All About Growing Pumpkins

Growing your own pumpkins is as easy as pie! Learn when to plant pumpkins and how to harvest, cure and cook incredibly diverse pumpkin varieties. From fairy tales to the Thanksgiving table, the pumpkin has played an important role in our cultural and gastronomical past.

| June/July 2013

  • Pumpkin Varieties
    There are many beautiful and diverse pumpkin varieties, and each fulfills its own useful niche. Whether you want to bake a delicious pie, carve a grinning jack-oā€™-lantern or roast hulless seeds, there is a pumpkin type for your every whim.
    Illustration By Keith Ward
  • Pumpkin Soup
    In addition to decorating with them, you can use hollowed-out mini-pumpkins as elegant serving vessels for soups or dips.
    Illustration By Keith Ward

  • Pumpkin Varieties
  • Pumpkin Soup

(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)

Delicious, nutrient-packed and easy as pie to store, pumpkins also lead a double life as colorful autumn ornamentals. Fruit sizes range from tiny to huge, with small to medium pumpkins being the best to eat. Growing pumpkins is easy as long as you protect young plants from insect pests and provide ample space for the long vines to run.

Pumpkin Types

For thousands of years, growers have selected pumpkin varieties to maximize different characteristics. Growing pumpkins will be most rewarding if you choose varieties based on what you plan to do with your crop.

Pie pumpkins are the best pumpkins for desserts, grilling, soups and other culinary uses. Little pie pumpkins weigh less than 6 pounds.

Carving pumpkins include larger varieties that are the top choice for jack-o’-lanterns. These decorative types are usually not ideal for cooking, however.

Oilseed pumpkins produce green-striped fruits that you can use for decoration, after which you can harvest the plump, hulless, ready-to-roast seeds.

Moschata pumpkins include numerous heirloom varieties that taste great, store easily and resist attacks by squash vine borers, a serious pumpkin pest.

Miniature pumpkins are small enough to hold in your hand. In addition to decorating with them, you can use hollowed-out mini-pumpkins as serving vessels for soups or dips; the flesh is also edible.

Giant pumpkins grow best in cool northern climates, but gardeners across the country grow these massive pumpkins for competition and exhibition. Despite being edible, they are not grown for cooking.

For more information about types of pumpkins and our recommended varieties, see our Pumpkins at a Glance chart.

When to Plant Pumpkins

Sow pumpkin seeds directly into prepared beds or hills in late spring, after your last frost. Or, try what many gardeners in cool climates do, and set out 3-week-old seedlings in late spring. In Zone 6 and warmer, delay planting pumpkins until early summer to use space vacated by spring crops, and use container-grown seedlings to get summer-planted pumpkins growing on time. Stop planting pumpkins 14 weeks before your first fall frost.

How to Plant Pumpkin Seeds

Choose a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil and a pH level between 5.8 and 6.8. Moschata pumpkins need little pest protection, so many gardeners grow them in an old compost pile that includes composted manure. Other types of pumpkins benefit from the pest protection of floating row covers for at least six weeks after planting, in which case it is most practical to start them in a row, spacing plants 3 feet apart (large-fruited pumpkin varieties may need more room). As you prepare planting holes, mix in a 2-inch layer of mature compost and a light application of a balanced organic fertilizer. Water well. Plant two seeds (or one seedling) in each prepared hole. Install protective row covers over your pumpkins immediately after you plant them. Expect pumpkin vines to run at least 8 feet.

Harvesting and Storage

Pumpkins are ripe when you can’t easily pierce the rind with your fingernail. Try to delay harvest until the vines begin to die back. Use pruning shears to cut pumpkins from the vine, leaving at least 1 inch of stem attached. Wipe fruits clean with a damp cloth, and then cure your pumpkins in a 70- to 80-degree Fahrenheit area for two weeks. Store cured pumpkins in a cool, dry place, such as a basement or garage. Thin-skinned pumpkin varieties (such as ‘Winter Luxury’) and oilseed pumpkins will store for only a few weeks, but some moschata pumpkins will keep for six months or more.

Saving Pumpkin Seeds

As you cut up pumpkins for cooking, set aside the biggest, plumpest seeds from open-pollinated pumpkin varieties to plant in future seasons. Rinse off the seeds, dry at room temperature for two weeks, and then store in a cool, dry place. Because of their high fat content and lack of seed coat, oilseed pumpkin seeds should be stored in the refrigerator.

Pumpkin varieties classified as Cucurbita pepo will readily cross with many types of squash. If you plan to save pumpkin seeds, separate your pumpkins from other squash by growing them as far apart as possible, and by hand-pollinating selected blossoms for seed-saving purposes. Like other squash, pumpkins have male and female flowers, with the females showing a tiny fat pumpkin at the base of the blossom.

To hand-pollinate, pick a newly opened male blossom and tap its pollen into a female flower. The best time to do this is early morning, because that’s when native squash bees — the primary pollinators of pumpkins — are most active.

Pest and Disease Prevention Tips

Several insect pests, including squash bugs, squash vine borers and cucumber beetles, may challenge pumpkins. To prevent early-season problems, cover plants with row covers held aloft with stakes, hoops or fencing-wire cages until the plants begin to bloom. Begin handpicking squash bugs as soon as you remove the covers.

Pumpkins’ ripening period is also powdery mildew season, and only a few resistant varieties are available, all of them hybrids. These include ‘Summit F1’ carving pumpkin and ‘Chef’s Choice F1’ pie pumpkin. To combat powdery mildew, locate pumpkins as far away as possible from summer squash, and avoid crowding the plants. A spray made from 1 part milk and 6 parts water can suppress powdery mildew if applied every two weeks starting when the fruits begin to swell. Stylet oil (a highly refined white mineral oil) can also help prevent powdery mildew when consistently applied.

More Tips for Growing Pumpkins

Try growing pumpkins in the rich, loose soil near a compost pile. Or, you can train them to climb over a fence.

Roll out mulch or newspapers covered with grass clippings to suppress weed growth.

In the Kitchen

The best pumpkin pies start with real, roasted pumpkin. Roast as much as you can fit in your oven, and then freeze the excess so it’s ready for soups, muffins or even cheesecake. Pumpkin flavor gets a boost from bold spices, such as cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Thin slices of pumpkin are great on the grill, and hollowed-out mini-pumpkins make wonderful serving vessels for soups or dips. Use pumpkins that seem weak in flavor for pumpkin butter. All pumpkins are rich sources of vitamins A and C.



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