It’s pumpkin picking season! How do you know when pumpkins are ready to be picked. Can you leave them on the vine too long? How do you cure a pumpkin so that it lasts? See our Pumpkin Growing Guide which covers everything from planting to harvesting.
Did you know pumpkins have been grown in North America for almost 5,000 years? It’s a lot of fun to grow this native plant.
There are two requirements for growing this winter squash: 1) Having the space to grow them [ideally 1,000 square feet per plant for giant types, 50 to 100 square feet for regular-size varieties, and about 15 to 36 square feet for miniature types] and 2) having a long growing season [generally 75 to 100 frost-free days]. Growers in northern locations need to plant by late May; in southern states, plant by early July.
Pumpkins do require a lot of nourishment. That said, pumpkins are easy to maintain.
Of autumn’s wine, now drink your fill; The frost’s on the pumpkin, and snow’s on the hill. –The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1993
Pumpkins are sensitive to the cold. Do not sow seeds directly until well after the danger of frost is past and the soil has thoroughly warmed to a temperature between 65° and 95°F (18° to 35°C). See your Planting Calendar by zip code.
Where the growing season is very short, start by sowing indoors in peat pots, 2 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost. Then, harden off seedlings before transplanting into warm, aged manure/compost-enriched soil.
Want pumpkins in time for Halloween? Plant in the North from late May and in the extreme South from early July. Look at the seed packet for how many days until harvest. Count backward from a week or so before Halloween. Don’t plant too early or they’re rot!
How to Plant Pumpkins
Vining pumpkins require a minimum of 50 to 100 square feet per hill. If you are short on space, ensure the vines are directed to the outer edge of the garden bed.
Sow seeds either in rows 8 feet apart or plant in hills 4 feet apart. A hill does not mean the soil has to be mounded; it’s a spot containing a group of plants or seeds. However, mounded hills warm soil quickly (so seeds germinate faster) and aid with drainage and pest control. Prepare hills by digging down 12 to 15 inches and mixing/filling in with lots of aged manure and/or compost.
In rows, sow seeds 6 to 12 inches apart. Once seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to one plant every 18 to 36 inches.
In hills, set seeds 1 inch deep with 4 or 5 seeds per hill. Keep seeds moist until germination. When seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to two or three plants per hill by snipping out unwanted plants.
Plant miniature varieties one inch deep, with two or three seeds every 2 feet in the row. Rows should be 6 to 8 feet apart, with seedlings thinned to the best plant every 2 feet when they have their first true leaves.
In this video, Ben shows us his method for growing pumpkins!
Use row covers to protect plants early in the season and to prevent insect problems. However, remember to remove covers before flowering to allow pollination.
Bees are essential for pollination, so be mindful when using insecticides to kill bugs or fungicides to control fungi. If you must use it, apply only in the late afternoon or early evening, when blossoms are closed for the day. To attract more bees, try placing a bee house in your garden. Or, grow colorful flowers near the patch.
Pumpkins need 1 inch of water per week. Water deeply, in the morning and on very hot afternoons, especially during fruit set. Avoid watering foliage and fruit unless it’s a sunny day. Dampness invites rot and disease.
Add mulch around your pumpkins to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and discourage pests.
Weed gently; pumpkins have shallow roots that can be easily damaged. Also, take care not to damage the delicate vines; the quality of the fruit depends on them.
Side-dress with aged manure or compost mixed with water.
Small vine varieties can be trained to grow up a trellis. Larger varieties can be trained upward, too, to support the fruit, usually with netting or old stockings.
Pumpkins are heavy feeders. Side-dress with aged manure or compost mixed with water. When plants are about 1 foot tall, just before vines begin to run, fertilize regularly with a high-nitrogen formula. Just before the blooming period, switch to a high-phosphorus formula fertilizer.
If your first flowers aren’t forming fruits, that’s normal. Both male and female blossoms need to open. Be patient.
How to Grow a Bigger Pumpkin
After a few pumpkins have formed, pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine to stop vine growth and focus plant energy on the fruit.
Pruning the vines may help with space and fruit formation. Pumpkins produce main vines (from the base/center of the plant), secondary vines from the main ones, and tertiary vines from the secondary vines. All may have flowers. Once the fruit has started to develop, prune the main and secondary vines to 10 to 15 feet and remove the tertiary vines, if desired. Bury the cut tips in the soil.
Or, gardeners who are looking for a “prize for size” pumpkin might select the 2 or 3 prime candidates and remove all other fruit and vines.
As the fruit develops, turn them—with great care not to hurt the vine or stem—to encourage an even shape. Slip a thin board or stone or piece of plastic mesh under pumpkins to protect them from rotting on the soil.
To grow a giant pumpkin, try ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ jumbo variety. Fruit can grow to 200 pounds on 25-foot vines. Plants need 130 to 160 days to mature, so start seedlings indoors, then thin to the best 1 or 2 to plants.
Feed heavily and cultivate shallowly.
Remove the first two or three female flowers to generate more leaf surface before a plant sets fruit.
Allow one fruit to develop. Remove all other female flowers.
Take care that the vine does not root down near the joints to avoid breakage.
Every pumpkin has a best purpose. When choosing a pumpkin, think about what you want to do with it. All pumpkins are technically edible, but ornamentals are better for carving, and other pumpkins are best for cooking.
Miniature pumpkins are very productive and easy to grow, sometimes producing up to a dozen fruits per plant.
‘Jack Be Little’, a miniature variety, is dual purpose. Store-bought shiny (painted) ones make an ideal decoration for a holiday table. Remove the seeds from farm- or home-grown specimens and then bake them for a tiny treat. Vine variety. Days to maturity: 90 to 100 days.
‘We-B-Little’ is an All-America Selection winner, and ‘Munchkin’ is another great miniature pumpkin.
Pumpkins for carving
‘Autumn Gold’ is great for carving and decorating. All-America Selection winner. Vine variety. Excellent for Jack-o-Lanterns. Days to maturity are generally 100 to 120 days.
The larger ‘Magic Lantern’ and ‘Merlin’ are great for carving and decorating.
‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ jumbo variety can grow to 200 pounds. Great for those who want to grow a giant pumpkin. Vines will spread to 25 feet, so space is a must. Days to maturity are 130 to 160 days, so plant early! Thin to the best one or two plants. Feed heavily but keep cultivation shallow. Remove the first 2 or 3 female flowers after the plants start to bloom so that the plants grow larger with more leaf surface before setting fruit. Allow a single fruit to develop and pick off all female flowers that develop after this fruit has been set on the plant. Take care that the vine doesn’t root down near the joints to avoid breakage.
‘Big Max’, ‘Big Moon’, ‘Jack O’ Lantern’, and ‘Funny Face’ are some of the best giant pumpkins for carving.
Perfect pumpkins for pies
‘Sugar Treat’ is excellent for cooking and baking. Days to maturity are generally 100 to 120 days. ‘Hijinks’ and ‘Baby Bear’ are both All-America Selection winners and have sweet flesh for pumpkin pie.
‘Cinderella’s Carriage’ is also perfect for pies or soups.
‘Peanut Pumpkin’ also produces very sweet flesh and can be great in pumpkin pie or pumpkin puree.
Colorful decorative pumpkins
‘Jarrahdale’ has blue-green skin and makes for great decorations.
‘Pepitas Pumpkin’ is orange and green.
‘Super Moon’ is a large white pumpkin.
Your best bet is to harvest pumpkins when they are fully mature—and not before. They will keep best this way. Do not pick pumpkins off the vine because they have reached your desired size. (If you want small pumpkins, grow a small variety.)
Harvest on a dry day after the plants have died back and the skins are hard.
The skin of a ripening pumpkin turns a deep, solid color (orange for most varieties), and the stem hardens.
Thump the pumpkin with a finger; the rind will feel hard and sound hollow. Press a fingernail into the pumpkin’s skin; if it resists puncture, it is ripe.
Carefully cut the fruit off the vine with a sharp knife or pruners; do not tear it. Be sure not to cut too close to the pumpkin. Leave 3 to 4 inches of stem to increase its keeping time.
Handle pumpkins very gently, or they may bruise. Never carry a pumpkin by its stem.
How to Cure, Store, and Display Pumpkins
To toughen the skin and intensify flavor, cure pumpkins in a sunny spot for about 10 days in an area that is 80º to 85º F, with 80 to 85% humidity. This is a great time to display your pumpkin on the front porch! If you’re carving a pumpkin, carve no more than 3 days before Halloween or the pumpkin will begin to rot.
After curing, store pumpkins in a cool, dry cellar or root cellar or the like at 50º to 55ºF for 2 to 3 months.
Misshapen/yellow leaves; distorted flowers/fruit; sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold
Grow companion plants; knock off with water spray; apply insecticidal soap; put banana or orange peels around plants; wipe leaves with a 1 to 2 percent solution of dish soap (no additives) and water every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Dark, water-soaked spots on blossom end of fruit (opposite stem) may enlarge and become sunken and leathery
Caused by lack of calcium in fruit, often due to roots failing to obtain sufficient water and/or nutrients. Remove affected fruit; plant at proper soil temperature; water deeply and evenly; use mulch; maintain proper soil pH (around 6.5) and nutrient levels; avoid excessive nitrogen; provide good drainage; prevent root damage
Holes in leaves/flowers; rasped fruit; plants stunted/die
Handpick; mulch heavily; use row covers; destroy plants infected with bacterial wilt (Bacterial wilt signs: wilting; plants die; ends of cut stems, when pressed together for 10 seconds and pulled apart, release stringy, white sap)
Typically, white spots on upper leaf surfaces expand to flour-like coating over entire leaves; foliage may yellow/die; distortion/stunting of leaves/flowers
Destroy infected leaves or plants; choose resistant varieties; plant in full sun, if possible; ensure good air circulation; spray plants with 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 quart water; destroy crop residue
Vines wilt suddenly; plants die; mushy area and /or green to orange-yellow, sawdust-like excrement on/near base of plant stem
If detected early, slit infested stem lengthwise halfway to remove borer larvae, then bury the cut in moist soil to encourage rooting; wrap seedling stems in aluminum foil collar; catch moths with yellow sticky traps; use row covers if no pests previously, but uncover before flowering; destroy crop residue; rotate crops