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GARDEN MAIDEN: Pumpkins and gourds galore!

Hard to believe my oldest son turns 20 next week. Hauling city slicker kids to a pumpkin patch birthday party that took a few paychecks to organize and several days off to execute slaps reasonability out of the current conversation. Contributing a few Ben Franklins toward gadgets and whirrs to soup up a car seems like a logical investment compared to throw away masks, sacks of full-size candy and 30 life size jack-o-lantern pumpkins to send home, carve out and watch rot on the stoop!

Of course, my garden is very far off from the land of logic and surely no terrain for calculating feasible return on investment scenarios. Largely because valuation of sheer beauty, rare species and origins rooted in survival, nobility and expansive colonization far outweigh the cost of seeds and fertilizer.

I remember selecting Red Kuri squash that first season learning to garden. I didn’t really know nothing came of them for several weeks because I had no idea how quickly the seedlings show up and vines extend. When all the pumpkins failed that year, I figured it was me, though I learned later sandy soil and waiting til June to put seeds in the ground just does not work when it comes to cultivating pumpkins. Several specialty grower sessions later and a wraparound porch has me re-introducing several heirloom varieties into the 2019 garden plan.

But first, a bit of history. While Mexico claims fame to the oldest cucurbit (squash, gourds and pumpkin) seeds excavated from the Oaxacan Highlands dating back to 10,ooo years ago, Penn State archaeologists have discovered them in dung of ancient mastodons that roamed the earth 12, 000 years ago. Tracing the lineage of domesticated cucurbit seed DNA suggests that if the wooly mammoths, giant sloths and mastodons had not gone extinct, humans may never have known the abundance and extended varieties of the tiny, bitter hardshells they utilized as containers, tools or fishnet floats.

Early gourds and squashes relied on massive steps to be tillers as their seed was crushed to the ground and well fertilized along the way. These brilliant plant genomes produced a toxic steroid, Cucurbitacin, to deter small herbivores while remaining unharmful to massive megafauna. Civilized breeding taste, varying shapes, flesh pulp and fruit size into squash and gourds might likely have been happenstance since cucurbits within same families quickly cross breed and blend traits generation to generation. Whether with purpose or in glorious celebration of natural selection, American Indians soon revered cucurbits and traded them as prized symbols of their native culture since many types are keen on specific conditions and may not thrive in other regions across the world.

In modern times, extensive gene manipulation has bred disease right out of many varieties and devise of hoop houses and starting seedlings indoors promotes a greater beginner gardener success rate for certain types no matter where they are grown. For novice growers, we need a purpose when allotting significant garden real estate to these warm season vines.

For some, challenge alone is enough to dedicate an entire acre of land to growing a two-ton pumpkin. The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth is a real group promoting hobby growing of giant pumpkins worldwide. Gardeners fueled by the endless hours of nurturing a single blossom for 120 days straight and crossing known previous winners such as 1554 Mathison and 2009 Wallace without interaction of any other cucurbits within miles thrive on producing these tasteless versions for trophies alone.

On the other end of the spectrum, Snack Jack, prepared similar to summer squash, is a 2 pound orange miniature pumpkin developed for its prized edible skin and seeds that requires much less space in the garden for its semi-bush growth habit of this naked variety.

Naked, you wonder? Yes, naked, I say. As in seeds without that splintery white shell. If you’re in to clean eating, snacking on raw pumpkin seeds provides not only a high protein, low fat snack but also an amino acid exclusive to cucurbit seeds called cucurbitin, commonly prescribed to stimy hair loss or to paralyze and flush parasitic worms from the digestive tract. If you’ve ever indulged in a bag of pepitas, then you already know how addictive they can be. Hybridized in regions of Austria to develop a shell free seed ideal for efficiently expelling rich pumpkin seed oils, Styrian oil pumpkins now stretch to more than 800 varieties with types such as Williams Naked Seeded Pumpkin, Gleisdorfer, and Kakai among several reaching US seed catalogs under the ‘hulless seed’ specialty pumpkin category. And yes, regular pumpkin and squash seeds are just as nutritious, and spitting out the shell just as habitual.

Though plenty enjoy this pumpkin-spiced everything season, those of us with an aversion to the stringy mush of not-fruit-filled nearly sugarless holiday pie take a bit longer to embrace the thrill of growing pumpkins. I’ve learned to enjoy the nutty, often sweet flavor as a raw garnish shredded atop a hot cup of potato soup or julienned between layers of colorful kale greens salad. Finding pumpkins to grow for flavor takes more than grabbing a pack of seeds off the store rack.

Scouring local farm stands for the blue, stout Australian heirloom variety Jarrahdale is worthy of converting non-fanatics with its silky, sweet, golden-orange flesh ideal for creamy, rich pumpkin pies and smooth squash soup. Of course, it makes an exquisite display of fall colors, too. Another multi-tasker with bright white skin and flat appearance is an ancient heirloom popular in South Africa for its sweet flesh and 30 pound fruit, Flat White Boer Pumpkins. Two more keepers for flavor are the pale peach skinned Long Island Cheese pumpkins and smaller, round white pumpkins called Lumina. Others bred for delightful coloration alone include the large, bright white round versions that do not yellow with maturity called Crystal Star. Rouge Vif D’Etempes is an open pollinated French heirloom variety grown for its vivid scarlet skin as well as Red Kuri, a type of hubbard squash with smooth skinned, teardrop-shape and deep orange red color.

The Wolf. When flavor and decorative flair matter least and a carvable jack-0-lantern matters most, this is a solid choice, literally. Surprisingly heavy for its size, Western New York farmer Chris Awald began developing this variety by fluke in the 90’s as he sectored a plot of their hundred-year-old family farm to strategically cross breed varieties for size, color and Pick-Your-Own worthy handles. After several personal trials word got out and the rest is history. The massive vine on this variety begs a 12’ spacing between rows and 8’ between hills in the row when planting in our fertile Illinois soil.

Some general gardening pointers for successful cucurbits come fall.

Adopt a varied fungicide regimen and nominally spray at strategic times. A few key applications deter early vine borers and assure healthy plants in early months to establish ample fruit set. Look for OMRI stamps to find approved organic use chemicals ideally applied in early months long before blooms arrive.

Knock off male blooms! Scout when squash blossoms appear and leave only the blossoms with a knob-like growth at the base. These are the ovary of cucurbits that become the fruit of the vine.

Don’t crowd your vines! Air flow and ample nutrition traveling through healthy vines are key to pumpkins maturing. Read packets carefully for recommended spacing per variety.

Consider no-till method in your squash patch. Peponapis pruinoso, one of 13 genus of squash bees in North America, is a type of solitary bee that lives underground and feeds exclusively on squash blossoms. In fact, the male bees literally sleep in the blossoms that close them in when the sun sets. Research shows a 75% stronger and earlier pollination rate of patches that safe harbor squash bees over growers that colonize honey bee hives nearby.

Share your proven cucurbit tips with me at www.gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter,@gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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