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How to Grow Pumpkins

At long last the summer days are beginning to cool down and the leaves on the trees are starting to change from bright green to vivid oranges, reds and yellows. That’s right—fall is finally right around the corner. Fall is a favorite season for many people, and rightfully so with its cool, crisp temperatures, beautiful natural vistas and, of course, Halloween! Many people also love fall for its wide selection of delicious produce. Pumpkins in particular are a fan favorite, as the plant serves as the unofficial mascot of fresh fall produce. Whether they are used in homemade pumpkin pies or as spooky carved decorations for your front porch, pumpkins can bring a smile to nearly everyone’s face. What many people don’t realize is that growing pumpkins in your vegetable garden is fairly simple as long as you know what the plants require and follow the steps carefully. Listed below is a comprehensive guideline on how to successfully plant and grow your own pumpkins!

To begin your pumpkin-growing process, you should first consider where exactly you are going to plant your seedlings. Try to pick a site with full sun and lots of space for sprawling vines. If your garden space is limited, don’t fret! Planting pumpkins at the edge of your garden will allow you to direct vine growth across your lawn with ease. You can also grow pumpkins in a large 5- to 10-gallon bucket if need be. It is important to note that pumpkins require nutrient-rich soil—and a lot of it—as their large size tends to foster an even larger appetite for fresh soil. Make sure the soil you lay down is well-drained and not too soggy. Mixing composts and manure into the planting site before sowing your seedlings is a great way to ensure your plants will be provided with all the nutrients they need to grow big and tall.

Your next step is to either purchase pumpkin seedlings or pumpkin seeds from your local nursery. It is generally recommended that you opt for seedlings, as they are vastly easier to grow. If you do choose to plant seeds over seedlings, follow the tips below. The tips located toward the bottom of the list are also applicable to planting seedlings.
  • If your growing season is particularly short, it is recommended that you first plant your seeds indoors in peat pots about two to four weeks before the last spring frost.
  • Wait until the plant soil reaches a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or more before sowing the seeds. Keep in mind that the optimum soil temperature for growing pumpkins is typically around 95 degrees Fahrenheit and pumpkins are extremely sensitive to the cold.
  • Carefully sow seeds 6 to 12 inches apart in rows that are 6 to 12 feet apart in rows that are the size of small pitcher mounds. With these small “hills,” the soil will warm more quickly and the seeds will germinate much faster. Doing so also tends to help with drainage and pest control.
  • Next, prepare the hills in advance with an abundance of old manure dug deep into the ground—about 13 inches. If you do not have access to manure, loosen your soil and mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost.
  • Plant your pumpkin seeds 1 inch deep into the hills (laying four or five seeds per hill), and space the hills 4 to 8 feet apart.
  • Your plants should end up germinating in less than a week if the soil temperature is just right, and sprouts will likely rise out of the soil within five to 10 days.
  • When the pumpkin sprouts reach 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to two or three plants per hill by snipping off unwanted plants without disturbing the roots of the remaining plants.
  • Snip off plants until there is only one plant every 18 to 36 inches.

Caring for Your Patch
Once the sprouts have successfully grown and you have minimized the number of plants to one every 18 to 36 inches, you can then use row covers to protect the plants early in the season. Doing this will prevent insect problems and avoid pest-related issues. Keep in mind that it is vital you remove the covering before the sprouts flower to allow for pollination.

Pumpkins tend to be very thirsty plants that require lots and lots of water to grow. Be sure to give the plants 1 inch of water per week and water the soil deeply, especially during fruit set. When watering, try to keep any foliage and fruit dry unless it’s a sunny day and the water can easily evaporate. Overexposure to damp conditions typically makes rotting a much greater possibility. Add mulch around your pumpkins to lock in moisture and fend off any pests that may dig up your plants. Also remember that pumpkins are tender from planting to harvest, so be sure to control weeds with mulch as well. Over-cultivation also opens the opportunity for damage to your plants. Over-cultivating may damage the pumpkin’s shallow roots and stop the growing process altogether.

Once the vines begin to form, make sure to direct them away from other plants. If not redirected, the vines may strangle the plants and kill them. Pumpkin vines, though obstinate, are very delicate. Try your hardest not to damage the vines, as damage readily reduces the quality of the fruit produced. Remember not to panic if your first flowers aren’t forming fruits—both male and female blossoms need to open, so fruit formation can take a long time. Also remember that bees play an essential role in the growing process. Do not use any insecticides or other pest control products, as it will kill the bees trying to pollinate your plants and deter other bees from going anywhere near your pumpkin patch.

As mentioned, pumpkins are heavy feeders, so be sure to add manure or compost to your soil and mix with water regularly. Using nitrogen-rich fertilizers in the early growing stages will help with germination and will kick-start the growing process at a much faster rate than if you use other formulas. Switch over to a fertilizer that is high is phosphorous just before the blooming period. When the plant begins to bloom, pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine after a few pumpkin fruits have formed. This will stop vine growth so that the plant’s energy can be focused solely on growing the size of its fruit. As the fruit develops and grows larger in size, the plant should be turned very carefully so as to not break any vines or compromise the fruits’ shape. Slipping a thin board or a piece of plastic mesh under the pumpkins will make the turning process a much easier feat.

Harvesting Your Pumpkins
You have finally come to the fun part—harvesting your prized possessions! Be sure not to pick pumpkins off their vines when they reach your desired size, as they may still be growing. Your best bet is to pick the pumpkins when they are completely mature and finished growing. A pumpkin is ripe and mature when its skin turns a deep, solid color—which, as you probably know, is an orange color. You can also tell if a pumpkin is fully mature if, when you touch it, the rind feels hard and the fruit itself sounds hollow. A good test is to press your thumbnail gently into the pumpkin’s skin—if the fruit’s skin resists puncture, it is fully ripened!

To harvest your pumpkin, cut the fruit off the vine carefully with a sharp knife or pruning shears—never tear the vine with your hands. Also be sure not to cut too close to the pumpkin itself. Keeping a lengthy stem of about 3 to 4 inches will help increase the pumpkin’s keeping time. Leave your pumpkin out in the sun for about two weeks—doing so will “cure” it and toughen its skin, making it fully ready to be used in a variety of applications.

You have now successfully grown and harvested your own pumpkins! Not only is growing your own pumpkins a fulfilling process, it provides a great learning opportunity for all those involved. Have any pumpkin-growing tips we forgot to mention in our blog post? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!