Ever wonder how your favorite pumpkin patch grows its pumpkins? Or how the pumpkin you grabbed at the farmer’s market came to be? Here’s how.
ATWOOD, Mich.—On a slightly chilly morning in northern Michigan, Eddie Veenstra approaches his increasingly tangled crop of pumpkins and looks them over. Dark green leaves—some tall, reaching toward the sky, others short, crowded by their neighbors—stare back at him.
He kneels down to examine one Styrian pumpkin, distinguished from other pumpkins by its almost white exterior and green stripes. Feeling the stem, Veenstra feels a dry vine. It’s ready to be picked, he thinks.
Veenstra, along with his partner, Rosie Said, sell produce at local farmer’s markets in Michigan’s northwest corridor. They work primarily at a local farm, selling their bounty of fruits and vegetables nearby, but also grow their own vegetables. A year ago, they prepped the land their crops are currently calling home. This year, their first diving into the pumpkin trade, they are seeing the rewards of their hard work.
“We planted purple corn, different squashes, including pumpkins,” Veenstra told The ‘Gander. “We’ve got tomatoes out there, potatoes, snap peas and lettuce and kale, amongst other things. Different herbs as well.
“(We’ve) got a little bit of everything, honestly, going on right now.”
The pumpkins grown by Veenstra and Said can be used at home for their own personal dishes or Halloween decorations. They also can sell them locally at a farmer’s market. Veenstra says the process of growing pumpkins begins months before crooked smiles glow before candlelight and children gawk at them while dressed as witches or mummies.
The path pumpkins take from garden to front porches around Michigan begins in a small, baby pot and warm temperatures.
Planting the Seeds
In Michigan, growing pumpkins takes a lot of work. For Veenstra and Said, operating on a small patch of land in Atwood, Michigan, located southwest of Charlevoix, the process began last year by preparing the land for planting.
“We had to tear out a bunch of shrubs and stuff and then basically lay down a bunch of mulch and stuff to get the soil ready,” Veenstra said.
For the pumpkins specifically, the process begins in the early-to-mid months of the year, preferably in a warm temperature inside, Veenstra said. It’s not like with some garden fruits or vegetables, where a crop begins by laying a seed in the ground and hoping it grows up with a good mixture of sunlight and water.
“With us being in Michigan, we have a pretty short growing season compared to a lot of other places in America,” Veenstra says. “So, what a lot of farmers will do and what we did to kind of take advantage of technology is we will plant the little seed in these little baby pots, basically. You plant it in the dirt, we put it in a mini greenhouse in this room in my mom’s house that had grow lights attached to it and a little spritzer that we did, morning and night.”
The seeds being planted in the small pots are called “starts,” Veenstra says. He also said he uses open-pollinated Michigan pumpkin seeds, hopeful it will help grow the pumpkins in Michigan’s harsh climate.
Nurturing the Pumpkin
The pumpkin seedlings stay in the baby pots for a while, Veenstra says, until planters are fairly certain there won’t be another frost. In Michigan, frost is the common pain in the side for many farmers, where temperatures will drop below freezing as late as early June in some years.
That low temperature can kill the blossoms of many plants. In northern and western Michigan, where cherry farmers are common, planters are familiar with the troubles of Michigan frosts. Stretches of plants will turn up little or no fruit.
Veenstra plays it safe. He waits until the soil is warm enough that he is sure his pumpkin seedlings won’t die.
“So, we started inside and once it gets to a certain size—maybe like, 3 inches tall or so, and once it’s warm enough, you put it in the ground,” he said. “You kind of water it to begin with, but we’ve had pretty good rain so we don’t irrigate. They’ve just taken well to it and grown pretty prolifically.”
It takes a few months for the pumpkins to grow to the massive fruits many know as Jack-O-Lanterns and other yard ornaments. The process of growing pumpkins shows they can be quite territorial.
“They have kind of taken over where we planted them,” Veenstra joked. “Rosie did this thing where she had this big mound of mulching stuff and planted garlic in the center of it and then planted different things on the side. Well, this particular area, the pumpkins are put planted on the side of the little hill, and they’ve been just going in every single direction. I don’t even know how many are actually out there.”
As of mid-September, Veenstra said he and Said have plucked some of their pumpkins while others are still growing. Some are still flowering. The leaves on the crop are large, dark green, and viny. They help conceal how much bounty the crop has in store.
When you dig through the leaves, the pumpkins basically tell you they’re ready to be plucked, Veenstra says.
“Part of the vine that attaches to the fruit, you know like that kind of handle on the top of a pumpkin, that will start to wither and turn brown and dry out,” he said. “So, it kind of shows you, and you just kind of pull it off the vine. It’s as simple as that.”
Next Step? Profit.
Michigan is one of the largest pumpkin producers in the US, producing pumpkins that are primarily used for the creation of Jack-O-Lanterns, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture. In 2019, Michigan and three other states trailed Illinois for the most pumpkin acres produced, averaging between 4,700 and 5,600 acres, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In recent years, Michigan-made pumpkins have generated nearly $10 million for the state, according to Michigangrown.org.
Veenstra says he’s unsure how many of the pumpkins he and Said have grown will end up being sold at a local farmer’s market, where pumpkins either are sold by the pound or by the pumpkin. Much of this crop was experimental, he says, with it being a new gardening area.
What they don’t sell from this year’s crop will become a mix of Jack-O-Lanterns, pumpkin pies, or baked dishes. The list of pumpkin recipes is endless, Veenstra says, noting some creative ways he and Said have prepared the fruits to eat.
“These ones will probably just cook ourselves, and, you know, we’ll cook some and bring it to like family functions, things like that,” he said, referring to some pumpkins he’s already plucked.