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What's big, round, orange and not there?

No pumpkins.

It's official. We have a complete wash-out on the pumpkins.

Last Pumpkin Standing

Growing your food from seed always starts with an extended exercise in patience. While you're waiting for the first cotyledons (the seed leaves) to emerge from the ground, it's best to go and get on with something else. Hovering over them for a few days (radishes) to a few weeks (lettuces, parsnips) is not going to encourage them to do their thing any faster.

If you're trying to lengthen the growing season by starting them off in pots in a more controlled environment - warmer ground, more frequent watering - you add the extra risk of them not being happy when you transplant them.

I have old books which say you must never try to transplant sweetcorn, and you should always start onions off in pots. Well, I break both of these. My sweetcorn zea mais usually gets going in March, inside. And onions I always direct sow.

But of all the plants which give you the most stress when you transplant them, I swear it's the cucurbitaceae - the pumpkins, gourds and courgettes. The bigger the pumpkin, the more the stress.

After transplanting them into their forever home, they seem to take quite a while to get used to their new surroundings, and can frequently sit there for two weeks or more, apparently contemplating their next move.

As soon as they are happy, they explode into leaf production, doubling in size every couple of days. That time of stillness, though, is when the slugs and snails have their chance. A single, small, slimey SOB can do so much damage to a baby pumpkin in a single night that it never recovers.

Now, I don't really have much of a slug problem - too many song birds for that - but this year, not a single one of the pumpkins got off to a start. Instead of sitting quietly for a few days, or even a week, they went no-where at all. Not one of them really got going. And if they don't, if they sit for two, three, even four weeks, perfectly healthy, perfectly ok, just biding their time and waiting to see if they like it in their new home before committing to actually being there, I'm not sure it's possible to keep the slugs off them for that long.

And so it was.

I've made four successive sowings of pumpkins. Each new wave to replace the one which went before. I was hoping to put 20 in the potager and a further 50 in the vineyard. The last sowing is still in pots. I am nervous about putting them out. I don't have much hope.

So What Went Wrong?
  1. Climate change

  2. Pig shit.

  3. The Pirate not adapting

Over winter, it snowed maybe four times. The snow never melted, so it was white for almost the full 6 months, but not a lot of it came down from the sky. From the start of the year until the end of June, it rained twice. It has rained a bit more since then, thank goodness, but the ground is dry. Really dry. I started mulching really heavily as soon as I could. Almost nothing has ended up on the compost heap this year. Grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste, it has almost all gone on the potager as mulch.

My main source of water-for-the-veggies has dried up.

50 pumpkin plants make more than a tonne of pumpkins. That's several months of pig food.

I even used all of the winter pig-house muck as mulch. Again, none of this went on the compost heaps, it was all used as top-dressing on the pumpkin break.

Pig Poop and Pirates

Top dressing with the 30 or so wheelbarrows of winter pig shit was probably a mistake.

The pig poop is not really, as cow or horse would, decomposing on the surface. The idea of using it as top-dressing is that it keeps the rain in, the sun off, and also, that it very slowly rots, and the goodness gets carried into the ground below either by worms and beetles, or by rain. Well, it isn't doing that. It's drying out and turning to dust. This cannot possibly have the effect of keeping the ground below moist.

There is very little water in the ground. The pig-shit seems to be making it worse. With ground this dry, the potted-out pumpkins aren't getting a start, because they aren't making their roots below ground. This is what they are actually doing when they are getting used to being where they are. They are having a look around under ground, to see if this is where they want to be. This year, they did not want to be there. The ground was too dry and no amount of watering around the plants can make up for months of spring rain not rained. It didn't come, and the ground won't recover until either a decent amount of rain comes, or until next year, after a good snowy winter.

So the young plants got eaten and as they did, I made successional sowings. Three or four times, until I ran out of seeds. Each time, I planted them out when they hit two or three main leaves, watered them well, and waited nervously for them to get a start before the slugs came for them.

I believe this was the second go. At this point, I'm still mass sowing, hoping for those 50 pumpkin plants I had planned for way back in winter.

Just to be clear, this is not a problem with slugs. I really don't have many of them, and it's not as if the plants all disappeared overnight. Every two or three days - possible as little as once a week - I would come out in the morning, and one or two plants would simply be gone. The only insinuation that it was there at all might be an inch of stalk poking out of the ground, still glistening with slug trail in the light of the rising sun.

And then, I would plant some more out, exactly as I would normally plant them out - at two or three main leaves.

Looking ahead.

Next year, I need to do something differently. And I don't know what. So I am going to try doing as many different things as I can think of

  • Early direct sowing (that is, straight into the ground where they are going to grow)

  • Early direct sowing under glass

  • Mass direct sowing (sowing so many that they slugs can't keep up)

  • Direct sowing much later in the season

  • Very early sowing in big pots and planting out when they have at least 5 adult leaves

  • Successional pot sowings, later planting out (5 leaves)

  • Whatever else occurs to me

And, of course, pig poop from now on only gets used when it has been thoroughly decomposed.

The learning, though, is that I am an idiot. I let the same thing happen over and over, and I didn't change much at all. The (forced) successional sowings this year didn't give any useable data. They all got eaten.

This was the last sowing. I found a few seeds tucked down the back of the sofa. It's not the dozens I was doing at the start. Getting desperate.

Despite my entire raison d'être is learning how to grow food under climate change, I somehow didn't learn a damn thing this year. I guess I gathered enough data (eaten pumpkins) to know that I need to change something, that I need to learn, and putting this into practice next year is clearly better than trying the same again again, it really would have been better to figure that out a month ago. As it is, I'm down a significant amount of zoodles, chutney and more than a tonne of pig food.

Let's try again next year.

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Aug 07, 2022

Cover your pumpkin seedlings with closhes made with 2 L milk, fruit juice bottles until they get going. Keeps them warm too. Then spray with garlic spray. Slugs hate it (so do rabbits, possums, most other insects) but the plants wont mind

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