Growing up in the village we never heard of any designated pumpkin patch. It was either intercropping in maize, cotton or bean fields. Or it was a large juicy pumpkin from a plant that grew from the rubbish dump. In my little childhood mind, I never wondered why the pumpkins from the rubbish bin were the biggest. I know most of you cannot stomach the idea of eating pumpkins that grew out of a rubbish dump. However, these rural rubbish bins/dumps are like abandoned composts.
Using firewood as the main fuel, we disposed of the ash into the dugout bins. We would do this every morning and evening. In addition to that, we would also throw in leftover foods. Maize cobs, rotten vegetables, discarded foods and any organic waste would find themselves in the bin. What the local domestic animals couldn’t eat, would end up in there. But here is the catch, even pumpkin seeds would find them into that bin. And then the bin would get full in a very short time. It was our job to dig up the rubbish bin and make room for more waste.
The composted ash and plant matter would be tossed one side into a nutritious heap of rubble. Come rain season you would get every sort of plant growing there including healthy pumpkin plants. And these would grow to produce big pumpkins that a 7-year-old me wouldn’t carry!
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Back then, a big fruit was just a delicacy. I would visualise myself helping myself to the “nhopi” from the fleshy pumpkin. And also “mabumbe” from the tasty pumpkin seeds. Either way, I would have heart meals from these massive pumpkins.
“Nhopi” is a hearty Zimbabwean delicacy that is made by converting a pumpkin into a paste.
As I grew up I began to notice several things. People in my village never created pumpkin patches. It was always intercropping with maize and cotton. Most people preferred cotton because when they used pesticides, they would also protect the pumpkins. But, this also meant that our delicious pumpkins would carry a lot of pesticide residues. And when we ate them, we would consume a crazy amount of residual pesticides. Well, no one cared, and no one cares now! People in my village have shifted from intercropping in cotton to tobacco, just another pesticide dependent crop!
Pumpkins love their sunlight
I also noticed that with the maize spacing, we never got any good pumpkins. The best pumpkins would be harvested from the plants near the edges of the maize field. These plants would have followed their instincts and ran away from the shade provided by the maize plants. They would find solace and productivity in the drains between fields or open spaces. Here they would get all the sunlight they needed to produce a good crop. The only good thing coming out of pumpkin plants intercropped with maize is the delicious pumpkin leaves. It’s all because pumpkins love their sunlight.
As modernisation came fewer and fewer people are growing pumpkins in the village. The recipes for our delicacies of “nhopi” and “mabumbe” continue to disappear with the older generation. The situation has become pitiful. Whilst people are dumping these healthy crops for the modern refined foods. Foods so dangerous that almost every elderly person in the village is either popping hypertension (BP) or type 2 diabetes pills.
Also read: Are refined grains any good?
An answer: Birth of the pumpkin patch idea
When I finished my advanced level and entered university, most people were forgetting about the delicacies of the previous decade already. We can go to primary schools right now, we find children who have never eaten a pumpkin. Even worst, they don’t know what “nhopi” or “mabumbe” is. But these are nutritionally rich foods that are made from the flesh and seeds of pumpkins.
When I was at university, I started having an interest in sustainable living. But I didn’t care about whether the food was organic or not. As long ad it was low cost and doable at the household level it was good. That’s when I started having an interest in the importance of an organic pumpkin patch.
As luck was on my side, I came back to good news during the first semester of my final year. My father had met a guy, who taught him how you could achieve food security at the household level. All, with a simple pumpkin patch. But that’s not all, in addition to having enough pesticide-free food for your family, you would also benefit from the nutrients that come with the pumpkin leaves, seeds and flesh! I revised this method with my knowledge from the rubbish dump and I came up with a masterclass method to set up an organic pumpkin patch.
Setting up the pumpkin patch
- Land preparation and digging holes
- Preparations for planting
- Enjoying your pumpkins
For this method of creating a pumpkin patch composting is very important. When you decide to do this, you need to start by preparing compost. Or have composted soil. You can buy compost or you can make your own. Making compost is easy, you don’t need to be an expert and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Here is how I make my compost:
I take all the tree leaves from the yard and pile them up. These may be leaves from your fruit trees or trees around the yard. You may dig a hole first if you like. I also put grass that I cut throughout the rain season and pile it up on top of the leaves. Sometimes I find open spaces where the grass is a hindrance or ask to cut in other peoples fields. It doesn’t have to be overly large. I mix soil and the leaves or grass as I pile them up. The last layer is always grass or leaves.
After that, I start watering my compost as well as dump an organic kitchen waste I can find. You can do about 3 months before you start planting.
Manure and mulching for the pumpkin patch
Manure is also an important part of this method. You can use chicken, cow or got manure. You must prepare manure that is adequate for your pumpkin patch. I prefer chicken and goat manure because they are very powerful. However, cow manure is also good. When you have your manure then you are good to go.
Also, gather loose grass and leaves for mulching. This is very important if you have limited water or if you are growing your pumpkin patch in the dry season.
If you have access to wood ash or if you use firewood as the fuel you may want to keep the ash also. Other, components you may keep instead of or in addition to manure include kitchen compact and fishbone meal. The aim is to nourish the soil as much as possible.
Space for the pumpkin patch
Pumpkin plants love their sunlight, so whatever space you choose must have adequate sunlight. It must be exposed to sunlight for at least 6 hours a day. This space must also be good enough to allow the pumpkin plant vines to spread freely without disturbances. If you have limited space you may choose short vine pumpkin varieties. However, such varieties usually produce smaller pumpkins.
Land preparation and digging holes for planting
You must prepare the land that you are going to create your pumpkin patch on. Remove all plastic waste and other unwanted components from the area. Also, cut the grass and clear away any components that can disturb the growth of your pumpkins. This grass can be used for composting and mulching.
After removing all the unwanted components, you will need to dig holes. The holes you dig must be at least 20 cm deep but not more than 30 cm deep. The hole must also have a diameter of 15 to 25 cm the wider the better because you can pack more of the nutrients.
You must dig holes that are 60 to 90 cm apart in rows that are 183 cm apart. You may use wider spaces if you have larger pumpkin varieties that take up lots of space. I believe this method is also possible in well-drained pots or containers even though I have never tried it. There is no harm in trying.
Preparations for planting
Firstly you need to make sure that you have adequate seeds to cover all your holes. I prefer heirloom pumpkin seeds but other specialised seeds produce bigger or tastier pumpkins. If you have limited space, you will need varieties with shorter vines.
After ensuring the availability of seeds, start setting up everything up. Take your compost and mix it up with soil and ash. On the bottom half of each of the holes dug in your patch, add manure. Make sure the manure only covers half of your hole. After that add your compost/fishbone meal/bonemeal/kitchen compact meal/ash/ soil mixture. Make sure half of any of the mixtures you make is soil. So this covers half of the remaining space. On the remaining space add a thin layer of soil and wait.
Planting your pumpkin seeds on the patch
Take your pumpkin seeds and plant 3 or 4 per hole and cover with soil. Make sure the seed is not sitting directly on the compost or manure. The seed must also be at least 2 cm deep but it must not be too deep or above 2 cm. This helps protect the seed from direct sunlight/drying and pests. Cover the seeds with adequate soil to ensure germination.
Then you are done planting your pumpkin patch. Water regularly to keep the soil moist but not flooded. When the pumpkin seeds germinate remove and transplant some to empty holes. You should leave only one per hole.
You can also intercrop your pumpkins with other crops. But don’t overcrowd the pumpkin patch. Intercropping with beans will help with providing nitrogen to the pumpkins. This can improve your yields. However, this is not important if you are using poultry or avian manure. Mint and marigolds in your pumpkin patch will help with pests. Radishes will help keep beetles away. The beetles will feed on the radish leaves and leave your pumpkin vines alone.
Maintaining the pumpkin patch
Maintaining your pumpkin patch is not easy. Pumpkins are voracious and aggressive feeders so they need their manure. With this method, I don’t think supplementing with manure and compost is important. But you can still add more compost and manure after the pumpkin seeds have germinated. It’s better to do this after your pumpkin’s true leaves start coming out. You will also need to add mulching when your pumpkin plants are about a week or older. This is very important if you have limited water or if it’s a dry and windy season.
You need to maintain good moisture if you want good produce. You must water to keep the moisture but not to flood the soil since this is bad for your plants. If you have a taste for pumpkin leaves please never get them from fruiting plants or from a node where there is a small pumpkin. If you do this the small pumpkin always fall off. Removing too many leaves from your pumpkin plants will lower your yields.
Drip irrigation and weeding
Drip irrigation can help keep your soil moist. If you are too busy to water your pumpkins all the time or you have limited water, you can use drip irrigation. If you don’t have funds to do that just collect small pet soft drink bottles being disposed of everywhere. Fill them with water and drill very tiny holes at the bottom. Make sure they only release a few drops of water per hour. Put 2 of 500 ml bottles per plant or one, 1litre bottle per plant. They should keep the soil most for 2 days or more. When water runs out, top them up, here we will be banking on our hole to help us keep the moisture. You adjust accordingly depending on your environment.
When there are weeds in your patch you can pull them out manually. When you do make sure your keep all the roots covered, otherwise you will damage them. You won’t worry about the weeds when the pumpkins fully cover your pumpkin patch. Always be on the lookout for pests and damage to your crops. I assure you there is always an organic way to deal with each one.
Harvesting your pumpkins
I don’t know about your experiences but harvesting your pumpkins too soon is not good for the taste. It may also rob you of the tasty seeds since they will be immature. I usually harvest my pumpkins when they change their colour from the darker green to a whitish/faded one. They usually taste better this way.
You shouldn’t wait for the pumpkin vines to dry up either because the pumpkin also loses its taste. Usually, when it’s harvest time you start seeing both the pumpkin and the vines changing their colours. The leaves fall off and some of them turn yellow. It’s just better to harvest them right.
There are, however, people who have a taste for tiny pumpkins in their gourmet recipes. They taste good too, especially the combo of pumpkin leaves, flowers and tiny pumpkins. However, this will lower your overall pumpkin yield. Makes me wonder if the roots are the only thing that can’t be eaten on pumpkin plants. Or nobody has tried them yet!
One problem with pumpkins is that if you add too much manure, it will make them taste bad. I remember eating pumpkins with an undesirable sour/bitter taste. I traced it back to too much manure. So, too much of anything is never good.
These two articles may help you set up a very good pumpkin patch:
When my father told me of how a stranger taught him about setting up a pumpkin patch organically, I was out of words. I made it my goal to improve this method. I am still in the process of making it easier and better for all of us. A simple pumpkin patch can give your family healthy and nutrient-rich food. It may also help you improve your diet quality. Now that the rainy season will come in a few months, you can start your preparations now! Please leave a comment.