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Get your gourd on

Yes, it’s the season for vacations and backyard barbecues. But did you know it’s also peak time to think about your Halloween décor?

The ideal window for planting pumpkins falls between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, said Brad Bergefurd, an extension educator and agriculture and horticulture specialist with OSU Extension.

Pumpkins are the fantastic crop for novice gardeners and families, Bergefurd said.

“With children, it’s a great educational opportunity because the vines will grow 3, 4 or 5 inches a day and they sprawl 15 to 20 feet out,” he said.

Bergefurd, who has been growing pumpkins for 35 years, explains how to plant seeds to harvest the perfect fall jack-o’-lantern, pie or specialty pumpkin.

Step 1: Choose the right seed variety for your garden.

Step 2: Direct seed or start indoors?

Decide if you will plant the seeds directly into the ground or transplant them from indoor starter kits.

If you start seeds indoors, grow them for about two weeks before transplanting the pumpkin plants outdoors.

Avoid planting pumpkins outside too early, Bergefurd warns.

“Too many times I’ve seen gardeners get the itch to start planting them (in early May) and that’s way too early. You’ll have pumpkins ready in July.”

Step 3: Test the soil.

Pumpkins prefer a pH of 5.8 to 6.4, depending on the soil type. You can add lime to raise soil pH.

Live in Ohio? Your county OSU Extension office can help you with getting your soil tested.

Step 4: Plow the garden.

Till your garden with a disc harrow or rotating tiller.

Step 5: Prepare the seed bed.

Plant one seed every 4 to 5 feet in the row. Space the rows 10 to 15 feet apart to allow enough space for pumpkin vines to sprawl. They can unfurl up to 20 feet!

Plant the seed ¾ to 1¼ inches deep into the soil. Cover back up with dirt.

Step 6: Water the patch.

Usually, the seed will germinate and emerge within five to seven days after planting. If it hasn’t rained in a while, irrigate the seed with one inch of water per week to help it grow.

Step 7: Scout for pests.

Once the pumpkin plant emerges, look for pests such as the striped or spotted cucumber beetle, which eats the plant. (One natural way to get rid of them is to lure them away with “trap cropping.”)

In early to middle July look for fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, and downy mildew.

Step 8: Encourage pollinators.

Once the flowers on the pumpkin plant bloom, which typically occurs about 30 days after planting, avoid spraying insecticide in the patch. You actually want to encourage bees to pollinate the fruit.

Bergefurd said it’s important to keep the plants irrigated after pollination, too.

Step 9: Harvest pumpkins.

Once the pumpkin turns orange and the stem darkens, which occurs about 30 to 40 days after bloom and pollination, cut the stem and let it cure in the garden about four days. This allows the pumpkin to harden before picking.

The optimal time to harvest pumpkins is before fall’s first hard freeze — during which temperatures fall below freezing for several consecutive hours — because it can discolor the fruit.

Wait at least three years before planting pumpkins after other vine crops such as cucumbers, cantaloupe or melons to avoid insect infestation and soil disease.

Step 10: Set it on the porch step — just in time for Halloween.

Once you harvest the pumpkin, display it in the shade. Direct sunlight can also discolor pumpkins.