The quest for the perfect pumpkin each fall doesn’t start at the local patch. In fact, it starts up to 10 years prior for researchers like University of Georgia plant geneticist Cecilia McGregor. McGregor leads breeding efforts in the selective pumpkin variety called the ‘Orange Bulldog.’
“This variety is not the typical jack-o-lantern, appearing more like a large gourd, ranging in color from salmon to burnt orange,” explained McGregor. “The ‘Orange Bulldog’, however, reigns supreme in its disease-resistance.” As a result, the ‘Orange Bulldog’ provides a less labor-intensive crop for Georgia’s farmers.
The quest continues for the perfect pumpkin, however, so McGregor and her team plan to continue selecting desired traits from ‘Orange Bulldog’ with the hopes of creating more standardized fruit characteristics.
Pumpkins, it turns out, are not a crop for the faint of heart, especially in Georgia. From the more common downy and powdery mildews to plectosporium blight, disease affects many pumpkins. Add the humidity and heat of Georgia’s summers and disease pressures only increase for these already vulnerable plants.
Arguably, the most challenging part of pumpkin producing is fighting seasonality. Despite the increased pressures from summer heat, the majority of the pumpkin growth cycle occurs during the summer so they can be harvested in time for autumn celebrations. “On Nov. 1, a jack-o’-lantern pumpkin isn’t worth much, so we aim to harvest in late September to early October,” explains UGA Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist Tim Coolong. “That means we have to plant pumpkins in the summer, growing them during the most challenging conditions.”
Perfect Pumpkin Traits
As UGA Cooperative Extension agents hear there is interest in a certain crop from their local farmers and producers, they bring that inquiry to researchers like Coolong. And lately, pumpkins are all the rage.
That’s what inspires Coolong and his team to trial different pumpkin varieties. This year, the results were promising. “Despite the rain, we saw an increased yield, likely from our very regimented spray program,” Coolong said. After seeding, researchers immediately applied insecticides to control squash bugs and cucumber beetles. Then every seven days — sometimes every five, in wet weather — the team sprayed fungicides. This process took time, as pumpkins take an average of 70 to 90 days to grow from seed.
While Coolong and his team trial several varieties of pumpkins, they focus on breeds considered “traditional jack-o’-lantern” pumpkins. They carefully document disease-resistance, while also noting traits that comprise the ideal jack-o-lantern.
Beyond bright orange color and round shape, they also consider traits related to carving, such as suture (groove) depth and density. Even the color and stability of the “handle” or stem of the pumpkin is a selection factor.
Public demand fuels the process. “The public often doesn’t realize the hard work it takes and the long journey these pumpkins make before decorating their doorstep each fall. Farmers, producers, and researchers invest an incredible amount of time, effort and resources in growing these pumpkins,” said Coolong.
This article was adapted from, “The Bulldogs behind the Georgia jack-o’-lantern” by Carly Alyse Mirabile for the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences UGA Cooperative Extension (CAES) Newswire.