Everybody knows pumpkins are enchanted: Cinderella's godmother turned one into a magnificent carriage, Linus waited for the great one rather than go trick-or-treating, and every year millions are transformed into scary-looking jack-o'-lanterns. But did you know pumpkins are the world's largest berries? (Yes, pumpkins, along with cousins squash and cucumbers, are technically fruits.) Most Curcurbita pepo, the variety baked in pies and carved into jack-o'-lanterns, are 8 to 18 inches (20 to 45 centimetres) in diameter and weigh 5 to 25 pounds (two to 10 kilograms), but the variety grown for weight competitions, Curcurbita maxima, can weigh more than half a ton.
Pumpkins are great plants for kids to grow. The seeds are large enough for little hands to sow, the leaves and flowers are showy, and the mature fruit is the ultimate Halloween decoration. The bonus is you can bake the flesh in pies and breads and roast the seeds for snacks.
There are many pumpkin cultivars to choose from; here are some of the best for children.
- Rich orange "Baby Bear", growing on vigorous vines, weighs only 1 1/2 to three pounds (.7 to 1.4 kilograms) small enough for toddlers to carry and hug. Adults like them, too, because they make great Thanksgiving table decorations as well as containers, when carved out, for fresh fall flowers.
- Two other small varieties (two to three pounds/1 to 1.4 kilograms) have smooth skin perfect for painting on: deep orange "Baby Pam" and white "Little Boo".
- Two medium-sized orange pumpkins with a compact vining habit are "Racer" (12 to 18 pounds/five to eight kilograms) and "Frosty" (eight to 15 pounds/four to seven kilograms).
- Tiny "Sweetie Pie" and "Jack-Be-Little" are pumpkins that can fit into the palm of a hand. If garden space is limited—even miniature pumpkins need a two-foot by four-foot (60-centimetre by 120-centimetre) plot in full sun—you can grow a single plant in a large, 18-inch (45-centimetre) deep container and let the vines grow over the sides and into the yard.
Prep your plot and sow your seeds
Sow seeds one inch (2.5 centimetres) deep in individual peat pots two to four weeks before the expected last frost in your area. To prepare your pumpkin plot, work well-rotted manure or compost into the top eight inches (20 centimetres) of garden soil. When the plants have two or three true leaves and the soil temperature in your plot is at least 16'C (61'F), harden them off by reducing water slightly and gradually exposing them to outdoor temperatures and sunlight. Plant two or three seedlings six inches (15 centimetres) apart in the concave centre of a hill. Mulch with black plastic to conserve moisture and help control weeds. Pumpkin plants tolerate short periods of hot, dry weather, but it's best to keep them well watered.