GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 26, 2013

Can we grow a Halloween pumpkin in our yard?

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: My son wants to grow a really big pumpkin this summer — I think he got the idea after seeing all the giants last year at the Topsfield Fair. I think I’ve convinced him that those are really one-in-a-million, but he still has his goal of a Halloween-sized pumpkin. Can he do this in a normal backyard that is very sunny? We’ve already started some seeds that are supposed to be giant pumpkins indoors in individual pots.

A: Yes, I’m sure that with some work, he can grow his own Halloween pumpkins. Does he know that there are also pumpkins that aren’t orange and grow in many sizes, and even some unusual-shaped ones?

Pumpkins are a warm-weather crop, so don’t be in a hurry to move your tiny plants outside. You can warm up the garden soil by covering it for a few sunny days with a piece of black plastic. Dig in some well-composed materials from the compost, remove the plastic sheet and transplant your seedlings, being careful not to disturb roots. Fertilize weekly with an all-purpose fertilizer.

Good luck to your son, and tell him that the winners at Topsfield are experienced growers who have tried to win the prize for many years.

Q: Now that it’s getting warmer, I’m anxious to remove my garden mulch. When can I begin removing the layers of mulch around the garden? I’m beginning to see green sprouts appear.

A: Go to it! You can certainly remove a covering around the perennials — you’ve probably already pulled the mulch off the first crocuses and snowdrops — but even if you don’t, they will survive.

The whole purpose of mulch is to temper the temperatures. Sunny days and subfreezing night cause the soil and roots to heave. Heaving causes damage. Plants that have heaved up from the ground can be gently replaced, but don’t step on them. Instead, gently dig and replace them at their proper growing depth. Be especially careful of peonies and irises, which are shallow rooters and shouldn’t be covered with too much soil. Remove mulch from tender shoots very carefully, by hand.

If you used compostable mulch like grass or leaves, it could be left to compost right on the bed. You won’t have to completely remove it, but pull it back from the base of the plants to prevent rot and insect damage.

If you used hay as mulch, it probably hasn’t rotted enough to leave it. Move it to the compost heap, where it can continue decomposing for a few more months, then bring it back to the garden.

Q: Everything seems to be sold for large gardens — seed, plants, fertilizers — and they’re things I would really like to try if I could get a smaller size. I’ve written to several companies, but they can’t seem to help. Can you offer any suggestions?

A: This is the time of year to choose a “garden buddy” — someone in your neighborhood with whom you can share plants, seeds, garden materials and even some specialty tools. You’ll save time and gasoline on trips to the nurseries and share information as you go through catalog s and trips out for supplies. Choose a first-time gardener, or someone who has knowledge to share about a specialty like roses or lilies. It might be wise to set budgets so there are no misunderstandings.

Q: My neighbor walks her dogs past my house every day, sometimes more than once. She is a very caring dog walker, picking up all solid matter, but there’s no way she can control the wet spots, which appear to be happening in the same spot every day. Now I’m beginning to see dead grass in the area. What can I do?

A: First, don’t be too quick to blame. Maybe it’s not only your neighbor’s dog’s fault — other dogs follow suit and may have used the same spot, over and over.

As a fix, remove the spot to a depth of 4 inches, fill it in with fresh top soil and reseed, or buy a piece of healthy sod. You’ll have a perfect lawn instantly. In either case, cover the damaged area with horticultural lime. Lime neutralizes the acid in the urine and will prevent the area from turning color, if caught in time.

You could also put up a sign that says, “Not a doggie park.”

Q: My corn plant, an inside plant, has grown so tall it really needs to be cut back. The leaves are only coming out of the top foot of the plant. I haven’t cut it back in the past because it has bloomed every winter. Suggestions?

A: Decide how much of a new plant you want to be left with. Cut the main stem back, remove two or three leaves and root the piece in water — or dip the cut end in a rooting compound and root it in peat or sand. Either way, be patient. Roots will form, and you’re on the way to a new corn plant.

You will have to give up on the wonderful but seldom-seen flowers — usually, corn plants take years to flower. The bare remaining stem might sprout if given good care.

This week’s dirt

While you’re out around the garden on the first sunny days, don’t go out without a pad and pencil. Inspect the garden and begin list-making — what has broken and will need pruning, and what will have to be replaced.

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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger is a periodic feature of Friday’s Living section. Reach Barbara at nsgardener@comcast.net or write c/o Gloucester Daily Times, 36 Whittemore St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.