October is a great time to visit a farm that offers a pumpkin patch. Not only are the fields ablaze with orange, you'll likely find other fun activities to enjoy including farmer’s markets, pumpkin chuckin’ contests, hay rides, corn mazes, and more.

A Brief Pumpkin History

Pumpkins belong in the Squash family (Cucurbitaceae) along with watermelons, cucumbers, and squash. If the idea of both a watermelon being a squash and a squash being a squash is too messy for you, family members are also known as cucurbits and includes zucchini which grow all over the world. Modern day squashes we're used to can trace their heritage back to wild cucurbits growing in Central America.

Archaeological evidence reveals these wild relatives existed as far back as the Pleistocene, when woolly mammoths and mastodons roamed the North American continent. Scientists have picked through fossilized mastodon dung that is some 30,000 years old and located seeds of these ancient fruits. No B.C. BS.

With the arrival of early humans, these prehistoric bitter-tasting fruits probably served a more utilitarian purpose as containers than a food source. The bitterness is attributed to the presence of cucurbitacin, a chemical that made the fruits unpalatable to most creatures.

These ancient humans were also good gardeners and by spreading seeds throughout the Americas, several different lineages of domestic squash arose. Selective cultivation produced less bitter fruit and sweeter tasting flesh, thus enabling humans to grow these ancient fruits for food.

When early European explorers returned to Europe, they brought with them squash, maize, tomatoes, and other plants native to North and South America. It's believed Cucurbita pepo is the cultivated species from which squash and pumpkin varieties and cultivars arose but this is still a subject of debate.

Growing Pumpkins

Pumpkins on Haystacks in front of a Barn

Pumpkins are a long season crop that does well in spacious, well drained areas that get full-sun since they're going to spread. Longer vines can reach 30 feet so don't mistake these for container or patio plants! Planting sites for these heavy feeders should include aged manure and compost. Though the vines like to sprawl, they can trail over barren ground, sidewalks, or gravel, as long as the growing hill has good rich and well drained soil. The planting hills, in tight spaces, might include everything from tires to raised beds to 5-gallon buckets.

Because pumpkins have a long growing season, generally around 75-100 frost-free days, the timing of their planting is critical. You want to avoid frosts and excessive soil moisture, especially in spring. Pumpkins don’t like the cold, so if your harvest is going to send them through cold weather, cover your plants to prevent damage from frosts.

Seeds are sown directly in the soil once the temperature reaches at least 70 degrees, or start the seeds indoors and harden them off before planting outside. If the temperatures drop, protect the plants with covers. Check your zone or extension service for planting dates.

Pumpkins also need a fair amount of deep watering but avoid soaking the leaves and fruits which may rot if the sun doesn’t dry off the foliage. Viruses and non-beneficial insects can also do a lot of damage, so vigilance is key when growing pumpkins.

Pumpkins have both male and female flowers; some early flowers may not form fruits because they are male flowers or because the male flowers haven’t opened yet to provide pollen for fertilization. Bees are the primary pollinators, so maintaining a healthy pollinator garden is also critical to growing the best pumpkins.

A Pumpkin for Any Shape and Size

A Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin in front of other, smaller pumpkins

The number of pumpkin varieties is astounding. Grown for edibility, decorations, or jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and even colors. There is the ‘Casper’ variety that is ghostly white and ‘Blue Doll’ and ‘Jarrahdale’ varieties that are bluish. ‘Harvest Jack’, ‘Jack O’ Lantern’, ‘Connecticut Field’, and ‘Autumn Gold’ are grown for Halloween carving pumpkins, while others such as ‘Baby Bear’ and ‘Baby Pam’ are grown for eating. And if you really want to go jumbo, there’s ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ that produces fruits that can weigh over 100 pounds!

If space is a problem, miniature varieties such as ‘Jack-Be-Little’ or ‘Baby-Boo’ take up less space and may be trellised along fences.

Pumpkin Patches, Hay Rides, and Corn Mazes

Corn Maze Entrance

In addition to growing fields of pumpkins, many farms utilize their land for extra fall attractions. Some farmers offer hay rides, picnic areas, or market items such as eggs, vegetables, meat, or crafts for sale in addition to the pumpkins.

Based upon labyrinths and hedge mazes of Europe, some which date to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the modern mazes involves a pattern cut into a field of corn or, at times, sorghum. Farmers come up with their own ideas or work with specialized companies to create these intricate mazes. Varieties of corn that produce strong stalks are selected over those with higher yields.

The first corn maze in the United States was created in 1993 in east-central Pennsylvania. “The Amazing Maize Maze” covered over 3 acres and had nearly 2 miles of pathways. The image of a giant dinosaur – Cornelius the Cob-asaurus – was the centerpiece of the design.

Back then, corn mazes were cut into ankle-high fields of corn with simple tools such as string, pin flags, compass or GPS, mowers, and tape measurers. Transferring the image of the maze from graph paper to field might take several weeks to create. Today, GPS equipped mowers can download a corn maze file and cut the pattern in a day or two. There are even GPS controlled seed planters that will skip the open walkways when the seed is first being planted.

During the growing season, farmers weed out unwanted plants or pull up stray corn plants growing in the walkways. At times, the corn may be planted in double rows to maximize the "wall" effect between the rows.

To help visitors navigate their maze, farmers provide either paper maps or let maze-goers use aerial images on their smartphones to find their way through the design. A fun and popular fall activity, some mazes stay open during the evening to create a nocturnal challenge!

To find a nearby corn maze, visit www.cornmazesamerica.com.