A quintessential trademark of fall, we see them nestled in dried corn stalks to create porch decorations. They’re turned into delicious baked goods like pies and cookies. The seeds are roasted for snacking, and let’s not forget about it the infamous jack-o-lantern. With so many different uses, anyone with a garden should grow a couple of pumpkin plants.
Growing your own is no more challenging than many other traditional garden vegetables, given you have enough room and your garden gets plenty of sunlight. The following growing guide will walk you through everything you need to know about planting pumpkin seeds.
Native to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and parts of South America, pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family. Pumpkins and corn are the oldest known cultivated crops in the Western hemisphere. In the US, they grow in USDA growing zones 3 to 9.
There are more than 45 different varieties grown worldwide, ranging in size, shape, and color. The end-use should be thought of when deciding what types to grow in your pumpkin patch. Some varieties are best for making pies with their thick, sweet flesh, while others are best for carving and roasting the collected seeds.
Some of the most common garden varieties include:
- Atlantic Giant
- Autumn Gold
- Baby Bear
- Big Max
- Connecticut Field
- Gold Standard
- Jack O’ Lantern
- Small Sugar
- Sweet Sugar Pie
- Tom Fox
Pumpkins have a long growing season, needing on average 75 to 100 days. Plants do best when sown directly into the garden soil after the danger of frost has passed. Direct sow seeds in late May if you live in the North; direct sow in early June for hot, southern climates. You can also start seeds indoors about a month before.
Plants prefer nutrient-rich soil that is well-drained. Before you plant, remove any large rocks and debris from the garden bed and work it eight to ten inches down. Incorporate three or four inches of finished compost or aged manure into the soil to improve fertility and drainage. Then create mounds or hills for planting.
A critical aspect of growing pumpkins in your garden is giving them enough space to stretch out. Some species have vines that grow up to 20’ long! Hills should be 5 feet apart for common varieties and spaced 2 to 3 feet apart for smaller, mini types. Plant seeds 1” deep, with 4 to 5 per mound.
Once plants germinate and the seedlings get to be about two or 3-inches tall, thin them, so there are only two or three plants per hill.
Due to their incredible vine growth and the size of the gourds formed, they need a lot of sunlight, water, and fertilizer during the growing season. They certainly are not a “stick a seed in the ground” and neglect it kind of plant. But when giving the proper care, the end result is worth the effort.
Sow seeds in a spot in your garden where the plants will receive full sun for a good portion of the day. Like other garden veggies, they need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight every day. Sunlight is essential for photosynthesis and other growth processes that develop the beautiful orange orbs we harvest.
Your plants need a great deal of water when they are flowering and then again after pollination when the gourds are forming. Aim to give your plants at least 1” of water every week. If the soil is sandy and drains quickly, or you live in a sweltering, dry climate, you may need to water slightly more.
Due to their prolific vine growth, and the size of the fruits they develop, all cucurbits are heavy feeders, meaning they need regular fertilizer. They benefit from continuous release fertilizer, applied every couple of weeks during the growing season. Use high nitrogen early in the season to promote foliage growth, switching to a higher phosphorus formulation as they start blooming.
Plants are susceptible to competition, so it’s essential to keep weeds at a minimum. Be careful when cultivating to avoid disturbing the shallow root system. You can apply mulch to keep weeds at bay and retain soil moisture. As the vines grow and fill in, they will naturally cover the soil and shade out many weeds.
Pest & Disease Problems
Insect pests include squash bugs, squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, aphids, cutworms, thrips, and leafminers. The best defense uses companion plants like dill, oregano, or marigolds, allowing them to deter pests naturally. Powdery mildew is the most commonly seen disease problem, exacerbated by wet conditions. Monitor plants often for diseases and then treat them immediately if noticed.
Once harvested, pumpkins will not grow anymore or change color, so they should be kept on the vine until ripe. They are ready to harvest when the outside rind has fully developed color, the skin has hardened, and the stem begins to wither and dry. Cut the stem 3 or 4 inches from the pumpkin with a knife or pruners.
If you make sure your plants have all of their basic needs met, the chances are very high you’ll be rewarded with a decent harvest come fall. However, if you’d like to put a little extra effort into growing your pumpkins, the following tips will result in larger fruits and better overall yields.
- Water the soil directly, using a soaker hose or drip irrigation, keeping moisture off the leaves.
- Elevate fruit off the ground using cardboard or newspaper to keep it from rotting.
- Position plants near the edge of the garden to keep them from overtaking other garden veggies.
- Water in the morning if possible.
- Pinch off the tips off the main vines when they reach 2-feet long to encourage branching and higher yields.
- To grow more giant pumpkins, after 3 or 4 have formed, remove the rest as they develop.
- Companion plant with sunflowers, corn, or other tall plants, so the vines shade the soil underneath the others.
- Avoid planting root crops nearby.
- Encourage pollinators to your yard with flowering ornamentals.