How to Grow Pumpkins for Perfect Home Grown Jack o’ Lanterns and Pumpkin Pies
Wondering how to grow pumpkins? You’re in the right spot!
If you are anything like me, the end of summer means the beginning of fall!
I know you’re probably thinking ‘Duh’… BUT, fall is one of my favorite times of the year. One thing that most people think of when you think about fall and gardening is pumpkins!
Growing pumpkins is slightly different than growing other crops, but I’ll cover all the ins and outs of growing pumpkins for you.
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Pumpkins are a winter squash.
The first part of successfully growing pumpkins is planting them at the right time. If you want to know how to grow pumpkins that are ready in the fall, plan ahead of time.
Yes, pumpkins are a winter squash. This doesn’t mean that pumpkins are grown in the winter. It simply means that they are one of the squashes that takes almost until winter to mature.
Many varieties of pumpkins take 75-100 days to grow large fruits that are mature. So you don’t plant them in the winter time. You plant them in the summer along with some of the other crops you would typically plant in the warmer months.
Don’t plan on planting pumpkins in the fall. If you are interested in growing vegetables during the cooler months, check out my article about planting a fall garden.
Count backwards in your calendar to figure out when to plant pumpkins.
Pumpkins want to grow in very warm soil.
In fact, pumpkin seeds ideally want to grow in soil temperatures that are 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Depending on the variety of pumpkin, you’ll generally want to plan on 75-100 growing days that are warm, frost-free days. You can look up the average first frost date for you area and then count back the number of days that you’ll need.
It’s a good idea to check the back of the seed packet and see how many days until maturity the plant requires.
I generally like to add 10 days or two weeks to the maturity date. That just gives me a little extra cushion in case there is an early frost or the plants get off to a slow start.
Generally, for people in the Northern U.S., you’ll want to plant pumpkins in late May. For those of us in the Southern part of the U.S., we have until roughly early July to plant.
You can look up your average first frost date on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website.
You can start transplants indoors.
If you choose to do so, plant the seeds 2-4 weeks before you plan to plant them in the ground. Make sure that you harden them off before planting them in the soil. Check out my article about other benefits of starting seeds indoors.
How to Grow Pumpkins: Spacing and Planting
A general rule of thumb with pumpkins is the larger the pumpkin, the larger the vine will be. Large pumpkins that are grown for competitions or jack-o-lanterns are much larger in size than smaller decorative or edible pumpkins.
There are two methods that are commonly used to plant pumpkins- rows and hills.
Planting pumpkins in rows is common when planting a large amount of pumpkins. For the gardener who wants to plant a few pumpkin plants, hills may be a better option.
A hill is a mounded up area of soil that pumpkins are planted in. The hill can be as small as an upside-down mixing bowl or as large as a small pitcher’s mound. Each hill should be planted with four seeds or transplants.
Hills should be spaced some 10-20 feet from each other depending on the variety. Larger varieties will require spacing that is further apart.
If you want more in-depth information about ideal conditions for growing pumpkins, Morning Chores has an excellent article about growing pumpkins and ideal growing conditions.
When the plants start to get bigger, clip the top of the weakest pumpkin plant. This will kill the plant without disturbing the roots of the plants near it.
So where there were four plants, you should now have three.
Growing pumpkins require lots of sunlight.
Plant them in areas that will have full sun all day. They also require lots of space, especially for the big boys.
Plan on each pumpkin plant having 50-100 square feet. Again, smaller varieties require less space than larger varieties.
Pumpkins can be trained to grow on a trellis. I recommend that if you are growing pumpkins on a trellis that you do so with a smaller variety of pumpkins.
Larger varieties require some engineering to keep the large pumpkins from breaking off of the vines.
Taking Care of Pumpkin Plants
I mentioned that pumpkins require warm temperatures and lots of sunlight. And lots of space. They also require lots of love.
The vines of pumpkins can be sensitive.
If you step on the vines or leaves, that part of the plant may die. Be very careful when walking around your growing pumpkins.
If you have a pumpkin plant in a hill that is diseased or dying, cut it. Don’t try to pull it up.
The roots of pumpkin plants are very sensitive and are easily torn. Ripping out a pumpkin plant that is dead may also rip the root system off of the plants around it.
Pumpkin plants require lots of space, which can also mean lots of space potentially for weeds to grow.
It’s a good idea to put mulch around your pumpkins.
Mulch helps to prevent weed growth and also keeps the soil warm for the plant. It’s also good for the fruit itself, but we will get to that later.
When I say mulch the plants, I don’t mean that you have to go out to your garden and spread bagged mulch around your pumpkin plants.
That would just be crazy. And expensive! Use straw, leaves or grass clippings (with no seeds!) to mulch your pumpkins.
You cannot cultivate around your pumpkins to control weeds.
Remember the little sensitive root systems that pumpkins have! They can’t handle being heavily cultivated around. Mulch is the safer option.
Now, if you have a stem or vine that was cut or broken, there is hope! Pumpkin vines are good at rooting. Take the broken part of the vine and cover it adequately with soil and water it heavily. It should take root.
Here’s more information about taking care of the vines and pollinating growing pumpkin plants:
Pumpkin Pests and Diseases
Pumpkins are just like any other plant.
They are susceptible to a handful of pests and diseases.
If you want to learn more about diseases and common pests that can affect your vegetable garden, check out my article on how to prepare for disease and pests in the garden.
One of the most prominent trouble makers is the squash bug.
Squash bugs love to take up residence on squash plants, including pumpkins.
They don’t bite and usually don’t chew up the squash.
However, they reproduce quickly and in large enough numbers, they will kill a squash plant.
You’ll see the squash beetles on the squash themselves. Sometimes you can even see the eggs on the leaves.
To get rid of squash bugs, you can pick them and their eggs off manually.
This is a very common way of getting rid of them for organic farmers. If you aren’t trying to grow organically, you can use an insecticide such as 7-Dust to get rid of them quickly.
You can also purchase biological controls to kill the squash bugs.
Another common problem that pumpkins will experience is the fungus powdery mildew.
Powdery mildew is a fungus that literally looks like someone sprinkled powder on the plant. It’s white and looks soft or fuzzy.
It’s generally easier to prevent powdery mildew than it is to treat it once you have it.
A cheap way to prevent it is with a milk spray.
Mix equal parts milk and water in a spray bottle and spray the leaves with it. Spray the leaves when there is enough sunlight left in the day that the leaves have time to dry.
To help prevent powdery mildew from forming, water the plants when they have enough sunlight to dry before it gets dark.
If you find that your plants have powdery mildew already, the best option is to cut off the affected leaves and stems.
Remove the affected pieces as far away from any plants as possible.
Powdery mildew can spread easily and quickly. You can burn the affected leaves for good measure.
Fungicide is also an option for controlling powdery mildew. You can purchase fungicide spray over the counter.
Cucumber beetles are another pest that frequently visits pumpkin plants.
Cucumber beetles look similar to lady bugs with their yellow shiny bodies and black spots.
Don’t let them confuse you though.
Lady bugs are beneficial to your garden, cucumber beetles aren’t.
Squash vine borers are pests that will try to invade your pumpkin crop.
Squash vine borers are the larval stage of a moth.
The larvae get into the vine of the squash and eat the inside of the vine. Sometimes these are very hard to detect because they are inside of the vine itself.
If you see a borer, you can cut it out with a box blade or sharp knife.
It may have already put a fairly large hole in the vine by that time. This is another instance in which prevention is easier than treatment.
To prevent squash vine borers, you can spread diatomaceous earth around your plants.
The diatomaceous earth will cut the soft larval bodies of the borers up as they move across it and will kill them.
This video describes some of the common problems you can have with pumpkins and how to take care of those problems:
Your growing pumpkins will need pollinators.
Pumpkin plants make both male and female flowers, just like many other types of squash plants.
This means that some of the flowers will turn in to pumpkins (female flowers) and some won’t (male flowers).
Since the plants make both male and female flowers, pollination is necessary.
You need bees or butterflies to come and pollinate your plants for you.
Work on attracting these to your pumpkin patch by planting bright flowers that they are attracted to.
Pumpkins are companion plants with many other plants and flowers.
They like to be planted around marigolds. marigolds bloom all summer and are bright enough that they will attract pollinators.
You do have another option if you don’t have bees or butterflies coming to your pumpkin plants.
You can hand pollinate your flowers. It is just more time consuming.
To hand pollinate, you can take a q-tip and gently touch the middle of the flower where the pollen is.
Take the same q-tip and touch the next flower where the pollen is. Then go to the next flower and continue until you’ve pollinated all of your flowers.
If pollination doesn’t occur, pumpkins will not develop from your flowers.
To attract more pollinators to your pumpkin plants, consider growing native plants that bloom.
Growing Pumpkin Plants Are Heavy Feeders
This means that pumpkins require large amounts of fertilizer and organic material.
When you are preparing your beds where you will be planting pumpkins, mix large amounts of compost into your soil.
Ideally, you want the compost to be mixed into the soil as deep as one foot.
The pumpkin plants will require additional fertilizer as they are growing.
When the plants are growing upright and not out, they will need a fertilizer with a large amount of nitrogen.
Once the vines have formed, the pumpkin plants will start to prepare for blooming and fruit development. Right before the flowers start forming, give the pumpkins a fertilizer with a larger amount of phosphorus.
If you start to notice yellowing of leaves, you need to fertilize your plants ASAP.
You can read more about feeding your plants in my article about plant nutrition.
Taking Care of Growing Pumpkins on the Vine
Once pumpkins start showing up on your vines, you can begin taking care of them.
If you are growing pumpkins on a trellis, now is the time to make sure that the pumpkins have plenty of support.
Heavy varieties can be hung in mesh sacks to help the vine support the heavy, growing pumpkins.
The vines will continue to grow even after pumpkins have started growing.
This is a problem because the plant will send energy and nutrients to both the vine and the growing pumpkins.
You can pinch off the fuzzy end of the vine once it has a few pumpkins on it.
This will cause the pumpkin plant to put more energy and nutrients into growing pumpkins that are on the vine rather than growing the vine.
As the pumpkins grow and develop, you’ll want to turn them every few days.
This helps ensure they are a nice, round shape and have even coloring. Be careful when turning them. The vines and stems are easily broken.
A common problem growers tend to have with pumpkins is rot.
Pumpkins that sit on the ground come in to direct contact with moisture from the soil. This moisture can cause rotting of the bottom of the pumpkin.
You can prevent this rotting by putting something underneath the pumpkin.
If you mulched your pumpkins with straw, then make sure the pumpkins have straw underneath them.
You can also use a thin board, cardboard or plastic mesh under the pumpkins.
There are even little stands made for sitting pumpkins on if you want something that looks cute and is functional.
If you are growing pumpkins, you may think “When do I know when to harvest my pumpkins”?
This is a good question!
First of all, look at the color of the pumpkin.
Most varieties of pumpkins are orange in color.
Orange pumpkins will be a deep orange when they are ripe.
Obviously if you are growing a pumpkin that is not orange in color, you can’t use that!
Another great way to tell if a pumpkin is ripe is by doing the fingernail test.
You should be able to press your fingernail against the rind of the pumpkin without your fingernail puncturing the skin.
A small indention will remain on a ripe pumpkin, but it will not break through the outer skin.
Pumpkins will also sound hollow when they are ripe.
If you slap the outside of the pumpkin, you should hear the hollow sound.
Lastly, the stem of the pumpkin will look dry and hard.
Think about the stem of pumpkins that you have bought in the past.
They don’t have soft green stems.
They have hard, brown, dried stems.
This is an excellent indicator that the pumpkin is ready to be harvested.
Harvesting pumpkins is pretty straightforward.
Don’t break or tear the stem to get the pumpkin off of the vine.
Use a box blade, sharp knife or shears to cut the vine.
You want to cut the stem about 4″ away from the top of the pumpkin.
Cutting the stem this far away from the pumpkin helps to prevent mold and fungus from getting inside of the pumpkin and causing it to rot.
Harvested pumpkins need to be cured.
Cured pumpkins can last as long as 6 months in the right conditions.
When you harvest your pumpkins, brush off any dirt or debris from the outside.
Don’t wet the pumpkin.
Use a dry brush or cloth to remove any dirt. Pumpkins need to be clean before being cured.
To cure pumpkins, all you need is ample sunlight outside or in a warm windowsill.
Leave the pumpkins in the sunlight for two weeks.
Turn the pumpkins to expose the other half to the sun. Leave the pumpkins in the sunlight for another two weeks.
After the curing process is complete, the pumpkins can be rubbed down with oil.
Use a dry cloth and buff the pumpkins with the oil.
The oil helps to waterproof the skin of the pumpkins and lengthens the shelf life of the pumpkin.
Pumpkins that are being stored need to be in a room that is 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
They need to be stored on racks or shelves that are breathable on the bottom. Air circulation around the entire pumpkin is crucial to storage.
The pumpkins being stored do not need to be stacked on top of one another. Again, air circulation around the pumpkin is crucial.
Do not store pumpkins in the same area as fruit.
Many types of fruit emit ethylene gas as they age. Ethylene gas is responsible for fruit maturation.
The pumpkins will rot faster if they are exposed to the ethylene gas emitted from fruit. Apples are a major ethylene gas emitter, just FYI.
Growing pumpkins can be more work than some other plants, but is well worth it.
Pumpkins may not be the easiest crop to take care of.
They require certain conditions to grow in. They will also require a little more feeding and watering than some other garden plants.
For additional information on growing pumpkins, I recommend checking out the Old Farmer’s Almanac article about growing pumpkins.
Turning pumpkins and getting them off of the ground may sound like a chore.
However, there aren’t many crops out there that provide a source of food and decoration quite like the pumpkin.
If you plan on growing pumpkins to eat, you’ll be excited to know they will be able to be eaten as much as 6 months after you harvested them. Pumpkin pie in the spring can be a thing!
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Do you have tips for growing pumpkins? Tips for storing pumpkins or harvesting pumpkins?