How to Grow a Milk Fed Pumpkin

Young fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series may want to try growing a prize-winning pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) by feeding it milk as Almanzo did in "Farmer Boy." Since there is disagreement among gardeners over whether his homespun method actually works, you and your children can have fun trying it for yourselves. You may even want to make an experiment out of the process by noting whether the milk-fed pumpkin grows larger than others in the patch.

African family looking at pumpkin
credit: LWA/Dann Tardif/Blend Images/Getty Images
Pumpkins are annual plants with trailing vines and large yellow flowers.

Plant the Pumpkins

After the danger of frost has passed in spring, sow pumpkin seeds when daytime temperatures have reached at least 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. For the largest pumpkins, plant a variety like "Atlantic Giant" or "Big Max" in a garden patch that receives full sun. Dig a shovelful of compost or composted manure into the soil before making a hill atop that spot, which is about 18 inches across and 4 inches tall. After sowing four seeds 1 inch deep in that hill, construct the next hill 6 feet from the first one until you have as many hills as you want plants. Keep the soil damp until the pumpkins begin to sprout. When the seedlings are 4 inches high, select the most vigorous plant in each hill and snip off the inferior ones. After the pumpkins reach grapefruit size, identify the healthiest specimen on each plant. Remove all other branches on that plant except the one on which the chosen pumpkin is growing. Snip off any extra fruits and flowers on that branch as well.

Prepare the Milk

Although Almanzo used a bowl of milk to feed his pumpkin, such an open container might attract free-roaming dogs, cats or wild animals. To avoid this, select a lidded container such as a milk jug or a screw-top jar. It should have a hole punched in its lid which is the same diameter as your wick. Fill the lidded container with 2 percent milk, dig a hole beneath the remaining pumpkin branch halfway between its roots and the pumpkin, and set the container in the hole. Some gardeners prefer to add about 1 tablespoon of sugar to the milk.

Insert the Wick

After the container is in place, dunk the length of candle or lantern wicking in the milk before feeding one end of it through the opening in the lid. If you don't have access to such wicking, substitute a thin length of thirsty material such as cotton toweling. Using a sharp knife, cut a shallow slit on the underside of the pumpkin branch just above the container and ease the end of the wick into that slit, being careful not to break or further damage the branch as you do so. To hold the wick in place, you may want to wrap the slit with a gauze bandage.

Feed the Pumpkin

Instead of the wick, some gardeners prefer the simpler method of watering the pumpkin plant once per day with 1 cup of milk. Others insert the wick into the stem of the pumpkin rather than into its vine. No matter how you decide to milk-feed your pumpkin, make sure its soil also receives at least 1 inch of water per week from rainfall or irrigation, and add more milk to the jar as necessary while the pumpkin grows.

Audrey Stallsmith

A former master gardener with a Bachelor of Arts in writing from Houghton College, Audrey Stallsmith has had three gardening-related mysteries published by WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House. Her articles or photos have also appeared in such publications as Birds & Blooms, Horticulture and Backwoods Home.