Growing Pumpkins

growing pumpkinsJust the thought of chilly weather might leave you salivating for the sweet taste of pumpkin pie. However, there are so many other uses for this hardy squash than a Thanksgiving dessert. Pumpkins are delicious in a wide variety of recipes ranging from soups to casseroles, but no store-bought pumpkin will ever taste as good as growing pumpkins yourself.

Take the time to grow your own organic pumpkins and you will be able to enjoy the bounty of your hard work all year long- not just during the holidays.

Start Growing Pumpkins

Growing organic pumpkins can be more simple than you think, so long as you follow these important instructions.

When and Where Should You Grow Pumpkins?

You might only think about eating pumpkin in the fall, but the work of growing them begins in the spring. Pumpkins can be grown throughout the United States, so long as you live in a place that has at least three months of summer. The longer a pumpkin plant is in the ground the larger its fruit will grow, so to get your pumpkins to full maturity you’ll need between 100 to 120 frost free days.

Understanding Seed Germination

The first step to growing a bumper crop of organic pumpkins is to ensure that you are planting high quality seeds that have been purchased from a reliable seed provider (preferably an heirloom one like Seed Savers Exchange). Because pumpkin seeds can still germinate when they are six years old, your seed packet should be able to last you awhile. After five days of being planted in full sun (fluorescent lights can work too), your seeds should start to sprout.

Starting Seeds Indoors

If you have a greenhouse or a south facing window, starting your seeds early indoors is a smart idea to get a jump on the season. You can plant your seeds in soil blocks, seeding trays, or peat or plastic pots about one month before the last frost date. A high quality organic potting mix will make all the difference for the health of your plants, so be sure to invest in the best you can find, or make your own by following one of our recipes here.

To plant your pumpkins, plant three or four seeds about an inch deep in each pot. Keep them in full sun and water well. Once your seedlings are starting to show their true leaves you can thin them down to one per container. If your seeds are not germinating well don’t be afraid to scuff the a bit with sandpaper. This will allow for easier opening of the seed.

Preparing a Pumpkin Bed

Choosing where to plant your pumpkins is an important consideration. Pumpkins require six hours of sunlight everyday, and they need well-fertilized soil with good drainage to prevent their vines from rotting. A pH level between 5.8 and 7.5 is ideal. Test your soil to ensure it contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and amend the soil to make up for any nutrients that are lacking.

Moving Outdoors

Once outside temperatures have reached 60 degrees overnight and your plants have two or more true leaves (about four weeks after you plant them) they are ready to go outside. Taking plants directly from a cushy indoor environment to the harsh conditions in the real world is never a good idea, so make sure to “harden” off your plants by taking them outside for several hours at a time before officially planting them in your garden.

To plant your pumpkins, space them in two to three feet apart in rows that are four to six feet apart. Larger pumpkin varieties might require even more space, so read your seed packet carefully. When you dig the holes for each plant, make sure to bury them deep enough to completely cover the root top. It’s a good idea to plant close to the first leaves on the plant. Because pumpkins are heavy feeders, make sure to dump a few scoops of compost around the base of each plant.

Pack soil around the plant and keep it moist but not overly wet. Water your transplants frequently to ease their adjustment to outdoor life. On cold nights, you can protect them from the dangers of frost with row cover or black plastic.

Direct Seeding

If you chose to start your pumpkins outdoors directly from seed, you can plant them after the risk of frost has passed. A smart method is to plant your seeds in mounds that are four to eight feet apart, each with about five seeds planted an inch deep in a small circle. You can thin them out to one plant every two feet once two true leaves have grown.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

One of the best ways to ensure success for your pumpkin crop is to feed it large amounts of compost and manure. Mixing a few scoops of compost into the top inches of soil that is mounded around your plants is ideal. Alfalfa meal, fish bone meal, kelp meal and your kitchen compost are all great soil additives for pumpkins.

To keep the weeds down, black plastic or a thick straw mulch can be an effective barrier, especially since pumpkin plants have shallow roots that can be damaged by too much hand weeding or hoeing.

Pumpkins need between one and two inches of water every week, so be sure to irrigate your crop when the weather isn’t cooperating. Drip irrigation systems are preferred to overhead sprinklers, but if they are your only option be sure to use it only early in the day to reduce the risk of creating a habitat for fungi.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

As it turns out, pumpkin plants make good neighbors and do well when planted next to other garden vegetables. Beans and corn can make an especially good community, as the beans’ nitrogen-fixing roots add nutrients to the soil while the thick leaves of the pumpkin shade the roots of the corn, helping it to retain moisture. The single worst plant to grow next to pumpkins are potatoes, as they can inhibit the growth of the pumpkin plant.

Many companion plants can also help pumpkins to grow more effectively. Mint and marigolds can help ward off pesky insects, and radishes can help keep squash borers fed on their leaves rather than on your pumpkin vines.

Unless you have continuous issues with molds and fungi, there is little need to rotate your pumpkin plants every year.

Common Pests and Diseases for Pumpkins

Pests and diseases are the bane of every gardener’s existence, and unfortunately pumpkin plants are no exception. Below are some of the most common scourges that might be devastating your pumpkin crop this year.

  • Cucumber Beetles: As a notorious garden pest, cucumber beetles can be recognized by their greenish yellow coloring and three black stripes across their back. These beetles love to munch on squash vines and can spread bacteria or even fungal infections to them. To keep cucumber beetles from laying eggs on your plants, use row cover on your plants before they flower. If the problem gets out of hand you can use an organic spray to contain them.
  • Squash Vine Borer: Typically appearing when vines begin to spread throughout your garden, squash vine borers can quickly decimate a crop. The first sign that you have an infestation will be buzzing orange moths. Using row cover for several weeks can effectively stave off an invasion, as can cutting off any plant vines that have already been chewed on.
  • Aphids: As a tiny bug that can be seen on the bottom of your pumpkin leaves, aphids slowly drain the juices from your plants and leave them yellow and lifeless. The best natural solution for fighting aphids is to introduce ladybugs to your yard. These natural predators will feast on your garden pest and quickly get the population back in check.
  • Squash Bugs: Similar to squash borers, squash bugs like to suck the sap out of your pumpkin plant leaves, leaving them to die. A healthy garden should be able to fend off a squash bug invasion, but if you see the bugs or eggs on the underside of your plant leaves, be sure to squash them.
  • Blossom End Rot: This common garden disease causes your fruit to form a black rotten spot on the end where the flower once was. The main causes are hot weather and lack of water, so keeping your garden hydrated should help stave off the problem.
  • Downy Mildew: As a fungal leaf disease, downy mildew shows up as yellow patches on your squash leaves that turn tan or gray before shriveling up. The best way to prevent it is to simply grow resistant varieties and prevent infected plants from touching healthy ones.
  • Powdery Mildew: Similar in function to downy mildew, powdery mildew looks completely different and is a whitish powder that forms along the stems and leaves. Caused by humidity, infected leaves and plants usually die quickly. Keep infected plants out of contact with healthy ones to prevent the mildew from spreading.

Harvesting and Storing Pumpkins

Your pumpkins will be ready to harvest when the skin of each squash is hard and your fingernail doesn’t leave a mark. It’s sometimes a good idea to wait until after the first frost before harvesting to ensure that the fruit won’t grow any bigger.

To harvest your pumpkins, take a pruning shears and cut the pumpkin stem from the vine, leaving about three inches of stem (to prevent early rotting). After harvesting, handle your pumpkin carefully to prevent it from getting bumped and bruised, as bruises will cause it to rot faster.

You can store your pumpkins throughout the winter if you keep them in a cool, dry place like a basement or a root cellar. These pumpkins can be pulled out throughout the season for a savory meal. With proper storage, pumpkins can last until June. If you don’t want to store your pumpkins in their form, you can steam or puree them and then and then freeze or can them.

Saving Pumpkin Seeds

Storing your own pumpkin seeds couldn’t be simpler. Just scoop out the seeds from the top of your pumpkin and separate them from the pulpy mess inside. Wash the seeds carefully and leave them out to dry overnight. Once the seeds are dry, line them on a flat surface (like a baking sheet) and let them set in a cool, dark place for one month. After a month, sort out the best looking seeds and store them in an envelope until you are ready to plant them.

Choosing the Best Pumpkin Seeds for Your Climate

There are an enormous amount of heirloom pumpkin varieties available to grow, and choosing the right type for your situation can be tricky. Keep in mind that pumpkins take up lots of space, so if your garden is tiny you’ll want to settle for smaller pie varieties rather than record breaking giants. Also, be sure to look at the time to maturity for each species you are considering to ensure that your growing season is long enough for the pumpkin to fully develop.

A smart variety for people with limited space is the Buskin, a solidly seven-pound pumpkin that grows from tiny vines that only take up a few feet of garden space. In some cases, this type has even been grown in containers. You can look through seed catalogs and even attend seed exchanges to learn more about the types of pumpkins that are best suited to your growing situation.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Pumpkins

Learning how to grow incredible pumpkins is a lifelong journey, but these additional tips should point you in the right direction.

  • If you see your pumpkin flowers starting to droop, it’s a sign you have too few pollinating insects. Consider taking a cotton swab from one flower to another in order to do the deed yourself.
  • Weeding isn’t important after your pumpkin has established itself in its patch; in most cases it will easily out-compete all other weeds.
  • Adding compost to your plant’s roots throughout the season will help encourage growth.
  • To concentrate your plant’s efforts on growing one or two incredible pumpkins, pinch off excess blossoms so that all its energy goes towards just a few.