Fall Means Pumpkins!

By Jennifer Naughton, Fairfax Master Gardener
pumpkinsGrowing pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) is a great way to embrace the spirit of fall. To start this fun, child-friendly process, grow them from seed in the spring (average, 100 days to maturity) or compost jack-o’-lanterns or leftover decorative pumpkins from Thanksgiving. Seeds can survive the winter, and in the spring, the first signs of green are early pumpkin leaves sprouting from the garden floor like magic. To save space, transplant seedlings close to a garden fence or trellis and let them climb. The end product is a surprise due to cross-pollination with other squashes or pumpkins among the parent seeds. Sometimes they come back as gourds, some as tiny jack-o’-lanterns, others as full-size pumpkins. Use makeshift hammocks made out of plastic bags so they do not fall from the vines.

flea beetles

Flea beetles

Initially, a bumper crop of pumpkins is effortless. However, with real estate in the garden at a premium and with pumpkins’ proclivity to sprawl, even trellising and crop rotation do not guarantee elimination of overwintering pests. The first nuisance are usually flea beetles. They emerge mid- to late-spring and become active as the days get warmer. You’ll see their tiny black dots jumping on the leaves while larvae can also gnaw at the roots of the vine. This is a first sign that the plant is under stress. Glossy, bright green pumpkin leaves may now look chewed or paler in color. A first course of treatment is diatomaceous earth, but if not applied early enough or if spring/early summer is rainy, pyrethrin spray may prove more effective. After applying the spray for two weeks, seven days apart, the beetles will reduce in population or disappear altogether.