Monday, November 19, 2012

Following The Pumpkin Vine: by Tom Butzler

I keep my mind sharp every month of October by harvesting my pumpkin variety trial.  Although it may seem like mindless tedious work, it actually stretches my brain to the breaking point. 
Before I get to the mind-bending exercise of pumpkin harvesting, let me explain the purpose of this pumpkin variety trial.  Varietal selection influences all other production practices in pumpkin production. Numerous options are available and it is not uncommon for a variety to perform well in one part of the country and poorly in another. This can make selection time-consuming and leave growers unsure about how new varieties will perform on their farms.  So we ask vegetable seed companies to send us their new releases and standards to see how they perform in Pennsylvania.
So this year, we trialed out 38 varieties.  It might not seem like a lot but it is replicated three times with six plants in each replication which covers about one acre of ground.  Still, it isn’t much compared to the 6-7,000 acres of pumpkin production in the rest of Pennsylvania. 
It is the harvesting that sets my trial apart from the rest of the pumpkin acreage in the Commonwealth.  With a normal harvest, pumpkins are cut from the vines, placed in drive rows, and moved into bins on a tractor.  Or it may be a pick-your-own operation where the consumer does the harvesting.
With my trial, the question becomes, “what plot did this pumpkin originate from”?  Pumpkin plants are like kids; you put them in one place but they tend to wander about.  Pumpkin vines will crawl 20 feet, over other rows and then set a pumpkin.  Not a problem in a normal operation but it is a challenge in a variety test. 

My mental exercise during the harvest is taking a pumpkin, without cutting it from the plant (very important!), and following the vine back to where it was planted.  This requires me to gently move leaves and other vines out of the way so I can follow the green ‘trail’ over other plots.  At times, I have to roll other pumpkins out of the way as the vine was under some other seed company’s large pumpkin. 

Rows of pumpkins after tracking down to specific plots
The reason I don’t cut the pumpkin from the vine right away is that about 50 percent of the time, I get lost.  I’m following the vine, and it intermingles with vines from other non-related varieties in some sort of pumpkin vine intersection.  As I track my designated vine out of the mess, I sometimes get confused and end up pursuing a totally different vine.   Once the mistake is realized, I go back to the original pumpkin (which is uncut from the vine!) and start all over. 
Do this with over 600 plants and it becomes one giant puzzle.  After chasing vines throughout the fields for a few days, I am ready for a good crossword puzzle.  In my next column, I will talk about some of the results.

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