Pie pumpkins need rich soil, full sun for best growth

October 31, 2023

Pumpkins and pumpkin seeds were being grown and eaten by Native Americans long before the Pilgrims arrived. At one time, pumpkins were used as a remedy for freckles and snakebites.

The nutrients in pumpkin seeds reduce the risk of prostate disorders in men. The first pumpkin pies made by the colonists were a mixture of pumpkin puree, eggs, and milk baked not in a crust but in the hollowed-out shell of a pumpkin. A bit later they added grated nutmeg, along with cinnamon sticks and whole cloves crushed to a powder in a mortar and pestle.

We have all experienced carving a jack o'lantern and pulling out the very stringy and watery flesh that would make a stringy and watery pie. Pie pumpkins, also called sugar pumpkins, are bred to have dry, fine-grained flesh.

While you can use any pumpkin for pie, the best and sweetest results will come from pumpkins specifically grown to be eaten. The old-fashioned New England Sugar pumpkin is a small, round fruit that weighs just a few pounds. The Winter Luxury pumpkin is another beautiful pie pumpkin with a netted skin, similar to that of a cantaloupe. You can even use most dry winter squashes to make pumpkin pies. It is, after all, about the spices you add.

Fall is an excellent time to prepare for next year's pumpkin patch. Dig lots of compost or aged manure into the soil. You can also plant a nitrogen-rich cover crop such as clover that you can till under next spring before planting season.

Pumpkins need 80 to 120 days of frost-free weather to mature.

To grow your own pie pumpkins, choose a spot with soil that drains well; avoid soggy, low-lying areas. The site should be in direct sun. Rich soil is a must, so add compost or aged manure if you didn’t do this the prior year. A soil pH of 6 to 6.8 is ideal.

Seeds require warm soil, at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to germinate. Plant them in groups of four or five seeds in slightly raised mounds, aka hills, set several feet apart in each direction.

Once the plants have sprouted, thin to the two or three strongest vines. If your space is limited, you can train the vines up a strong trellis. Keep the plants well watered, especially during hot, dry weather.

Because of their fast growth, pumpkins need lots of nutrients. Start out with a high-nitrogen fertilizer (10-5-5 ratio) when your vines are about 1 foot long. This will encourage good leaf growth. When the vines start to bloom in summer, switch to a high-phosphorus and potassium fertilizer (5-15-15 ratio) to help the fruit develop.

For best flavor, let the pumpkins fully ripen on the vine. Do not pick them until the vines have started to dry and shrivel up. Wait until the tendril closest to the pumpkin turns brown.

Get your pie pumpkin patch ready this fall, so next year you can plant sugar-sweet pumpkins, and have pies, breads, and cookies in time for Halloween. They will be so good they will spook you!

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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