Dec 21, 2009Pumpkins can Grow in Florida, but are They Worth the Risk?
Pumpkins in Florida?
That’s crazy talk. It’s way too hot to be able to grow them that far south.
Then again, how many people have tried it?
Doug Gergela, for one. The University of Florida (UF) researcher, with help from other Extension personnel, has proven that you can grow nice pumpkins in the northeastern part of the state. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap, but it can be done. There’s a potential market for them, too, thanks to all the transplanted northerners living in the area.
Northeast Florida is potato and cabbage country, but one of the responsibilities of the Florida Partnership for Water, Agriculture and Community Sustainability at Hastings – a UF research and demonstration facility – is to find alternative crops for area growers. Gergela, a research coordinator at the facility, has been experimenting with pumpkins since he started working there in 2001.
Gergela grew up on a potato and vegetable farm in New York and was a research technician for Cornell University before he moved to Florida. When he came to the Hastings facility, he found researchers already experimenting with pumpkins. With his background growing and studying vegetables in more northern climes, he helped give the pumpkin program a little more focus.
July in Florida is probably the worst possible time and place to plant pumpkins, but you must brave the extreme heat if you want to harvest by October. Last year, the researchers planted July 16 and were picking by Oct. 1. It was one of their better years, Gergela said. They grew some “beautiful” pumpkins.
They plant between 1.5 and 2 acres of pumpkins per year. Gergela has tried all kinds of varieties, seeking those that grow best in the extreme conditions. Successes include Racer, Neon, New Rocket, Cinderella, Long Island Cheese, Dickinson Field, Harvest Princess and Prizewinner; smaller varieties like Lil Pump Ke Mon and Hooligan have shown promise; 20 Karat Gold, which he tried for the first time last year, did “quite well.”
They hand-plant seeds at an in-row spacing of 2.75 feet, with 6.5 feet between row centers. They spread silver reflective plastic mulch over the rows to disrupt insects – especially whitefly – and to keep the ground cool. Black plastic mulch gets too hot.
Silver reflective mulch in hot, bright weather can be “blinding,” however. When planting, you have to wear sunglasses and sunscreen, Gergela said.
They incorporate fertilizer into the soil, fumigate and lay the plastic. They poke holes in the plastic and apply Admire as a pre-plant drench, for systemic control of whiteflies and aphids. They seed by hand two to three days later. They also pick by hand, measure and weigh the pumpkins and rate them for color, stem length and thickness, ribbing and overall appearance, Gergela said.
Sometimes, they’ll side-dress calcium nitrate to get more nitrogen to the plant runners, he said.
The researchers stick to a strict fungicide program. They spray for fungus and downy mildew on a two-to-three-day schedule for three or four weeks. They use Bravo, Maneb, copper, occasionally Quadris; they use Xentari or DiPel for worm control. They want to make sure the spraying doesn’t kill their honeybees. They use two hives for pollination, Gergela said.
Northeast Florida gets a fair amount of rain, but growers there still have to irrigate when necessary. Gergela waters his pumpkins the same way local growers water their potatoes and cabbage: subsurface seepage irrigation. Every 60 feet, a furrow has been plowed out and filled with water. As water from a spigot flows down to the drainage end, it seeps below the root zone of the pumpkin plants but stays on top of the clay layer below, he said.
High temperatures suppress female flower production, limiting fruit set per acre and the eventual size of the pumpkins. Florida is never going to produce the large jack-o-lantern types they grow up north or out west, Gergela said.
“We might be able to get 8-, 10- or 15-pounders, but we’re not going to get 30-40 pound Aladdins.”
Florida has other dangers besides heat. A tropical storm or hurricane can wipe out a crop. Smaller, less intense storms cause bacteria, mildew and fungus to thrive.
Worth the risk?
So, are Florida pumpkins good enough for consumers to buy?
Gergela thinks they are. He has donated them to graduate students and elementary school students and sold them as part of a fundraiser. The reception was good, he said.
Even if they’re good enough, will the state’s farmers risk growing them?
That remains to be seen. Some have shown interest and have visited the Hastings pumpkin fields, but none have started growing their own. They’re still sitting on the sidelines, he said.
They have good reason. Growing pumpkins in the Sunshine State is expensive. Florida growers can’t compete with the cost advantage of Midwest growers. Inputs like plastic, fertilizer, seed, insecticide and fungicide all add up, he said.
Where they can compete is in the u-pick/agritourism sector. Farm marketers looking to diversify could tap into the “snowbird” market: displaced northerners nostalgic for the pumpkin fields of their youth.
But even that has its risks. Area temperatures have been known to reach 90˚ F in October, when customers would be picking.
“People can’t get excited about picking pumpkins at 90 degrees,” Gergela said. “They’d rather be at the beach.”