"Is it time to plant tomatoes yet?" she asked.
"Naw," said the elderly gentleman sitting next to her in the waiting room, "… you can’t plant that kinda’ stuff until after all the frosts are over!"
That’s a conversation I recently overheard while waiting my turn at a doctor’s office in Decatur. But there are lots of people who don’t know what to plant when. Like pumpkins. Pumpkins are usually planted sometime in June; but it depends on the variety and when you want to harvest them. Let’s look deeper, shall we?
The little numbers on the back (top) of a seed packet that say something like "110 days" are a pretty good guide as to the length of time it will take to produce the vegetable (pumpkins) you want, so let’s start there. But how to get the giant pumpkins? Relax, it’s coming!
Howard Dill has been a well-known producer of giant pumpkins, and he is responsible for the pumpkin seed variety "Dill’s Atlantic Giant." Let’s take a look at some of the secrets Mr. Dill used to get in the record books.
Dill had always said the first step is proper seed selection. One of the seeds he grew in the early 1990s reached a weight of over 700 pounds in only 40 days, but it eventually exploded! Too much too fast! But this doesn’t mean you don’t need proper seed varieties. And you’ll also want the sunniest spot you can find.
Pumpkins are a sensitive crop, so Dill always sheltered his from wind as well as frost, and he even covered them during heavy rains. Dill was known to rig shade tents on summer’s hottest days; but growing 1,300 pound pumpkins requires some unusual care.
Pumpkins like and need a lot of water, but don’t plant pumpkins in wet or dense soil. They need good, well-drained soil. You can dig it up by hand. Dill never used a tractor and found over the years that pumpkin roots didn’t go down very far. Prepare the soil in early spring, as soon as the ground is warm. Fertilize the patch with a good four inches of rotting cow manure. Pumpkins do best in soil that is slightly acid or nearly neutral.
If there is still danger of frost in late April or early May, start seeds indoors about two weeks before planting. Sow one seed for every four-inch peat pot filled with growth mix. Keep the pots watered.
"Never let them dry out," Dill always said.
When seedlings have the fourth or fifth leaf, set them outdoors in hills about the size of a pitcher’s mound, one plant to a hill. Protect them the first few weeks with plastic-covered cold frames. Space each hill at least 20 feet apart. Some of the vines can reach 60 or 70 feet in length so they need plenty of growing room!
Here’s the sexy part: Pumpkins have two kinds of flowers, male and female, which appear in early July. The male flowers show up first, followed by the females.
Dill was known to be outside every morning by seven o’clock, watching for those first females. He was always looking for the vines to be strong and well established before he would let a female flower set fruit, so he would break off the first female on each vine and wait for the second or third, when the vines were at least ten feet long. A female is easy to recognize: she has a baby pumpkin at the base of each flower.
Dill always emphasized you need a big vine to produce a big pumpkin, so in a sense you’re choosing the vine before the pumpkin. When he would find a vine strong enough and a female flower on the verge of opening, Dill would bag the flower in cheesecloth for the night to keep insects out. The next morning he would pick a fresh male bloom, trim off the corolla or outer petals, and rub the pollen-laden stamen in around the center of the newly opened female bloom.
That’s just the beginning of a summer of long but rewarding work toward the "Big One."
Dill always said, "What you have going now is actually a pumpkin-producing factory. Remember there are 100 or more leaves to each vine and if you are trying to grow a 400-pound pumpkin, each leaf is responsible for up to four pounds of weight in your pumpkin. Every leaf, every stem, every hair root is now receiving sunlight. All are traveling down the all-important stem to your prize pumpkin."
Giant pumpkins balloon out from the vine and if precautions are not taken, they will tear away and lose touch with their all-important stem. Since vines put out roots at every leaf, Dill always tore out the roots of the vine up close to the pumpkin. This would give it free room to grow without damage to the vine. He would also gently train vines away from the pumpkin to prevent it from crushing the pumpkin. He would give them a nudge in the right direction every day.
When two or three fruits on each plant reach the size of softballs, Dill would remove all but the most promising one and start to prune the plants. After the primary vine had reached 20 feet, he pinched off the tips and the side shoots so the vines wouldn’t divert resources from the fruit. He would break off all the other female flowers. A potential prizewinner is forming. The work of the plant now must go entirely toward nurturing this fruit alone.
Dill liked to dispel the myth of the milk-fed pumpkin, which he always called a "folktale."
"Farmers who’d win the prize at the fair would be asked how they did it, and since they often milk-fed their livestock for special care, they’d say the pumpkin was ‘milk-fed’. People would hear that and go home and start feeding their pumpkins milk. I’ve also heard about fertility pills and soft music. These are amusing, but the only thing that will increase the size of the fruit comes out of the vines, and the vines must get the support from the natural root. For growing really big pumpkins, the most important things to remember are seeds, soil, sunshine, and water," Dill explained.
By mid-August the plants are pulling in water and nutrients at a great rate. Dill believed nighttime is when they do their growing; most expand two inches in circumference every night. Dill measured each fruit daily, always watching for the one that would be the contender at the fair.
If it was a dry season, Dill would give each plant 15 to 20 gallons of water twice a week. He watered in the evening, watering only the base of the plant to keep the leaves dry, and to reduce the risk of disease.
Dill found the most stressful time of the growing season is just before harvest – stressful for him as well as for the pumpkin. There was always the danger of frost. In addition, the pumpkins had to endure an incredible surge of growth. This causes risks. The most common mishap near the end of this surge toward gigantism is the pumpkin can collapse on itself. Usually this happens when the pumpkin develops a small split in the skin that admits moisture and the fruit rots from the inside.
Unfortunately we lost Mr. Howard Dill on May 20, 2008; but his records and his teachings will continue to help us to remember him as "The Pumpkin King," Why not grow some giant pumpkins of your own this year?