Pumpkins are one of the most eagerly awaited signs of fall and extremely fun to grow in the garden. Whether you want to eat, carve, or decorate your pumpkins, there’s a variety out there for you to grow.
The one thing to know about growing pumpkins up front is that they do need a long growing season, plenty of sunshine, and warm weather. If you can give them these things, you’ll likely have success!
Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow your own pumpkin plant, including how to deal with pest problems and how to harvest and store your crop.
All About the Pumpkin Plant
Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are a type of winter squash and easily recognizable by their distinctive shape and coloring. They grow on large, long vines that can easily get 10-15 feet long in one season.
Although the most familiar type of pumpkin is orange and rounded, you’ll find them in all shapes, sizes, and even different colors.
Some pumpkins are flattened (almost wheel-shaped), while others are oval or round. Some have smooth skin, and others are rough or bumpy. You can find both miniature pumpkins and giant ones. You’ll even find varieties that are white, yellow, green, red, and blue.
The traditional orange, round pumpkin is still the most popular for Halloween or Thanksgiving, but you can find some very unique pumpkin varieties if you want something out-of-the-box.
Many people love pumpkins for carving and as a fall, Halloween, or Thanksgiving decoration. However, you can also grow certain types of pumpkins to bake with, and they’ll have a much better flavor than anything you’ll get from a can.
Pumpkins are grown as an annual vegetable in USDA hardiness zones 3-9. They do best in areas with a long, warm growing season, so gardeners in colder zones may struggle a bit.
Normal pumpkin varieties take up a lot of space, so you’ll need to either plan a large garden plot for them, or make use of vertical gardening by buying or constructing trellises for them to climb up.
If you’re short on space, you can look for small or miniature varieties that don’t need as much room to grow.
Best Pumpkin Cultivars
There are a few things to think about when choosing the type of pumpkin plant you want to grow.
First, think about whether you want to eat your harvest or use it decoratively. Almost any type of pumpkin can be carved, but certain varieties will last longer out in the elements. Also, not all pumpkins have a good flavor, so you’ll want to choose a good pie variety for eating.
Knowing what you want to use your pumpkins for is important when it comes to choosing a cultivar. A good carving pumpkin may not be good for baking and vice versa.
Also, think about the size of pumpkin you want. Miniature ones make incredibly cute decorations, while giant ones make a statement (and can be entered into a pumpkin contest).
Here’s a list of some of the best cultivars in different categories:
- ‘Autumn Gold’– Deep golden-orange pumpkins that weigh 7-10 pounds. Quicker to mature than many other varieties- 90 days.
- ‘Jack O’Lantern’– Heirloom variety that was probably one of the originals used for carving. Pumpkins are round or oval and typically weigh 18-24 pounds. 110 days to mature and also good for eating.
- ‘Howden’– Large, 20-30 pound pumpkin perfect for carving. ‘Howden Biggie’ is a tall, larger version. 110-115 days to maturity.
- ‘Lumina’– A white carving pumpkin that will give a “ghostly” look to your jack o’lantern. Also excellent for painting. Fruits are 10-12 pounds and 90-100 days to maturity.
- ‘Winter Luxury’– Heirloom variety that has the most outstanding flavor. Pumpkins are small (5-10 pounds) and excellent for pies. Not a long keeper but can be baked and frozen for long-term storage. 105 days to maturity.
- ‘Early Sweet Sugar Pie’– As the name suggests, this cultivar has an excellent flavor and matures quickly (90 days). Fruits are 6-7 pounds.
Growing your own pie pumpkins will give you the best tasting pumpkin pie you’ve ever had. ‘Winter Luxury’ wins out as far as flavor. ‘Baby Bear’ and ‘Long Island Cheese’ both store very well.
- ‘Baby Bear’– A very small variety (1 ½-2 ½ pounds) with great flavor. 105 days to maturity. Stores well and has seeds that are great for eating.
- ‘Baby Pam’– Another small pie variety with deep orange skin. Fruits get about 4 pounds and 105 days to maturity.
- ‘Long Island Cheese’– A unique heirloom variety that is large, tan, and flattened. Makes great pies but is also excellent for savory dishes like soup. Great for storage. Fruits average 6-10 pounds and 105-110 days to maturity.
- ‘Jack Be Little’ or ‘Jill Be Little’– Both of these varieties are adorable miniature pumpkins that get only about 3-4 inches in diameter. They have a flattened shape, ridges, and take 95 days to maturity.
- ‘Casperita’– This miniature pumpkin is completely white on the outside and checks in at ½-1 pound in weight. Only 77 days to maturity.
- ‘Spark’– Mini pumpkin with a flattened shape and deep orange stripes running down yellow-orange skin. Very decorative and pairs well with all-orange miniature varieties. Weighs about ½ pound and 90 days to maturity.
- ‘Wee B Little’– This is a tiny, rounded pumpkin that grows on bush-like plants. Great for small spaces or container gardens. Fruits are ½-1 pound and loved by children. 90 days to maturity.
Miniature pumpkins are often a favorite of children, and they make great fall decorations. The only drawback is that most mini varieties aren’t edible, so you’ll need to grow another kind for pie making.
- ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’– This cultivar produced the pumpkin that’s the current record holder for size: 1800 pounds! You can easily get 200-300 pound fruit if you thin to the best 2-3 fruits per plant. 120 days to maturity.
- ‘Big Max’– Produces huge, oblong fruit that gets 100-300 pounds on average. Bright orange color and great for both carving and cooking. 125 days to maturity.
Decorative (Specialty) Pumpkins
- ‘Batwing’– A unique pumpkin that yields fruits that are half orange and half dark green. The dark green color can look almost black, giving the appearance of a pumpkin dipped in paint. 90 days to maturity.
- ‘Cinderella’– Also called ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes,’ this is a deep red, slightly flattened pumpkin that gets 10-15 pounds in weight. Very decorative and also good for eating. 115 days to maturity.
- ‘Blue Jarrahdale’– Incredible looking green-blue to gray-blue pumpkin. Flesh is bright orange and excellent for eating. 110 days to maturity.
- ‘Blaze’– A flashy variety with yellow skin striped with orange. 95 days to maturity.
- ‘Speckled Hound’– Pretty pastel orange pumpkin with green splotches. Fruits get 3-6 pounds and 100 days to maturity.
- ‘Pepitas’– Bright orange, rounded fruits with green stripes. Looks decorative and has some of the best seeds for eating. 90 days to maturity.
- ‘Knuckle Head’– Bright orange pumpkin with large warts/bumps. Great Halloween decoration. 105 days to maturity.
How to Grow Pumpkins from Seed
You can buy pumpkin plants at a local greenhouse, but they are very easy to start from seed at home. You’ll also have more choice when it comes to variety if you buy seeds and start them yourself.
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Pumpkins usually prefer to be seeded directly in the ground, but starting them indoors is best if you live somewhere with long winters. Here’s a look at both methods.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Start pumpkin seeds indoors 2-4 weeks before your average last frost date in the spring. Don’t start them too early because they will quickly outgrow their small pots.
Because all winter squash is sensitive to being transplanted, use biodegradable pots that can be planted directly in the ground.
Here are the supplies you’ll need:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Peat pots or another type of biodegradable pots
- Flat tray to hold the pots
- Good quality seed starting soil
- Grow lights (optional but recommended)
- Small fan
To get started, mix your seed starting soil with enough water to get it damp. Then, fill up each biodegradable pot to the top. It’s also a good idea to soak the pots before filling them with soil because they will be very dry straight from the package and can steal moisture from your plants.
Plant 1-2 seeds per pot about 1 inch deep. Make sure the seeds are covered with soil and water them all well. Place the pots in a tray so you don’t get water everywhere.
Growing a pumpkin plant from seed is very easy and rewarding. The seeds sprout quickly, and the seedlings are easy to care for, making them great even for beginner gardeners.
Keep the pots somewhere warm. Seeds normally germinate quickly, usually in less than 10 days.
Once you see your seedlings pop up, place the pots under grow lights or by a very sunny window. Ideally, you want to give them around 12 hours of light each day. Water the soil in the pots before it dries out, and run a fan a few times a day to get good air circulation.
When seedlings are a few inches tall, thin to one per pot by snipping the weaker plant off at soil level.
Pay special attention to biodegradable pots because they dry out quickly and can start wicking moisture out of the soil. If they get really dry, fill your tray with an inch or two of water and let the pots soak it up from the bottom. Empty any excess water.
When seedlings are 3-4 inches tall and have a few sets of true leaves, they can be transplanted once all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed considerably.
Starting Seeds Outdoors
Another option is to plant pumpkins seeds directly in the ground. Wait until all danger of frost has passed in the spring and the soil has warmed considerably- at least 70°F or warmer.
If you live somewhere with a long enough growing season, pumpkin seeds can be started outdoors in your garden. Use mounds or raised beds to help the soil warm more quickly, and plant after all danger of frost has passed.
Before planting your seeds, be sure you weed and clear out the section of garden you plan to plant in. You can also add amendments like compost or well-rotted manure (your pumpkin plant will appreciate lots of nutrients).
Many gardeners will plant pumpkins in mounds that are spaced 4-8 feet apart. This helps the soil to warm up more quickly and also encourages better drainage.
Plant 4-5 seeds per mound about 1 inch deep. Water the seeds well and look for them to sprout in about a week. Once the seedlings get 1-2 inches tall, thin them out to the healthiest one or two for each mound.
Make sure your seedlings stay well-watered (but don’t drown them) as they get established.
Hardening Off Seedlings
If you started seeds indoors, there’s one important step you need to take before transplanting your seedlings to the garden: harden them off.
To harden a plant off means you gradually get it used to outdoor conditions. This step is important for any seedlings that are started indoors but is especially so for pumpkins because they are sensitive to temperature change.
What you’ll need to do is start by taking your seedlings outside on a warm, calm day. Set them in a sheltered area where they will get filtered sunlight and no strong wind, rain, etc. Take the seedlings back inside in the evening before temperatures drop.
Pumpkin plants are very sensitive to cold temperatures all the way from seedling stage to harvest. Be sure you harden off seedlings grown indoors before planting so that they don’t experience a temperature shock.
Continue doing this with your seedlings for about a week, but leave them outside for longer each day, and gradually move them into more sunshine.
After a week, you can start leaving your seedlings out overnight unless cold or harsh weather is called for. Ideally, nighttime temperatures will be in the 60s or 70s°F.
At the end of a second week, you can plant your pumpkins in the garden!
How to Plant Pumpkins
When and Where to Plant
When the danger of frost has passed in the spring and the soil has warmed to at least 70°F, it’s time to put your pumpkin plant (or plants) in the ground. Remember that pumpkins are very sensitive to cold, so don’t rush it.
Select a spot that gets full sun and has enough space for the vines to spread out (either horizontally or vertically).
Pumpkins need well-drained soil and prefer it to be very rich. They are heavy feeders, so adding a lot of compost or rotted manure before planting is a good idea. Be sure to mix it in 8-12 inches deep.
As mentioned, many gardeners like to plant pumpkins and other winter squash in mounds. This is typically a good idea, but if you are already planting in raised beds, mounds won’t be necessary.
If you do want to use mounds, create shallow and wide hills that are spaced 4-8 feet apart. If you have a large growing area and want to do a lot of pumpkins, create raised rows instead.
Most home gardeners don’t have room for a whole pumpkin field in their backyard. Raised beds, mounds, and vertical gardening with trellises are all ways to use a smaller space wisely.
Regardless of which growing method you choose, pumpkins should be spaced at least 4 feet apart and typically 6-10 feet apart in rows.
To plant, dig small holes that are about the size of the root ball of your seedlings. If you used biodegradable pots to start your seeds in, they can be planted directly in the ground, but it’s a good idea to tear the bottoms off to allow the roots easier access to the soil.
Be careful when planting biodegradable pots that the entire pot is below the soil. Any material left sticking out can actually wick moisture away from the roots of your plants, potentially drying them out.
Once all your seedlings are planted, water them in well.
Pumpkin Plant Care
One of the most important care tasks for pumpkins is keeping them watered. They don’t like soggy soil, but they do need consistent moisture in order to develop large, healthy fruit.
As a general guideline, winter squash needs about 1 inch of water per week, and plants benefit from deep watering instead of frequent shallow watering. Avoid getting the leaves wet when you water as much as possible (wet leaves encourage fungal diseases).
Pumpkins use a lot of water as they grow, so make sure you use supplemental water when rain isn’t enough. A drip irrigation system can be very helpful and time-saving if you have a large garden.
Weeding and Mulching
Weeding is very important to keep other plants from competing with yours for water and nutrients. However, the roots of pumpkins are shallow and delicate, so weed carefully and avoid using tools that may damage the roots.
To keep moisture in the soil and keep weeds down, mulch around your pumpkins. Some gardeners opt for black plastic because it warms the soil and keeps weeds at bay, but you can also use something natural like straw.
Because pumpkin plants are such heavy feeders, you can keep adding a side dressing of compost throughout the season to supply them with nutrients.
You can also fertilize every two weeks to encourage better growth. Start with a high nitrogen fertilizer, and use it until plants get about a foot tall. Then, switch to a high phosphorus fertilizer to support the growth of fruit.
If you’ve decided to use a trellis for your plants, the best time to put it in is while the plants are still small. This way, you can train the vines up the trellis as they grow instead of trying to maneuver them when they are large and difficult to handle.
Be sure to pick out a very sturdy trellis that can support both the vines and the pumpkins. You can also use a natural support system like a nearby fence.
Expert Tips for Growing the Perfect Pumpkin
While pumpkins are not hard to grow, getting the “perfect” one is a bit of an art form. Follow these tips to increase your chances of success:
Growing the “perfect” pumpkins takes a bit of work. Pie pumpkins don’t need to look polished, but a few tricks like putting cardboard under growing fruit will help those meant to be decorations look their best.
- The first flowers you see on your plants may not form fruit because both male and female flowers need to open at the same time for this to happen. Be patient, and plant flowers like bee balm or butterfly weed nearby to attract bees that will pollinate your pumpkin plants.
- Once fruit begins to form, start checking each vine to see how many fruits are growing. When there are a few healthy-looking pumpkins forming, pinch off the end of the vine so that it concentrates its energy on just a few fruits.
- If you want to grow a giant pumpkin, select the best looking fruit or two on a single vine and remove the rest.
- When your pumpkins start to ripen, place a piece of cardboard or something similar underneath (like a squash cradle) each one that is laying on the ground. This helps prevent rotting and insect damage. If yours are growing on a trellis, use nylons or netting to make a sling that will support the fruit.
- Be careful anytime you handle the vine. They are often prickly, so it’s a good idea to wear gloves, and are delicate. If you accidentally snap a vine, your pumpkins won’t continue to ripen.
Pests and Problems
Unfortunately, there are a few pests and pathogens that may go after your pumpkin plant. Here’s a look at the major ones you might have to deal with:
- Cucumber Beetles– In spite of their name, cucumber beetles also go after winter squash, including pumpkins. They are small yellow and black striped (or spotted) insects that will chew through the leaves of your plants. Large plants likely won’t be harmed, but they can destroy pumpkin seedlings. If they are a problem in your area, plant your seedlings under row covers. Remove the row covers when plants start to flower so that pollinators can get to them.
Cucumber beetles are a pest of more than just cucumber plants. There are two types- spotted and striped- and both can do major damage to seedlings, although large, healthy plants will usually be fine.
- Squash Bugs– Squash bugs look very similar to stink bugs and can do a lot of damage to leaves. In colder regions, they usually don’t show up until later in the season, and may not do any lasting harm. You can control them by checking the undersides of leaves for their small brown eggs and wiping them off. Also, use row covers over seedlings to avoid early damage. Because they overwinter in leaves and debris, be sure you dispose of all plant material at the end of the season (don’t compost it) and practice crop rotation.
- Squash Vine Borer– Another annoying squash pest, vine borers will bore into the stems of your pumpkins and eat their way through the vines. It can be hard to detect these pests until your plants start suddenly wilting for no reason. The vine borers are the larvae of moths that lay their eggs in the soil at the base of pumpkin stems. You can try to prevent them laying eggs by using row covers over your plants until they flower. Also, try for early detection by looking for “frass” on the stems of your plants. If you catch them early, you can cut the stem of your plant lengthwise, pull out the worm, and bury the cut stem in the soil.
- Powdery Mildew– Powdery mildew is probably the most common plant disease that affects pumpkins. It’s most likely to happen in damp, crowded conditions, so properly spacing plants is essential for prevention. You can also choose pumpkin cultivars that are resistant to mildew.
How to Harvest Pumpkins
It’s important to harvest pumpkins when they are fully mature. You might be tempted to pick some when they are small because they look cute, but they will quickly rot off the vine if picked too early. (Buy a miniature pumpkin plant instead!)
Carefully harvest your pumpkins so that all your hard work growing them pays off. It’s important to leave a good amount of stem intact to help them last longer in storage or as decorations.
Pumpkins can take anywhere from 90-125 days to mature. Look up the days to maturity for your specific variety to get an estimate of when harvest time will be.
You’ll be able to tell your pumpkins are ready by a few key signs:
- Color– Most pumpkins turn a rich orange color when ready to harvest. There shouldn’t be any green left on the fruit, and the color should be deep, not pale. If you are growing pumpkins with different coloring, check the picture of what they should look like and compare it to what’s actually in your garden to tell if they’re ready.
- Thick Skin– If the color looks right, the next test is to try to puncture the skin of your pumpkin with your fingernail. The skin should feel firm and resist puncture. If you can push your fingernail through it, the pumpkin isn’t ready yet.
- Sound– Most ripe pumpkins will have a hollow sound when you knock on them. If they don’t leave them on the vine a while longer.
- Dry Tendril– If you look at the area where the pumpkin stem meets the vine, you’ll notice a short, curly tendril growing out of that spot. This tendril is green for most of the season but will become brown and dried out when the pumpkin is mature. You can check for this sign as well, but keep in mind that insect damage can cause both the vine and tendril to dry out prematurely. Make sure the color and skin are good before harvesting.
Something to keep in mind is that not all of the pumpkins on one vine will mature at the same time. You’ll need to pick each individual one when it’s ready, and keep checking the rest every few days.
When you have some that are ready to harvest, you’ll need a sharp (and sanitized) pair of hand pruners or a sharp knife.
Harvest your pumpkins by carefully cutting them off the vine with 2-4 inches of stem intact. Leaving this much stem on helps them keep longer in storage or as decorations. Avoid cutting too close to the top of the fruit, which will cause decay to start more easily.
Curing pumpkins is a way of toughening up their outer skin so that they will last longer in storage. Any you want to bake right away don’t need to be cured.
Even though they feel very hard and study, pumpkins are delicate! Handle them gently, and don’t hold them by the stem, to avoid dropping and bruising them.
Curing and Storing Pumpkins
If you want to store your pumpkins to cook later in the winter, or if you want them to sit out as decorations, curing them will toughen up the skins and make them last longer.
To do this, simply let them sit out in the sun for 7-10 days. The ideal curing temperature is 80-85°F, but anything close to this will do. You will need to provide some sort of shelter if it rains and bring them inside if frost is called for.
After curing them, pumpkins can be stored somewhere cool and dry. Aim for a storage temperature of around 55°F.
You can also bake pie pumpkins in the oven, puree the flesh, and freeze it for later. It will keep months and even up to a year this way and saves on space.
The Joys of a Pumpkin Plant
There are many great vegetables you can grow in your garden, but pumpkins are one of the most fun! You get to watch the tiny pumpkins form and grow into large pumpkins for pie baking, carving, or fall decorating.
As a good complement to pumpkins, add some zucchini or cucumbers to your garden that will mature much quicker while you’re waiting for the pumpkins to grow. Or add an upright crop like pole beans or tomatoes to contrast the sprawling vines.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.