Growing Pumpkins for Food and Fun

Pumpkins are just a winter squash, best known for providing food to early Pilgrim settlers, for pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, as a carriage for beloved Cinderella, and for making Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween.

Pumpkins will cross-pollinate with other winter squashes. You may get a weird product the first year, but, if you're saving the seeds, you have will definitely have an unpredictable result next year. Better to plant only one type of winter squash, and perhaps a neighbor down the block another and so on - then share the results! If you don't care about cross-pollination, buy new seeds every year and grow as much of everything that you want.

Ask yourself what you want out of the pumpkin:
  • food (pumpkin pies and turnovers, etc, plus nutritious seeds for roasting)
  • ground cover for your corn patch
  • fun (jack-o-lanterns for Halloween or huge pumpkins to win contests)

Then take a look at the many kinds available. Choose one (or two) to satisfy your most urgent needs then figure out if it will work where you live. They are a long season crop, but with a little help, can do ok in Zones 3 or 4 and above.

  • Sugar Pie Pumpkins: Among the best for baking due to their high sugar content and smooth, even textured flesh. Not a lot of seeds.
  • Connecticut Field pumpkin is known as being best for Jack O'Lanterns. They have a classic shape and are usually what we find in the store. Grow between 10 and 20 pounds each (sometimes larger) with a bright orange color. Kinda plain tasting or sweet, and too watery for a pie. Good for seeds.
  • For looks and fun, check out the Baby Boo (white), Munchkin, Spooktacular, Big Max (giant), Cinderella, Lumina, Atlantic Giant (giant), and many others. Ranges from size to color to taste.

Pumpkins needs lots of room to sprawl and crawl along, with about 6 hours of sunlight a day. If your growing season is less than 150 frost-free days, start the seeds indoors in transplantable peat pots, then transfer into garden when weather warms. Or seeds can be sown directly into the garden when Spring rains have tapered off and days reach into low 70's regularly. Most pumpkins need at least 110 to 140 frost-free days. It depends on variety, daylight hours and climate.

If planting as part of the "Three Sisters", plant one pumpkin for every few corn seedlings. This will provide ground cover, keeping moisture in the dirt while the prickly leaves and stems hinder critters like raccoons from stealing the corn.

Otherwise, plant 4-5 seeds, 6-8 inches apart, in a circle on a small hill (about 2-3 feet diameter), surrounded by a little moat to soak in the water, but prevents the seeds from getting water-logged. Cover the seeds with about an inch of soil to prevent the birds from finding them. Water enough to get dirt like a soaked sponge. Be gentle to avoid washing away the seed, or disturbing the little root hairs as they grow. Sprouts will appear 7-14 days. After another week, thin to 2-3 healthy plants per hill (use scissors so that pulling a seedling won't disturb the others' roots).

These are vigorous growers, with vines sometimes 30+ feet long, and several offshoots. When growing giants, pick the biggest couple of fruits, and clip off the rest. For others, allow them to grow as they will. Don't baby them though (moving too much - better to prune to gently guide them where you'd prefer they grow).

Pumpkins are heavy feeders, and would prefer a rich soil to start. Add compost or natural fertilizer at least once through the growing season. You could also use your fish-tank water (without chemicals) to water the pumpkin roots - perfect! GENTLY water the root area only, avoiding getting the leaves wet (to prevent powdery mildew). Turn off the water when it puddles for longer than 3 seconds.

Leave the blossoms alone. Remember, if you pick them for fried/battered squash blossoms (yes, good eating), then you won't get any pumpkins. Bees will pollinate the flowers, or you can use the q-tip method. A fruit will begin to form and grow. Your harvest will depend on temperature, watering, nutrition and quality of seed.

When the fruit is well established, gently move the pumpkin so that the blossom end (opposite of stem end) rests on the ground (you may have to clip some tendrils or get help to avoid breaking the vine or stem). Rearranging the pumpkin will encourage the usual pumpkin shape we're used to. While you're moving it, slip a board underneath it. This will prevent a soggy (then rotting) bottom when you get a hard rain.

Pumpkins will love your lasagna garden (more on that later!), but don't do well in a square foot gardening scenario. They need a lot of room to sprawl and ramble. We once heard of someone who ignored a jack-b-little pumpkin plant, and it ended up crawling across the lawn and up a tree, dangling little bitty pumpkins by early September. Can you imagine the surprise to see the "pumpkin tree"? We've also heard of pumpkins crawling up over sheds and porch railings. Support any heavy fruits with pantyhose.

By late August (in the northern Hemisphere), the days will start to get shorter and the nights colder. Pumpkins will start to change to their ripe color. The vine will start to look aged, with withering vines and rotting leaves. (This is the worst time for a gardener who revels in the glorious green of her garden.)

They are ready to harvest when the color has deepened - orange will look like a typical grocery store pumpkin, like a sunset. Use garden shears, cutting the stem at the vine, to leave as much of the stem intact as possible (minimum 3 inches). Let them cure in the sun for 10 days or so. Cover them at night if there's a danger of frost. Store in a dry cool place (basement, root cellar).

Pumpkins store well for a few months in a cool environment, sometimes until the next Spring. If you don't have access to somewhere cool, you can preserve them by:

  • making pumpkin puree, canning or freezing
  • dehydrating pumpkin slices

Butternut squash tastes a lot like pumpkin. It makes a delicious "pumpkin pie", and the shape of the squash could encourage creativity for jack-o-lantern faces.

Growing pumpkins this year? Let us know.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks! I'm trying to decide if we could try pumpkins in a raised bed in our school garden in Dublin, Ireland!

Vee and the Kid said...

Wow! You definitely should! Good luck!