Perhaps you have been encouraged by your kids, grandkids or just the kid in you to try your hand at raising holiday pumpkins – either for Halloween or Thanksgiving – in your garden but were afraid to try. Don’t despair. Growing those holiday pumpkins is much easier than you may think. The two primary requirements are appropriate timing and a lot of space.
When to Plant
The most important thing about growing the great pumpkin is timing since your goal is to have your crop mature at the proper time. Most pumpkin varieties need about 90 to 120 days to reach maturity. So, that means that you need to plant sometime between June 1 and July 1 in order for your pumpkins to mature by Halloween (October 31). Pumpkins keep well after they have been harvested, but there is no way to rush the ripening process if you plant too late. We started our pumpkin patch last year on July 1 and had tons of pumpkins of all different sizes for both Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Next to timing, the amount of space required to grow pumpkins is an important consideration. A hill with a couple of pumpkin plants will require up to 200 square feet of space (that’s the amount of space in a 10 foot by 20 foot garden). Last year we planted ours where the sweet corn had grown and it worked out perfectly with the pumpkin vines filling the space where the corn had been. It was an attractive addition and helped hold the weeds at bay as well. If space allows, you could follow just about any crop or group of crops that have already been harvested by mid June with a crop of pumpkins. Although we have never tried it, it is conceivable that you could plant your pumpkin seed in a small area of your garden and just let the vines take over the rest of your garden as summer progresses and the other crops finish their cycle without removing the spent plants.
There are several types of pumpkins that you can plant. The really large types like Dill’s Atlantic Giant and Big Max are fun to grow since they can reach bragging size without much trouble. There are also smaller types, some of which are horticulturally classified as squash although they look just like pumpkins. The way to tell a real pumpkin from an impersonator is to study the stem at harvest. The stem of a true pumpkin will be angular and tough when you cut it. The stem of the look alike will be round and much easier to cut. Otherwise, they look and taste the same. Some pumpkins come in different shades of orange as well as blue and white. Jack Be Little is a midget variety that produces pumpkins small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Lumina is a white pumpkin that can be down right spooky when painted up as a jack-o’-lantern. Mammoth Gold averages 20 to 25 pounds and is a good choice for pies.
Pumpkins will develop Texas size root systems so they need to be planted in relatively loose, well-drained soil. They will respond well to the addition of several inches of high quality compost over the entire planting area. At this time you should also apply several pounds of barnyard manure or organic fertilizer per 100 square feet to the planting bed. If you garden in East Texas check the pH prior to planting. Pumpkins will not grow well if the pH is below 5.5 so the addition of lime may be necessary. If possible, incorporate these amendments into the planting bed with a rototiller. This will also reduce weed competition, loosen the soil and get your pumpkins off to a healthy start.
How to Plant
Plant your pumpkins in hills or groups of about 5 to 6 seeds, 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep. With summer planting it is helpful to apply a thin layer of compost to the freshly planted seed bed. This will help cool the soil and retain moisture. Soil temperature should be between 75 and 95 degrees at the planting depth. Space the hills about 6 feet apart in rows that are at least 8 feet apart. In actuality, most gardeners may only plant one or two hills because of limited space. If that is your situation, consider planting your seed around the perimeter of your garden to conserve space. The growing vines can be easily redirected before the tendrils become attached to your favorite rose bush or your wife’s Lexus.
Depending on the weather, your seeds should germinate in 5 to 7 days. Once they have emerged, wait about 10 days and thin the plants to the two most vigorous seedlings per hill. Use scissors or your fingers to snip off the seedlings to be removed to avoid damaging the roots of the remaining plants.
Pumpkins are fairly drought tolerant but need a good, deep watering once a week if rainfall does not occur. If you fail to keep them well watered they may drop their blooms and not form any fruit. Even if you water adequately, you may notice that the leaves will wilt in mid-afternoon on a midsummer day. But don’t worry. This is a common occurrence and the vines will bounce back as evening approaches.
If your plants show a lack of vigor or you just want to maximize production, top dress your pumpkin vines with compost tea or a couple tablespoons of nitrogen fertilizer about three to four weeks after you have thinned them.
Pumpkins, like other cucurbits, require insects, namely bees, for pollination. That is why it is best not to use any toxic insecticides on your vines, particularly in the early mornings when bees are present. Just remember: No bees, no pollination. That is, unless you do the pollination yourself which is very doable. In the early morning, just take a little pollen from the male flower (flower will be attached to a plain stem) with a Q-tip and apply it to the pistil inside the female flower (one with small pumpkin at its base). The female flowers are only open early in the morning and only for one day so timing is important here as well. Within a few days of successful pollination, either by bee or by thee, you will notice the small pumpkin behind the petal of the female starting to swell.
There are several insects and diseases that affect pumpkins. Most problems, like squash bugs, aphids and cucumber beetles, as well as powdery mildew and downy mildew are manageable using organic techniques. The biggest problem we have had in the past was with powdery mildew which thrives in hot, dry weather which is so typical of our Texas summers. Pumpkins are so tough that we have found it very easy to grow a good crop without spraying anything other than a little water/citrus oil/compost tea to chase the cucumber beetles off into the next county. Of course, we scout for squash bug casings and remove them when found and otherwise use good cultural practices. Many commercial growers spray routinely for mildew and insects but we would rather have our grandkids hugging, carving and eating, pumpkins free from any residue even if we have to accept a few blemishes along the way. After all, we want our pumpkins to glow in the dark, not our kids.
Pumpkins can be harvested at any stage. In Mexico, folks actually harvest the small immature pumpkins and prepare them just as you would prepare zucchini or yellow summer squash. Chances are, you will want to wait until yours are bragging size, or at least mature for the smaller varieties. When mature, the skin of a pumpkin will be tough and hard to penetrate with your fingernail. To harvest, cut the stem with a knife, leaving several inches on the pumpkin. Use immediately or leave in the garden for a few days to “cure” if they are intended for long term storage. Pumpkins will stay good for a long time but need to be covered or brought inside when a hard freeze is expected. Pumpkins that are harvested in September will easily last through Thanksgiving if properly cured and protected from a hard freeze.
Willhite Seed Co.
P.O. Box 23
Poolville, TX 76487-0023