How to Grow Festival-Worthy Pumpkins

Pumpkins: The King of Fall

Pumpkins are a bodacious American-born fruit that are the star of fall festivals, the icon of Halloween, an obligatory fall porch decoration, and the obsession of giant pumpkin-contest competitors who duke it out in weigh-offs each October. Despite being so omnipresent in fall, though, pumpkins aren’t the easiest crop to grow in a home garden.

For one thing, they’re prolific viners that take up an enormous amount of space. Lots of big leaves are needed to generate the energy to grow 20-pound globes.

For another, pumpkins need a lot of water (but not too much). Rain and high humidity can lead to powdery mildew and other leaf diseases, while summer dry spells require well-timed soakings to keep plants alive.

And third, the flagging state of bees has made pollination and the resulting fruit formation tougher lately not only for pumpkins but for other members of the cucurbit family, which includes squash, cucumbers, watermelon, and cantaloupes. If you’ve had poor production of those home crops in the last few years, lack of bees could be the problem. Hot days above 90 degrees also can harm pollination.

Besides moisture-fueled leaf disease and attacks from bugs such as squash vine borers and squash bugs, pumpkins can rot in soggy soil, die or fail to produce fruit in drought conditions, and fail due to too-close planting, lack of sun, and/or poor soil nutrition.

Tips for pumpkin-growing success:

  1. Start with a sunny spot that has rich, loose soil. If it’s not already rich and loose, dig deep and work in an inch or two of compost. Raised mounds are good.
  2. Shop for disease-resistant varieties. Check seed packets and catalogs for mention of superior resistance to mildew and other diseases.
  3. Wait until after all threat of frost is well past to plant seeds. That will lessen the chance that seeds will rot in cold, wet soil.
  4. Give plants plenty of space. Even small pumpkins can spread to cover 12 square feet of garden space per plant. Bigger ones can vine out to two to three times that.
  5. Cover the soil with a sheet of black or silver plastic. Research has found that plastic mulch warms the soil, discourages weeds, and keeps ripening fruits off the bare ground, making them less prone to rotting.

If you’re not using plastic mulch, keep weeds from competing with pumpkin plants by pulling them ASAP. Or prevent weeds once pumpkin plants are up and growing with an application of Preen Natural Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer.

  1. Fertilize monthly. Pumpkins are heavy feeders and usually benefit from boosts of phosphorus- and potassium-containing fertilizers.
  2. Water regularly. You might need to water daily in hot, dry weather to supply the moisture needed by the ample foliage and expanding fruits. If you’re growing on plastic, use drip irrigation under the sheets.
  3. Encourage pollinating bees by planting a variety of native plants that bloom at different times, adding bee nesting boxes to the yard, and by avoiding insecticides. 

When to harvest pumpkins?

Your cue to harvest is when the vines start dying and the fruits stop expanding and turn their mature color – usually deep orange. This usually occurs between 85 and 125 days after seeding.

Another sign of maturity is that pumpkin skin will be hard enough that your fingernail won’t puncture it.

Use a knife to cut the fruits from the stems, leaving two or three inches of the stem as a “handle.”

To maximize storage, let the cut fruits sit in a warm, humid, well-ventilated spot for 10 to 14 days. Then move them to a cooler, drier spot (50 to 60 degrees is ideal) for longer-term storage. Healthy, cured, and uninjured pumpkins can keep for two months or more… well past Halloween and into Thanksgiving.

Save the pumpkin seeds

Pumpkins will produce an abundance of seeds. Harvest these seeds to either be consumed or saved for planting in the spring. 

  1. Remove the 'guts' of the pumpkin and separate them into a colander. 
  2. Rinse the guts and remove the seeds from the pulp. Be sure to rinse the seeds as you go. 
  3. Choose the biggest seeds from your haul. Bigger pumpkin seeds will have the best chance of germinating. Roast the remaining seeds for a fall-themed snack. 
  4. Store in a cool, dry spot for 7 days.
  5. Once the seeds are dry, transfer them to an envelope for spring planting. 


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