Pumpkins are the quintessential fall fruit. From late September onward, they star on our plates in pies and soups and breads and pastas. They show up as pumpkin spice in our lattes and frappes. They adorn our homes as part of our fall decorations.
While they are abundantly available for purchase during the fall, they also make a fun and rewarding project for the garden. If you want to try your hand at growing pumpkins next growing season, read on to learn everything you need to know, including a few tips for getting the most out of your pumpkin plants.
Choose a time to plant
Planting your pumpkins starts with choosing the optimal time to sow them. This time depends upon where you live. A good rule of thumb is to sow your seeds in the ground a week or two after the average last day of frost for your area. The weather should be warm; the soil should be warm (Between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit), and the danger of frost should be past. You can look up the average first and last frost dates for your ZIP code here.
In addition, when deciding when to plant your pumpkins, you need to make sure you have a long enough growing season. Pumpkins take a long time to grow: 90 days or longer. Northern states might not have enough time to grow pumpkins outdoors, and as a result, you may need to start your pumpkins indoors about three weeks before the last frost (more on that in the next section). In southern states, you may have a longer growing season, in which case, you can choose when to plant your pumpkins (I.e. in time to harvest your crop for Halloween or other fall festivities).
In order to know how much time to allow for growing your pumpkins, check your seed packet. Each variety of pumpkin will have its own growing time.
Choose a location to plant your pumpkins
Before you actually sow your seeds, you also need to decide where to grow your pumpkins. There are two requirements for your growing location: Space and sunlight.
While there are miniature and brush-like varieties of pumpkins, the traditional vined varieties require significant space to grow. As a result, you should plan about 10 feet between pumpkin hills. If space is tight, you can direct the vines, while they are still young, to grow over the hill into the grass or sidewalk. You can also trellis your vines, but you will need to manage the heavy pumpkins as they grow.
Pumpkins can grow in partial shade. However, they prefer about 12 hours of direct sunlight every day. Therefore, pick a spot that is as sunny as possible to keep your soil warm and your pumpkin plants thriving.
Prepare your soil for planting
Pumpkins require high levels of nutrients in the soil to thrive. As a result, you will want to start with soil that is as rich and loose as possible.
From there, you should amend your soil before planting your pumpkins. Amending the soil means adding nutrient-rich materials to it. The less nutrient-rich your original soil is, the more amendments you should add. These are some of the most popular amendments
- Leaf mulch
When amending your soil, make sure to work the amendments deep into the soil: At least a couple of feet. In addition, add them well before the growing season begins. Allowing a month or two for the amendments to break down will leave your soil nutrient-rich and ready to feed your pumpkins.
Make sure to keep your soil deep and loose to allow for optimal access to sun and water and optimal growth once your pumpkin seeds are planted.
Prepare your seeds for planting
When it comes time to plant your pumpkin seeds, you can also take steps to encourage germination. For example, you can gently file the edges of the seeds, and/or place them in water for a couple of hours. These steps should soften the seed and make it easier for the young pumpkin plant to emerge.
Start your seedlings inside
You do not need to start your pumpkins inside. In fact,there is some evidence that pumpkins grow better when they are sown directly into the ground.
However, starting your pumpkins inside can effectively lengthen your available growing season, and may be a necessity in northern climes where the growing season is shorter.
To start your pumpkins inside, sow them about three weeks before your typical last frost. You want them to be about 3 inches tall and have two sets of leaves when you transplant them outside.
Use a 2-3 inch pot that is biodegradable. That way, you can plant the pit directly into the ground at transplant time.
Place two seeds in each pot, about 1 inch down. Tamp the soil down over it and water gently. Once the plants germinate, you can remove the weakest one to allow the stronger one to keep growing. Keep the plants in direct sunlight for 12 hours a day.
Before you transplant the seedlings outside, make sure to harden them off. This refers to the process of exposing them to cooler temperatures so they can survive outside. Sit them outside for a few hours to start. Gradually increase their time outside until they can tolerate the overnight temperatures. Just make sure not to expose them to freezing temperatures, since not even hardened pumpkins can endure those temps.
For a fun and creative way to start your pumpkin seeds, you can also try this method:
Plant your seeds
When it is time to plant your seeds (or seedlings), create hills in the amended soil. In the center of each hill, dig a hole about 1 inch deep.
Plant up to 4 seeds (or one seedling) in each of these holes. Eventually, you will thin your seedlings out, but in the beginning, you want to ensure that you get at least one strong plant to grow in each hill.
Make sure, when building these hills, to leave 8-10 feet between them for vined pumpkin varieties, and about 3 feet for smaller or bushier varieties. Your seed packet may be able to tell you how much space your particular variety requires.
Once the seeds have been placed in the hole, gently cover the hole with dirt. For seedlings, cover the pot with dirt but make sure to leave the leaves exposed to the sunlight.
Water your pumpkins
From the moment you plant your pumpkin seeds, your pumpkins will require generous amounts of water. You should plan to give them 1 inch of water a week.
Start watering them immediately after planting the seeds. Here are some tips for effective watering of your pumpkins:
- Water in the morning to allow the leaves to dry off as the weather warms.
- Avoid getting water on the leaves, as this can lead to mildew.
- Use the mist setting on your garden hose.
- Water until the soil is moist at least 6 inches deep.
- Add mulch or straw around the base of the plants to help retain moisture.
Protect your pumpkins from pests
There are many pests that will want to eat your pumpkins. One of the most effective ways to deter them is to use garden cloth or covers over your pumpkins. These lightweight covers allow sun and water but not bugs to get access to the plants. Always remove these covers once your plants blossom to allow for pollination. You can also inspect your pumpkins regularly for bugs and remove any bugs or eggs you find.
Thin your seedlings
After your pumpkins sprout, you will need to thin them to 1 or 2 plants per hill. To avoid damaging the roots of the plants you intend to keep, clip the top off the plants you do not wish to keep instead of pulling them up. Always choose the strongest, healthiest plant to keep.
Keep your pumpkins fertilized
Your pumpkin plants will want lots of food as they grow. As a result, fertilize your pumpkins weekly after they sprout. A 5-10-5 fertilizer should work well, although you can get more specific as your experience with growing pumpkins increases. Make sure to switch from nitrogen-based in the beginning to a phosphorus-based fertilizer when the flowers bloom, to a potassium-rich fertilizer once the pumpkins appear.
When applying the fertilizer, place it about 8 inches from the base of the pumpkin plant. Use only a small amount of fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can burn the plant, so less is more when feeding your pumpkin plants.
Prune your pumpkins
As your pumpkins begin to grow, you may want to prune your plants in order to create larger pumpkins. Pruning forces the plant to devote its energy to fewer vines and pumpkins so that those vines and pumpkins grow larger and healthier.
As a result, once your pumpkins start to grow, consider doing the following pruning:
- Pinch off the ends of the vines to prevent further vine growth.
- Remove all but a few pumpkins to increase the size of those pumpkins.
Turn your pumpkins
As your pumpkins ripen, they will begin to turn a deep orange (or whatever color your variety happens to be). To encourage your pumpkin to color evenly, turn it daily. In addition, you can prevent rot and attack from pests by getting the pumpkin off the ground and resting it on a piece of cardboard.
Harvest your pumpkins
Finally, the best part of growing pumpkins will come: The harvest. A pumpkin is ripe when the vines begin to die away, the orange is a deep color, and the rind is hard when you press on it.
In order to harvest your pumpkin, cut it off the vine. Do not pull or twist it. Leave about 4 inches of stem on the pumpkin in order to prevent decay.
Once harvested, you can store your pumpkins in a cool, dry place or put them immediately to work as decorations or as delightful fall fare.
Nothing says fall quite like pumpkins. Next year, consider bringing fall right to your garden by growing your favorite variety of pumpkin.