Archive for Thursday, October 25, 2001

Picking perfect pumpkins

Halloween staples don’t just fall off the vine

October 25, 2001

Several weeks before Halloween, Richard Strong's pumpkin patch is a twisty, tangled mess of hearty green stalks and the bulging fruit of pumpkins.

About four months ago, however, picking pumpkins was probably the last thing on most people's minds. Yet Strong already had pumpkins on the brain. To have a crop ready to pick in October, work has to start in June.

"There's a lot of big green ones and a lot of ripe ones," Strong said, leaning against the flat bed trailer hitched to his tractor.

He has just used the trailer to haul a family out to the patch from the main entrance. As he drives, his two dogs trot along side the tractor with the four-foot tall tires.

Between talking to the young boy about the pumpkins he's picked, Strong explains the business of growing orange squash that gets much attention this time of year.

In the second week of June, Strong planted pumpkin seeds in the patch. By July 4, when other vegetables hadn't produced the desired results, Strong planted pumpkin plants to grow. Within four to eight days, he said, plants emerged from the seeds underneath the soil. About 30 days later, or "a full cycle of the moon," Strong said the male flowers blossomed on the plants. In two or three weeks, the female flowers appeared.

Here's where Strong enlisted help from some hard-working employees, of sorts. He rents and keeps some of his own bees to pollinate the plants.

"You get to have the workers of the world," Strong said of enlisting help from his buzzing buddies.

After bees have pollinated the flowers, the plants produced pumpkins in a week to 10 days.

"They don't always set," Strong said. "Sometimes they just rot off."

In Strong's nine-or-so acres of pumpkins, he can expect up to 60,000 or 70,000 pounds of pumpkin, depending on cooperation or lack thereof from the weather.

Because of the hot Kansas summers, Strong relied on an irrigation system. Black, perforated hoses snaked through the patch, hidden by soil and vines. The perforations allowed water to seep into the soil in the absence of rain.

"They need something to cool them off; I need something to take care of my mistakes," Strong said with a grin.

If his pumpkins didn't look uniform, there's a reason this year, Strong had about six different types of pumpkin planted. The varieties ranged from 50-pound pumpkins, like the Big Mac, to table top decorators, like the nearly symmetrical Cinderella strain, whose near perfect stems won't pull off easily.

Keeping the fruits of his labors in tip-top shape required Strong to fertilize every other week, spraying for bugs sometimes as often as every one to two weeks, depending on the plants' growth phase.

Although spraying only took about 30 minutes, prepping the machine could take as long as three hours.

"It takes me longer to get a machine set to get it to work properly than it does to do the job," Strong said.

When Halloween is over and jack-o-lanterns have found their way into a pumpkin pie or the garbage can, Strong's patch will get a chance to rest until next summer. Before then, he will break up the old soil with one of two methods.

But if Strong has too many pumpkins left in the patch this year, no problem. On Halloween night, the farm will have a Smashing Pumpkins party.

"Any pumpkin left is then free for grabs," he said. "We're going to let people loose."

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