vining types, plant the hills about 4 feet apart. Space hills at 32 inches for semivine types and 2 feet for bush types.

Schedule Your Planting

Plant so your harvest will begin by mid-October. Southern-grown pumpkins don't store well, so planting them early is no real advantage.

Pumpkin varieties will be ready for harvest in 85 to 120 days. The hot Georgia climate makes them mature about 10 days faster than the number on the package. Decide when you want to harvest and count backward to find the planting time. You may want to plant a few days earlier than that, just to be safe.

Once they're in the ground, managing pumpkins is critical. Keep the area well-watered, but not really wet. After about three weeks, apply another pound of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet by scattering around the plants (not right on them). Apply another pound just before the vines start to run.

Watch for Pests, Diseases

Watch for pests and diseases, and apply appropriate insecticides or fungicides if they show up. But don't hurt the bees. Pumpkins need them for pollination. Keeping the vines dry helps. Water only when the vines have time to dry before dark.

Unfortunately, a couple of evils can strike that we can't do a lot about in the garden. Viruses that affect pumpkins and a condition called silver leaf are hard to control, especially in south Georgia.

If one of these hits you, there's always the local produce stand.

(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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