Q: My pumpkin vine only has a few small pumpkins on it. It is too late this year, but what can I do next year to get better pumpkins?
A: Pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, melons, cantaloupes, watermelons and gourds are all vines that like hot weather and lots of water at the same time. Pumpkins like to stay well-watered. If the soil dries out too much between waterings, the vines will drop flowers and small developing fruit. Next season, plant them in a mound of compost or rotted manure. The organic matter will hold more water, and the mound will give them a larger area in which to grow their roots. Installing a drip irrigation system will also help.
Pumpkins and the other vines have separate male and female flowers. They often open on different days, and each flower only lasts for a day or two. This helps ensure cross-pollination from a different plant. It is best to plant several plants in a mound to allow for pollination, but if you are interested in big pumpkins and a plant does not have a pumpkin on it, you can remove it. This way the roots of the good plant will get more water.
Bees and other insects do the pollinating. If you must use insecticides that will harm these beneficial insects, do so in the cool of the evening when they are not active around the garden.
If you only have room for one vine, you will have to try the cross-pollination yourself. Each female flower has a large swelling at the base of the yellow petals. The male flowers grow on top of long stalks. Use a small kid's paintbrush to collect some yellow pollen from the anthers of a male flower. Wipe the pollen on to the top of the pistil on the female flower. You will know if it was successful if in a few days, the base of the flower starts to enlarge. It was not successful if the female flower withers and falls off.
Late in the season, you should only allow one pumpkin to grow on the vine if you want one that will be large. Pumpkins will stop growing in early fall, and the vine will die at the first frost. If you want some small pumpkins for use as table decorations, go ahead and pollinate several flowers. Instead of all of the vine's energy going into growing one larger pumpkin, it will be spread out among several smaller ones.
Every year you will hear reports of how poor the pumpkin crop is, but there always seem to be plenty of extras in the farmers' fields and in stores. This year, the hurricanes will be blamed for the crop shortage in the eastern states.
Pumpkins are a good source of vitamins and are good to eat. They are a variety of winter squash like butternut or acorn squash. Winter squash are left on the vine until they are mature, have a hard rind and are baked for eating. Summer squash are picked off the vine while still green, have a soft rind and can be eaten raw or cooked. They do not store well and are eaten fresh.
If you want to have a decorated pumpkin but also save it for later eating, you can use Tempera paint or markers to make your designs on the outside without cutting it open.
Small pumpkins can be eaten as a vegetable — steamed, boiled, or battered and fried. They can also be sliced and eaten raw with dip as an appetizer. The University of Illinois Extension "Pumpkins and More" website has information on how to select and cook fresh pumpkin. Besides the standard recipes for pumpkin nut bread and roasted pumpkin seeds, there are many other recipes, such as pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin-apple soup.
Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.