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How to grow giant pumpkins in small spaces by Matthew Oliver

Let’s face it, here in the UK most of us have tiny postage stamp size back gardens, that are already full up with the shed, patio, lawn for the kids/dog, pond, greenhouse etc… The average 10 rod allotment (250sq meters) is only big enough for two full size pumpkin plants (at a push). Only a few of us are lucky enough to grow on farms, large estates or RHS gardens even. This is clearly something that is limiting the amount of entrants in the pumpkin and squash classes at the giant veg shows, along with the amount of time required to nurture a full 1000sq ft (92sq m) pumpkin plant for 6 months.

With this in mind I decided to experiment in 2017 and try to prove that large, competitive pumpkins can be grown in small spaces, outdoors in Northern Europe. So when I heard about the 150 square foot competition on bigpumpkins.com I just had to take part. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, this is a fun, informal (but with rules) competition that anyone can take part in to see who can grow the largest pumpkin in the smallest space. The main requirements are that no part of the plant must extend beyond a predetermined area covering 150 sq ft (14 square meters), and usually a seed with the genetics to compete for a Howard Dill Award (best looking, orange pumpkin) is chosen.

At the end of 2016, the current ‘record’ stood at 880lbs (390kg). The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that this is more than heavy enough to compete and win at all of the giant veg shows in the UK, other than the GPC weigh off in Southampton (but it will place you for prize money). And that’s exactly what I did at Malvern in 2017. Here’s how I did it. (Please note I’m not claiming any brownie points for ingenuity here, all of my methods have been shamelessly copied from other growers’ diaries on the big pumpkins website; I’m just collating everything I’ve learnt for the benefit of others)

Firstly, some advantages of growing in 150sq ft:

·         Less ground space required per plant

·         Less plant training and vine burying

·         Numerous different methods for plant training

·         Less soil cultivation work required (less compost)

·         Reduced volume of watering needed

·         Reduced time spent spraying/foliar feeding

·         Easier to grow multiple plants each season

·         Reduced amounts of fertiliser/mycorrhiza/compost tea required

And the disadvantages:

·         More plant pruning

·         Hard to work ‘through’ the plant

·         More intense disease prevention programme required

·         Reduced opportunity for pollination; you probably have two chances to set a female before you run out of room. If neither takes, you’re screwed!

·         Plant will age quicker, as there are no new leaves to replace the oldest ones.

·         You’re not even going to get close to mixing it with the big boys. Get any ideas of world domination out of your mind here.

Seed Sowing

I started my seeds off for the 150sq ft plot at the same time and with the same method as all my other pumpkins, mid-April. In reality, you could start a little later as the amount of time required for vegetative foliar growth is reduced due to the maximum size of the plant. Early May is about the latest I would begin however, as there is a lot be gained from an early pollination and fruit growth

when day light hours are at their longest in mid-summer (adjust for your local climate conditions, obviously). As always, soak seed first for an hour or so, then into damp, free draining seed compost at about 20c-30c. Seed choice is important, but you do not need to be investing hundreds of pounds in the world’s best seeds in order to achieve success here. I took it as an opportunity to grow my own 1333 seed (2096 Meier x 1998 Jutras) and a couple of the 918 Sullivan (1538 Jutras x 1317 Clementz) in the hope of getting a Howard Dill contender.

 Planting out

Once again, nothing different here; planted out first week of May just like all the ‘normal’ pumpkin plants. I did use plastic cloches to keep the plants out of the wind and cold weather for the first few weeks of their lives however. Some of the cloches I constructed were real Heath Robinson affairs, just two sections of blue water pipe, some bamboo canes, clear plastic, pegs, cable ties and duct tape. Black plastic was pegged down inside the cloches to help warm the earth. This was done a few weeks prior to planting out. Here’s a photo:

Plant Training

This is where things get different. Usually, a giant pumpkin would be trained in a Christmas tree fashion, main vine down the middle of the plot, with secondary’s trained at right angles to 15ft (5m) out, fruit pollinated at least 10-15ft (3-5m) out. The main aim is to get as much foliage growth behind the pollinated fruit as possible, as this is the engine that drives fruit growth, something like this is how I do it:

In a smaller space, you have to work harder and train the plant differently in order to get the maximum amount of leaf growth behind the fruit as possible. Leaf growth after the pumpkin is a luxury you can’t afford in a small space, so the aim is to have the plot nearly covered just as pollination takes place. There are numerous different methods for doing this, here’s the three I used (Please note all diagrams are indicative and not to scale):

This uses the same pattern as normal, training each secondary perpendicular to the main, only with an extreme curve at the end of the main vine to position the pumpkin in the corner of the plot. The direction of the curve will depend on what side of the vine the female flower appears. You will probably have two opportunities to pollinate a flower on this curve before you run out room. Some tertiary growth is kept at the end of plot to fill all the available space. This was the method I used to grow the 965lb pumpkin that won at Malvern, minus some looping back round of secondaries, as shown above. Here’s how mine turned out: