14 Oct 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.
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.
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.”
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.
– 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.
– 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.
– 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…