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Patch Work: At Bates Nut Farm, the Planting Team Gives Us the Skinny on Growing Plus-Sized Pumpkins

You could say that it’s one of the very first important decisions we ever make in our lives, a high-stakes, “choose wisely” kind of childhood moment.

We’re talking of course about picking out pumpkins every October: so much hinges on choosing a squash of the right size, shape, color and carve-ability. As a kid ensconced in corduroy living 10 minutes away from DC, Chantal would escape to pumpkin patches that churned out a fully country experience: hayrides, scarecrows and live fiddling. Ryan, by contrast, grew up in a farm town in Connecticut where hay was not a novelty, so his pumpkin picking experiences were more straightforward and often happened at the supermarket.

Last weekend we visited a spectacular pumpkin patch, one on a scale that, ahem, squashed all others we’d experienced. Opened in 1921 and located on 100 acres in Valley Center, CA, Bates Nut Farm is celebrating its 50th year producing its famed field of cucurbits. About 12,000 pumpkin seeds are planted at Bates every year, in varieties that include the mammoth Prizewinner (this year’s record: 165 pounds; all time: 245 pounds), the squat and whimsically ribbed Fairytale, alabaster Ghostly Lumina pumpkins, and the eerily gray-green-blue Jarrahdale. Butternut and long-necked squash are also grown on the property. And thousands more gourds (including the traditional Halloween jack o’ lantern variety) are brought in to be sold in a cheerful atmosphere full of live music, contests, hay bales and food stands selling BBQ, kettle corn and bratwurst.

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Visitors from across Southern California have flocked to Bates Nut Farm since the ’60s.

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There are two active Prizewinner patches this year at Bates Nut Farm. The larger patch, above, is located on the west side of the property.

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A Prizewinner (right) shows off its size among the dramatically lobed Fairytale pumpkins.

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This bed of Ghostly Lumina pumpkins creates the perfect fall photo booth.

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Jarrahdale pumpkins were our favorite Cucurbita cultivar.

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Bates Nut Farm brings in jack o’ lantern pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) to meet popular demand.

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We found the above selections of squash in large cardboard bins. Left to right, top to bottom: Wee Bee Littles, tiger squash, acorn squash, butternut squash, turban squash, spaghetti squash, and mini pumpkins in white and orange.

Goes without saying that this is the stuff traditions are made of.

“You just see that the kids are so excited to be here — that’s the best part of my job,” says Sherrie Ness, whose great-grandfather Gilbert Bates planted the farm’s first walnut tree in 1921. Today she runs Bates Nut Farm with her husband Tom Ness. “Just this week on Facebook someone put up a photo of when they were here 30 years ago, and now they’re bringing their daughter.”

Things were already busy when we arrived at 9:15 AM last Saturday; the farm was expecting 30,000 people that weekend, and expects the same number this weekend. Our first stop was to the farm’s store that sells the numerous varieties of candies and nuts that are processed and packed (and in the case of the nuts, roasted) onsite. Inside the store, there was already a small crowd forming in front of the fudge case that included — wait for it — pumpkin praline fudge.

Mmmmmmm…

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Sherrie Ness, whose great-grandfather Gilbert Bates founded the farm, now runs the business with her husband Tom.

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Bates Nut Farm started off as a walnut producer. Today, it roasts and packages a wide variety of nuts, in addition to packaging dried fruit and candy, and making some seriously delicious homemade fudge.

 

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Pumpkin praline is a new fudge flavor this year, offered alongside pumpkin pie, chocolate, vanilla and cappuccino flavors.

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The kitchen can hardly keep up with the pumpkin fudge demand during the month of October.

Back to the actual pumpkins. It is a sight like no other, the fields of outrageously orange ‘Prizewinners’ that Bates grows and that visitors wander with wheelbarrows (pro tip: get your wheelbarrow ASAP, likely abandoned in the parking lot) carting pumpkins that easily reach 90, 100 pounds a pop. The gourds’ shriveled vines crunch underfoot. It’s a scene worthy of Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin.

To rotate the crops, the patches swap sides of the property every year on the farm. (Bates stopped growing walnuts in 1972; the trees’ productivity declines at around age 50.) It was in 1963 the pumpkin patch went public. That legacy started with a phone call.

“My grandfather had someone call him one day and say, ‘we have this inner-city school that would love to have a farm experience,’” Sherrie says. “The school came out and he gave them these pumpkins. The teachers were so excited that these kids could just come out from downtown San Diego and be able to see how a pumpkin grew.”

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During our behind-the-scenes tour, we run into Tom Ness (right) and farmer Victor Paz.

We also caught up with Victor Paz, who plants and tends the pumpkins every year in tandem with a small growing team that includes Sherrie’s husband Tom. Below, Victor and Tom share some behind-the-scenes intel on Bates’ pumpkin-growing process:

A leading challenge to growing pumpkins? Mildew, says Victor. Also, coyotes will bite through the water lines; crows, rabbits and squirrels will eat the plant in its earliest stages; and crows will return to peck right into the squash itself. (Black fencing has been helpful against the rabbits and squirrels.)

Another helpful fix? Spreading organic manure has helped to suppress certain pests like nematodes. A drip irrigation system (to replace overhead watering) has also helped the pumpkins thrive.

By the way, pumpkins and its fellow squash are fruits, because they grow from flowers. Members of the Cucurbita genus produce male and female flowers; the latter, when pollinated, produces a gourd.

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We take to the fields with Victor and Sherrie. The farm also grows ornamental Indian and purple corn.

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Crows continue to peck after the pumpkins are fully ripe.

– At Bates, the seeds for those enormous Prizewinner pumpkins are planted in the first week of June; they need 120 days to reach full maturity.

– Seeds for smaller varieties like Fairytale, Jarrahdale and Ghostly Lumina are planted in May and harvested before the Prizewinner.

– Seeds are sown by hand. “We still do it the old-fashioned way,” says Victor: A person sits on an antique seeder that attaches to a tractor, and plants the seeds along lines that have been imprinted into the dirt in a checkerboard pattern.

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Victor describes how he uses an antique seeder to sow the seeds in May and June.

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Cucurbita vines are like umbilical cords; they shrivel up and die after the fruits reach their mature size. The Ghostly Lumina pumpkin, shown here, prefers its soil a little sandier than the others, Victor says.

– Despite its association with crisp temperatures, pumpkins like hot and dry growing conditions.

– Growth accelerates in August, and in September the pumpkins turn from yellow to orange.

– Leaves protect pumpkins from getting burned in the sun.

– Pumpkins grow on vines that provide nourishment, like an umbilical cord. Stems are cut from the cord before the patch is opened for business, but ripe pumpkins will often detach on their own.

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Squash vines have male and female flowers on the same vine.The female will develop into fruit while the male blooms persist.

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A late bloomer among the Cucurbita maxima.

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With a little bit of heat from the sun, seeds will actually start to germinate inside the larger pumpkins!

– Every year Bates Nut Farm starts with new seeds; planting with seeds from the pumpkin crop isn’t advised because “you don’t know what you’re going to get, because it’s a hybrid seed,” Victor says.

– What happens to the pumpkins come November 1? Farmers will take leftovers to feed to cattle and pigs. The Wild Animal Park has also come by in the past to pick up squash for its rhinos.

– This year’s heaviest Prizewinner pumpkin weighed in at 165 pounds. Bates’ biggest of all time: 245 pounds. They cost 45 cents a pound.

– Due to the cooler-than-average temperatures in June and July, the pumpkins this year are smaller, but they’re also more plentiful.

We brought home a Prizewinner, two Jarrahdales, one Fairytale, one cartoonishly shaped turban squash, one butternut squash and an assortment of  minis. What did we do with our haul? We gave our yard a Halloween makeover — watch this space for the full report.

Until then, the gourd times continue in the photos below, where you’ll find ponies, a hay maze, wheelbarrow shenanigans, and some seriously ghostly squash…

—TH

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A crop to be proud of.

 

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Dogs are welcome! Here, Magnum enjoys the sun and fellow giants.

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Chantal and Sherrie show off their Turban squash picks.

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Kabocha squash are great for cooking.

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Cucurbita pepos, aka jack o’ lanterns.

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Visitors can get sweeping views of the pumpkin patches on the hayride. The wagons were built by Sherrie’s father.

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This scarecrow tucked itself into a pistachio tree.

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We’re too big for this ride…says the pony that’s giving us the side eye.

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Bates Nut Farm will host a gourmet food truck competition in the patch on October 26th, 2013. We were tempted to have pierogis for lunch, but that line…

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Free concerts are offered throughout the season.

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Kids take a break from pumpkin lugging.

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One benefit of painting instead of carving: Your pumpkins won’t go bad as quickly.

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Guests get lost in the straw maze.

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After lunch we scavenged a wheelbarrow and went in search of the cucurbits of our dreams.

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About 50 lbs…

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Wheelbarrow is the only way to fly.

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In the end, we skipped the jack o’ lanterns in favor of some of the more unusual squash varieties.

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The haul.

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Did we say 50 lbs? Actually, it’s 53 lbs.

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A large oak tree greets visitors of Bates Nut Farm off of Woods Valley Road in Valley Center, CA.

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Planning a trip to Bates Nut Farm? Come early! We arrived at 9:15 AM (top), and by the time we left at 1 PM (bottom), the parking lot was bursting.