Secrets of growing a giant pumpkin shared during Lansing meeting

Shares his trophy-winning expertise ...
Jeff Morris of Lansing displays the trophy he was awarded for growing the biggest pumpkin at the annual Big Pumpkin Contest held in Waukon. That contest will be moving to Lansing this fall, and Morris shared his pumpkin growing tips with area residents at a March 30 meeting in Lansing. Submitted photo.

Jeff Morris of Lansing has been growing giant pumpkins for eight years. He started when a buddy from South Dakota suggested it to him. He passed on some of his winning expertise to 15 people who met at the Main Street Lansing office Wednesday, March 30.
This fall during the last weekend in September, Main Street Lansing will sponsor the Giant Pumpkin Festival previously sponsored by TASC in Waukon. TASC contacted the Lansing group last year, asking them to take over the celebration.
The first step in preparation for that contest is to plant some pumpkins. As those in attendance at the meeting soon discovered, the process is not as simple as sticking a seed in the ground if they want the plant to produce a pumpkin that could be over 1,000 pounds.
After the group indulged in pumpkin cookies, Morris distributed seeds to all those at the meeting. These seeds came from a 1,175 pound pumpkin grown by Chris Schultz. If people were unable to attend the meeting but are interested in growing giant pumpkins, they can pick up seeds from the Main Street Lansing office located in the Kerndt Brothers Community Center on Main Street in Lansing. The office is open from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, or call 563-538-9229.

Morris recommended preparing the seeds by taking a nail file and carefully filing around the outer edge of the seed. The pointed end of the seed should not be filed. The seed should be filed gently without breaking or cracking it. Next, wrap the seed in a wet paper towel overnight.
The next morning, remove the seed from the paper towel and plant one seed in potting soil in a peat pot with the point down. The seed should be planted about an inch deep. Give each seed its own pot. Put the peat pots in a cooler and place it in a south window. Some individuals put heating pads in the cooler as well. The seed should sprout in about a week and should grow in the peat pot about two weeks. Normally, Morris plants the peat pots in mid-April and plants the seedlings outside at the beginning of May.

Each plant will take a space about 20 feet x 20 feet, so determine how much space is needed for the number of seeds which will be planted. The plot should be a sunny location. Ideally, a good mixture of black dirt and sand yields good results. The soil should be prepared by tilling about six inches down. The entire plot should be tilled because the vines will shoot roots all over the prepared grown.
Morris uses Preen to help prevent weed germination. It is important to keep the ground clear so the vines can take root. One-year-old manure  worked into the soil is a great fertilizer but commercial fertilizer may also be used. Morris recommends a 8-20-20 mix so that the soil does not have too much nitrogen. Too much nitrogen will cause the leaves to break off the vine. During the growing season, Miracle Grow Tomato Food is a good growth promoter, according to Morris. A website, is a useful resource for information, suggestions  and vendors.

The first two leaves are the seed leaves. The first true leaf is the third leaf that appears. The vine will grow the opposite direction of the first true leaf so it is important to plant the peat pot so that the vine will grow over the prepared space. If viewed from above, the vines resemble a Christmas tree pattern. The main vine will be like the trunk of the tree with the side vines branching out from it. Morris tries to train the vines to be parallel, so the first two side vines are laid out like the bottom tier of the Christmas tree. The next side vines create the next tier up and so on.
Everywhere a leaf grows on a vine, a tentacle-like root will develop and work its way into the soil. As these grow, a third vine will appear. This vine should be trimmed off. Morris buries the side vines as they develop by covering them with compost or additional soil, just allowing the leaf stems to poke through. He does not bury the main vine.
By the first of July, flowers will develop at the base of each leaf. There are male and female flowers. Inside the female is a small cuplike structure. Under the flower a small pumpkin shaped node is visible. The male flower has a shaft. Morris chooses a female flower at least ten feet from the beginning of the plant. He chooses a male flower’s shaft on the cup of the female flower to pollinate the flower. Bees can also pollinate the flowers but Morris likes to be sure the flower is pollinated at the right time. When the female flower is just starting to open in the morning is the optimum time.
Morris likes to pollinate another female flower at least six feet away from the first one. Wait until the actual pumpkin starts. If the blossom turns white and dies, it’s good to have at least two set. Then all of the other blossoms are removed. Pollinating the flower creates the seeds for the next year. Once the pumpkin is established and is the size of a basketball, the second pumpkin can be pulled from the vine so that only one remains.
After the pumpkin is about one foot across, gently pick it up with the vine and pull it slightly away from the vine so that when the pumpkin grows it doesn’t grow on top of the vine. Additional roots will grow close to the pumpkin. Those should be cut so they do not pull on the stem.
Pest control is important. One of the biggest culprits is the cucumber beetle. If a lot of holes appear in the leaves, Morris sprays with SEVIN.  Although Morris has not had problems with squash vine bores, they can get in the main vine and kill the plant.

Once the pumpkin is established, place something under it such as plywood or a pallet. This will help if the pumpkin needs to be adjusted. Taking it off the ground will also keep the voles and moles from living under it.
The pumpkin grows every day. When they start growing, pumpkins can grow up to 40 pounds a day. It’s important not to overwater. If a white foam develops on the vine, the plant is getting too much water. When the soil is dry down about two inches, then watering is in order. Watering should be done in the morning, not in the afternoon to avoid mildew issues.
Once the pumpkin is about three feet across, Morris covers it during the day. An old sheet works well for this job.  The sun matures the pumpkin faster and the pumpkin skin will get crackly like a cantaloupe if it gets too much sun. The pumpkin can also split if it is overwatered or overfed with fertilizer. In late August and early September, powdery mildew can become an issue. There are sprays available to prevent this. Diluted milk also can be sprayed on the plant. This mildew looks like white mold on the leaves. The goal is to keep the plant alive and intact until the weigh off.

The weigh-in for the largest pumpkin contest is the last weekend in September in Lansing. Morris volunteered to assist anyone who grows a large pumpkin with transportation. He has a lifter and skid loader which he uses to load pumpkins.
After the weigh-in to determine the largest pumpkin, the seeds can be harvested from the pumpkin. Seeds can be dried on a screen and saved from year to year. The ground used for the planting needs to be prepared for the next season. Remove all the dead vine because the decaying plant promotes disease.  Incorporate the manure into the soil in the field. Morris plants rye in the field to help replenish the nutrients.
Morris concluded, “It’s just amazing to watch how fast they grow. It’s almost like you can just stand and watch it grow right in front of you. When it can grow 40 pounds in a day, that’s definitely something you can notice.” As with any venture like this, Morris says it takes dedication, skill and definitely some luck.