Little House Science: The Milk-Fed Pumpkin

I think there might be more science in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy” than in all the other Little House books combined, and that, my friends, is a huge, heavy, awesome load of science!

Farmer Boy

“Farmer Boy” took place about ten years before Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. Almanzo was a farmer boy through and through.

“Farmer Boy” is the story of Laura’s husband Almanzo’s boyhood, on a huge farm in New York State, and since his family grew or made almost everything they ate, wore, or used in any way, the science is everywhere!

Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin was always one of my favorite science experiments; we grew pumpkins, and my mother always had at least one milk-fed pumpkin because, as a little girl, SHE had loved the Little House books, too!  Some people don’t believe this works, but I can tell you that it does, because we  have done it for many years.

Growing an extra-large, extra-heavy, 4H Fair blue ribbon pumpkin is a lot easier than it sounds.  You won’t need any fancy equipment; you’ll just need a little time and a few things you’ve already got around the house.  Oh, and you’ll have to make friends with a little science called “osmosis.”

Go out into your pumpkin patch and choose a healthy, blooming vine.  Cut off all the stems and branches except one, and on the one vine you’ve saved, cut off all the blossoms except one.

Take a sharp knife – get an adult to help you with this step! – and cut a very small slit on the underside of the vine, between the root and the blossom.  The slit should be quite shallow – just enough to barely touch the “juices” inside the vine. There should be no chance of the vine splitting apart; the cut in the vine must be shallow!  Underneath the slit, dig a little hole in the dirt and place a Mason jar filled with milk in the hollow.  Almanzo used a little bowl, but a Mason jar has less chance of spilling!

Be careful with the sharp knife, & don't make the cut very deep!

Be careful with the sharp knife, & don’t make the cut very deep!

Actually, you can put a variety of liquids in the jar, to feed your pumpkin.  Tea, fertilizer-enriched water, any kind of milk or cream, or any combination of “nutritious” liquids.  Mom used to pour all the leftover milk, tea, and coffee from the dinner table and take it out to pour into the Mason jar.

Now you need a wick, to draw the milk into the vine.  Almanzo used a candle wick, and so can you if you have a candle wick handy.  Mom always used a strip of cotton cloth.  I’ve used lantern wicking, and I think that works best.  Get the narrow kind.

Make sure the end of the wick is inside the shallow cut.

Make sure the end of the wick is inside the shallow cut.

Saturate the wicking in your liquid, and put one end of the wicking in the Mason jar, into the milk, and CAREFULLY insert the other end into the slit you cut in the pumpkin vine.  Almanzo didn’t “bandage” his pumpkin vine, but Mom always did, and I think it’s a good idea.  She just wound a few inches of gauze around the vine’s slit, ensuring that the wick would stay and keeping out insects.  She used to tell us that a plant was a living thing, and if it was cut, it should be bandaged and protected against infection.

bandaged graft

Whatever you do, don’t spread the slit in your pumpkin vine apart to get the wick into it – slowly work the wick into the cut.  It might take more than just a few minutes.  If you spread the slit apart, you’ll destroy the stem cells.  You’re performing surgery on a living thing, as Mom would say.  Be careful!

Now you’ve got a successful graft and you’ve set up your wicking,  so let the osmosis begin!  Those who don’t believe in the milk-fed pumpkin have probably never taken the time and trouble to try it.  We’ve done this for many years, and it really does work for us.

Be sure to check the contents of your Mason jar at least daily, and more often than that if the weather is hot and dry.  Your jar must never go dry.  Your pumpkin blossom will drink up the milk without ceasing, and the extra nutrition will allow your pumpkin to grow larger and heavier than the pumpkins that are growing normally, right beside it.  We always liked to compare the milk-fed pumpkin with its brothers and sisters right next to it, to watch it get bigger in every possible way.

Compared to the bright orange pumpkins growing by your pumpkin’s side, your milk-fed pumpkin will be paler, and its skin will be thinner, and the hollow, when you cut it open, will be much larger.  The inside of your special pumpkin will be paler, too.  Your special pumpkin will still need to be watered and treated for pests, just like all the other pumpkins.  It’s the growing that will be different.

...the tall judge leaned, stretched out his arm slowly, and he thrust the pin into Almanzo's pumpkin. . . .

…the tall judge leaned, stretched out his arm slowly, and he thrust the pin into Almanzo’s pumpkin. . . .

Almanzo got a blue ribbon at the fair for his milk-fed pumpkin.  If you do it right, you probably will, too.

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

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Comments (14)

  • E.S. Ivy Reply

    Interesting! I love Laura’s books too. I wonder what the pumpkin is taking advantage of? My initial thought is the sugar in the milk, but then in tea and coffee, if they don’t have sugar added, that wouldn’t be it. I wonder if the pumpkins look different if they are fed with straight milk or straight coffee with no sugar, etc.

    September 30, 2014 at 4:08 pm
    • Jane Reply

      That’s a good question! We used mostly milk, but also whatever leftover drinks we had from dinner. There would be different nutrients in the different liquids, of course. Our pumpkins were HUGE, paler than the usual bright orange pumpkin, and had a huge hollow absolutely FULL of seeds. Naturally, we toasted the seeds, and they tasted pretty much the same as all the other pumpkins’ seeds. Mmmm, and now I want some toasted pumpkin seeds! Thank you so much for your comment!

      September 30, 2014 at 4:33 pm
  • Pumpkins And Such | T Cupp's Junior Farm Friends Reply

    […] Maybe you would like to grow a milk fed pumpkin with your family.  You can find out more information on the process at this link. […]

    October 28, 2014 at 4:49 pm
  • Berenda Reply

    I love that you used whatever you had leftover. I have tried this myself and it worked wonders so now each year when we grow pumpkins we add another jar and another beautiful pumpkin.

    November 3, 2015 at 10:34 am
  • Samuel K Reply

    The first thing I thought of when seeing the part about these pumpkins being paler, was how marigold is fed to chickens to give the egg yolks a darker color. Would feeding the pumpkin a bit of marigold tea provide the same nutrients and help give it a deeper orange color?

    November 3, 2015 at 8:56 pm
  • Eve Reply

    Laura Ingalls Wilder is an incredibly accurate source about many aspects of pre-industrial technology. If you’ve read Little House on the Prairie, you actually know how to make a working door-lock from wood and leather; and Farmer Boy will tell you how to make a yoke (for any calves you may want to train). I have put into practice the Little House in the Big Woods instructions for cooking pumpkin and I don’t doubt that the maple syrup processing description is sufficient too!

    November 16, 2015 at 10:52 pm
  • Quora Reply

    Can plants absorb nutrients from cow’s milk if it is poured on their roots?

    Never read the Little House books? 😀 http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/blog/2014/09/30/little-house-science-farmer-boys-milk-fed-pumpkin/

    March 17, 2016 at 11:34 pm
  • sarahthewolf Reply

    could I use some yarn instead of the wick?

    September 12, 2016 at 2:23 pm
    • Jane Goodwin Reply

      Yes, any kind of string will do.

      September 13, 2016 at 5:27 pm
  • Joseph Reply

    Does the milk ever go bad? And if it does, does that ever affect the growing. Also up here in Alaska we have ALOT of bugs and I fear that the pumpkin’s milk may get some bugs in it.

    March 21, 2017 at 11:37 am
    • Jane Goodwin Reply

      The plant drank up the milk before it had time to go bad. Don’t put a gallon in there, of course. As for bugs, we have ’em in super-humid Southern Indiana, too, but while there were a few gnats in there sometimes, I never saw anything large or creepy. We do our pumpkins like this every year now, and every year it’s more fun. The immense pies make awesome pies, too.

      March 21, 2017 at 2:26 pm
  • John Vantana Reply

    Thank you for sharing. That was one of my favorite stories from my childhood as well.

    April 22, 2017 at 2:03 pm
  • Kelsej Reply

    Does this technique alter the pumpkin’s taste?

    May 11, 2017 at 10:00 pm
    • Jane Goodwin Reply

      I think milk-fed pumpkins have a somewhat milder flavor, but my family sees no difference.

      May 15, 2017 at 9:20 am

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