Halloween

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Grow pumpkins right at home

Year after year, families make the trek to farm stands and nurseries in rural areas to purchase pumpkins. There among the vines and soil, each person is on the hunt for the perfect pumpkin to turn into pie or to carve into a gap-toothed jack-o'-lantern. But what if you only had to venture as far as your backyard for the ideal autumn pumpkin? It's possible when you plan ahead and sow the seeds of your very own pumpkin patch.

Pumpkins are a long-season fruit that requires some advanced soil prep work and planning to ensure a bountiful crop. Pumpkins come in hundreds of varieties of all shapes and sizes. Pumpkins belong to the "cucurbita" family and come in three main categories. Cucurbita Moschata pumpkins belong to a group of mainly squashes that are usually used commercially for canned pumpkins. Cucurbita Pepo pumpkins are the ones typically carved on Halloween. Cucurbita Maxima are the giant pumpkins that show up at state fairs and other vegetable and fruit growing contests.

To begin a pumpkin patch, find an area of the yard that gets full sunlight. The soil should have a slightly acidic soil from 6.0 to 6.8 pH. Pumpkins prefer a light, rich soil that drains well. Till the soil and amend it with compost to ensure it is rich in nutrients.

Pumpkins can be started indoors from seeds during the early spring. However, if you plan to put seedlings into the ground, be sure to do so when the first frost is over and the soil is 60 F. The temperature during the day should average 70 F. Be sure to space pumpkins far apart from one another and dig them in deep. Leave at least a few feet of space because vines can grow quite long and pumpkins can get large.

Pumpkins are mostly water and need a lot to grow, so test the soil's moisture levels every day. Only add water when it is needed. Deep but infrequent watering results in healthier plants. Keep water off of the leaves, and water the pumpkins in the morning instead of late in the evening. This can prevent the onset  of fungal diseases. It is also adviseable to plant sunflowers next to pumpkins to attract the pests that may normally thrive on the pumpkins. Beetles, aphids and squash bugs are common and can damage the crop.

When the shell of the pumpkin has hardened and is no longer easily dented, it is usually ready for harvesting. The vine also may begin to thin and whither. If a pumpkin is large but not quite ready, place boards under the pumpkin to keep it from rotting on the ground.

Cut stems on the long side, and never carry around the pumpkin by the stem. It can break and cause the pumpkin to rot prematurely. Reduce watering a week to 10 days before harvesting, which will help them keep longer.

While visiting pumpkin farms is an enjoyable autumn activity, homeowners can plant their own pumpkins and enjoy their harvests right from the comforts of their backyards.