Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

16 tons and what do you get? Lots of pumpkins, squash and gourds

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:03 AM

E-mail article | Print version

ST. CLOUD, Minn. —It's easy to call John and Jennifer Thull's harvest phenomenal.

They picked 16 tons of pumpkins, squash and gourds from less than four acres.

The Thulls called the harvest "amazing" during a Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference break-out session in St. Cloud.

They work at the University of Minnesota Research Center near Chanhassen and sold the produce at The Apple Store at the Universty of Minnesota.

Some of the varieties were heavier producers than others, John said.

"What's the difference between squash, pumpkins and gourds? There is a blurred line there," he said. "People think of the orange pumpkins and squash as more of the edible types, but there is a line there."

Jennifer, a culinary chef, prepares the squash for their family meals. Through tasting, they learned the unique tastes of each one.

"We eat a lot of squash," John said.

Some varieties have the traditional shapes of squash, pumpkins and gourds, and others have their own personality. Some are warty -- one looks like it's two pumpkins grown together. There are large ones and small ones.

The Thulls start their seed search in December. It takes about 12 hours as they compare notes on the previous year's crop and look through several seed catalogs.

Next comes the field preparation. It takes about a week, from late May to early June, to get it all done, they said.

Because of their variety research, much of the work is done by hand. The plots are small. Each is meticulously mapped by Jennifer.

They wait for warm soils, about 75 degrees, before planting. They take advantage of early season ground moisture, choosing the soil types according to the desired crop.

They plant three to four seeds per hill and thin that down to two vines. Much of the weeding is completed by tilling or hand weeding. They are experimenting with herbicides, but they haven't had to spray much due to their plot rotations.

They were worried that constant rainfall early in the season might cause rot. To combat it, they planted varieties at different locations.

When it quit raining, there was enough soil moisture to carry the crop through the season. They were blessed by a good frost in the fall with temperatures about 28 to 30 degrees. The leaves died off and made it easy to find the pumpkins.

Customer favorites include heirloom and native varieties, they said.

Queensland Blue hails from Australia. It's a large mid-season variety with big leaves and is great for eating.

American Tondo is an Italian heirloom that looks like a bunch of bananas. It's not good for consumption, but it makes a great display, Jennifer said. American Tondo is a later pumpkin, about 100 to 110 day, and sets its fruit late.

St. Petersburg is another variety that has the highest beta carotene of any vegetable. It has an orange flesh and makes a great meal.

Shishigatini is another longer season variety from Japan. It has a long storage and has become popular.

Native American varieties include dishpan cushaw. Historians believe it dates back to the Mayans, she said. It has a nice flesh inside with variance of color. It is an earlier variety.

The Hopi pale gray came out of Arizona and is a longer season variety. It has great flesh but not much of a seed cavity resulting in more "meat" for eating. It is similar to the Hubbard family of squashes.

Batopilas is from Mexico. The seeds, when dry, will pull the flesh from the seed making it look like a Chinese character on the seed, John said. It's not very tasty and was grown more to use as storage like a water bottle.

They grew 43 varieties of orange pumpkins. They wanted thick stems, disease resistance, lots of variety for carving, durability and small and miniature pumpkins for kids to pick up, they said. The Howden Biggie was a popular one for the Thulls, they said.

White pumpkins have also grown in popularity. They have a tendency to get sunburn and may appear more tan, Jennifer said. Snowball was a big hit among buyers.