Gardening with Micki: Pumpkins, an Important Food Crop | Lifestyles

There was a time when pumpkins, carved with funny or scary faces, were only for Halloween. Not now. The whimsical carvings on pumpkin faces may have now disappeared in our neighborhoods. But pumpkins are a favorite feature of winter gardens, whether decorative or edible.

Pumpkins actually have a European heritage. Still, we can thank the early Native American settlers for growing the first pumpkins in this country as an important food crop. In Oklahoma, there are at least five great pumpkin farms, available not only to buy pumpkins but also tours of this plant which not only thrives on Halloween but is essential for holiday baking.

These pumpkins also have more parents than we thought. They are related to the large squash family, which includes zucchini, yellow squash, and butternut squash. They are prolific producers. What were those squash doing there while we were sleeping? Pumpkins also have rather unusual garden friends. They like to mingle with cucumbers, their first cousin in this garden family. Sometimes their family ties to other plants are rather amazing and not always well known.

If you really want to get into pumpkin cultivation, plant the seeds in July to have a good harvest for the fall season. The old Farmers’ Almanac, still the most reliable source, says “With proper management and growing conditions, pumpkins and winter squash can produce 15 to 20 tonnes per acre or more.” It’s great if you are a pumpkin farmer. For most of us, it’s more of a return to ambitions if we just want a few pumpkins for holiday pies.

Pumpkins need well-drained soil, full sun, and they like lots of room to grow in raised beds or containers. They prefer warm, well-drained fertile soil. Garden specialists suggest planting near the edge of your garden, about 2.5 feet apart, depending on the variety of pumpkin. Beautify your soil by mixing it with several inches of aged compost or other rich organic material.

They need around 90-120 days to mature after planting the seeds, depending on the variety. You can also start seeds indoors around mid-March. Seedlings or transplants are best planted between mid-April and May 1st. Whether planted or purchased, pumpkins definitely have their place in the holiday season.

Micki J. Shelton is a native of Muskogee and a master gardener.

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