The Cranky Gardener

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The Great Pumpkin1

Those of you who need that little extra push to get out of the house and plant a garden need to keep Halloween, Thanksgiving, or whatever harvest festival you celebrate in mind. Have you seen the prices of natural decorations this year? It will turn you so white that you'll be able to skip the sheet for trick-or-treat.

Pumpkins are still affordable. You can buy a medium sized one to carve for $3.00. The larger ones start at about $7.00. But the Indian corn and small decorative gourds are $1.79 each. That's just outrageous. Even straw is up to $3.95 a bale. Enough corn stalks to make a decent looking bunch would run $40.00. Bittersweet is $2.95 for a tiny spring.

Every year I create an autumn display in the foyer of the library. (Except for this year - it's a long story.) If I were going to do it this year, here's what it would cost. Six bales of straw which I stack plus a seventh to go in front for a seat. ($27.65) I make a scarecrow out of my husbands old gardening clothes and hat with a gunny sack for the head. (Free) Then I surround the scarecrow with an assortment of pumpkins ($63), gourds ($21.48), Indian corn ($35.80), autumn leaves (Free), potted chrysanthemums ($41.65), and assorted dried flower heads, berries, and grasses from my garden (Free). Behind the straw, in the corner to add height, I put corn stalks ($40).

Every year I swear that I will never again spend my hard earned money on things I could grow for a tenth of the price. I'm not made of money, you know. Anyone related to a librarian will vouch for that. So, I have created a spot behind my garden shed, between the blackberries and the grape arbor, where I can create a garden just to grow things for autumn decoration.

Pumpkins, gourds and winter squashes are fairly easy to grow. They require a lot of manure or compost, a handful of 5-10-10 fertilizer, and about 18 inches of water per plant during the growing season. They also need hot weather, so you need to be sure you choose varieties that will have time to mature and ripen during your growing season.

The biggest drawback to growing these wonderful plants is that they require a lot of room to spread out. Most are vining types. If you allow then to ramble over the ground, you will need to space the plants two to four feet apart and allow 10 or more feet between rows. But they do well grown vertically on trellises and fences. This is how I intend to grow my decorative gourds. Pumpkins are more difficult to grow vertically because of the weight of the fruit. But you can create slings out of old pantyhose tied to your trellis to help support the growing pumpkins.

Like cucumbers and summer squashes, your pumpkins, winter squashes and gourds will produce female flowers before there are any male flowers to pollinate them. So don't panic when the first small fruits abort and rot. This is natural. Be patient. Pick when the stems begin to turn brown. If you intend to cook the pumpkins rather than carve them, you will need to wait to pick them until the foliage is killed by frost2 and then let them harden so they will last over the winter in storage. You need to leave at least an inch-long stem.

Corn is also a crop that requires room to grow. Because corn is wind pollinated, you need to plant several short rows rather than one long one. You must wait until the soil is warm before planting. The old rule of thumb is to plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of squirrel's ears. Plants should be thinned to stand 12 - 15 inches apart and rows should be at least 36 inches apart. More home garden corn plantings are ruined by overcrowding than any other cause. You will need to fertilize your corn twice. At planting time place a band of 5-10-10 fertilizer on both sides of your furrow about 2 inches from the seed and about an inch deeper. Then fertilize again when the stalks are 18 inches high. Corn requires a lot of water, especially between tasseling and the time to pick the ears.

Indian corn comes in all colors and sizes. Check your seed catalogues for varieties. Like regular sweet corn, the varieties will cross pollinate, so be careful not to plant several varieties together, or there's no telling what you'll wind up with. (This is true for gourds, also, for those of you who like to save our own seed.) Most corn will produce two ears per stalk. To use for decoration you will, of course, need to let the stalks dry on the vine. Once dry, a coat of clear shellac will help to preserve them. Properly preserved they can be used for several years. And when you grow your own, you will have the corn stalks to use as well.

Native Americans were masters of interplanting in their vegetable gardens. They planted corn, beans and pumpkins in the same rows of hills. The beans, which added nitrogen to the soil, were allowed to climb the cornstalks and the pumpkins, which matured after the corn and beans were finished , acted as a living mulch, conserving moisture and preventing erosion. Each plant has different root depths, so lived together happily. If you are short on space, interplanting could be the key to success.

I also plan to plant Broom Corn. This is a special variety that is planted for the foliage and is very decorative. Millet is also a good choice for a decorative grain. And the birds will love you for it.

To dry your gourds for use in crafts or to make birdhouses, you should pick them when the stems turn brownish. Take a long needle and puncture the gourd close to the stem. This will let air inside. Then hang them in a well-ventilated place for several months. The seeds will rattle when the gourds are fully dry. Then cut them with a sharp saw, scrape out the insides and coat them inside and out with shellac. Store-bought gourds can be dried as well to preserve them.

When gathering natural materials for autumn decorations don't forget to use the cones and seed heads of your garden flowers. Echinacea works especially well. You can leave them black or spray paint them orange, gold and brown. And don't forget the acorns - if the squirrels leave you any.

This week's recipe is perfect for your Halloween celebration. Enjoy.

Jack-O'-Lantern Cheese Ball


  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese
  • ½ (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • ¼ cup canned pumpkin
  • ¼ cup pineapple preserves
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 pretzel rod, broken in half
  • Dark rye bread, red bell pepper, parsley and black olive slices
  • Assorted crackers

Beat the cheeses, pumpkin, preserves and spices in a medium bowl until smooth. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours or until the cheese is firm enough to shape.

Shape the mixture into a round pumpkin and place on a plate. Using a knife, score vertical lines down the pumpkin. Place the pretzel rod in the top for the stem.

Cut the rye bread into triangles for the eyes and nose. Use the olive slices to create a scalloped mouth. The red bell pepper can be used in the corners of the eyes for pupils. Put a sprig of parsley on top near the stem.

Cover loosely and refrigerate until serving time. Serve with crackers. Makes 16 to 18 servings.

The Cranky Gardener


30.10.03 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.2A light freeze will improve their flavour.

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