Whether for jack-o'-lantern carving, decorating, or baking into pies, October is pumpkin time! Gardeners wait eagerly all season long to harvest this quintessential fall crop, beginning in early summer when seeds are tucked into warm soil, through the summer months as the vines run and the fruits begin to size up, and finally on into fall when the large pumpkins are ready to pick at last. How we treasure this colorful bounty! And pumpkins deliver great nutrition as well as good eating. Their sweet flesh is loaded with the healthful antioxidant beta-carotene, along with fiber, Vitamin C, and other nutrients.
The key to the perfect pumpkin starts with choosing varieties well suited to your intended use. If you plan to bake pies or use your pumpkin in other cooked dishes, select a variety bred for sweet, tasty flesh. These are generally smaller varieties that have smoother, denser flesh with higher sugar content than the large varieties bred for carving and decoration, although some selections offer both size and good eating. In addition to its delicious taste, bright orange pumpkin flesh is high in fiber, low in calories, and loaded with good nutrition.
If your goal is to carve the spookiest jack-o'-lanterns, a medium sized, 20-25 pound variety is easy to handle. For a really eerie look, grow the white-skinned 'Lumina' for its ghostly effect.
Or perhaps you want to go for the wow factor and grow a variety such as 'Dill's Atlantic Giant' that's bred to reach mammoth size. Who knows? Maybe yours will break the 1844.5 pound world record that was set with this variety. Just be prepared to find someone with a bucket loader to help you get it to the fair for a blue ribbon!
And don't forget the mini-pumpkins, perfect for small hands to harvest and hold. If you’re short on space and don’t have room to grow a large vine, mini-pumpkin vines can be grown vertically up a sturdy structure. Support the fruits as they develop in slings made from soft material such as old pantyhose or pieces of an old tee-shirt.
Pumpkin plants need full sun and do best in light, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8 and enriched with lots of organic matter. Be sure the growing space is adequate for the size of the vine at maturity. If your space is tight, look for bush or semi-bush varieties that produce shorter vines.
When to Plant
Like other members of the squash family, pumpkins like it warm, so wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F before planting seeds, usually a week or two after the last spring frost date. Gardeners in northern areas can speed things along by covering the bed with black plastic to warm the soil for a couple of weeks before planting time. You can also get a head start by planting seeds early indoors in peat pots 2 to 3 weeks before your last frost date. Pumpkin seedlings grow quickly and young vines transplant best, so don't start seeds indoors any earlier.
Sow seeds one inch deep. You can either plant seeds in hills, sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest vines, or in rows, spacing plants 3-5 feet apart in the row and allowing at least 8 feet between rows. When growing semi-bush varieties, plants can be spaced 1-3 feet apart in rows 4-6 feet apart.
Row covers placed over newly seeded or transplanted pumpkins are a great way to keep out pests such as cucumber beetles and squash bugs, but they need to be removed when the plants begin to flower so bees can get in to pollinate.
Keep your vines vigorous by giving them a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks. And make sure your vines get consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture.
To help keep your vines in bounds and encourage pumpkins to mature faster, you can pinch off the tips of the vines after they have set fruit. As your pumpkins grow, you may want to carefully rotate them so they develop a symmetrical shape. To prevent rot from setting in where the pumpkin fruit touches the soil, slide a wooden shingle or a thin board underneath each fruit as it develops.
Squash Bugs: These drab grayish-brown, flat-backed insects, about 1/2 inch long, feed by sucking out the plant’s sap, causing leaves to wilt and die; bugs may also damage pumpkins fruits. Look for and crush clusters of small, shiny, orange-brown eggs on the undersides of leaves, and keep an eye out for the immature nymphs, which look like big gray aphids. Handpick the adults and nymphs and drop them into a container of soapy water to drown; the adult bugs will give off an unpleasant odor if crushed. Place boards in the garden as traps offering squash bugs a place to congregate at night. Go out in the morning and scoop up the bugs into a container of soapy water. Keep the area at the base of plants free from mulch, as it can provide a protected spot for the bugs.
Cucumber beetles: These small yellow-green beetles with either black spots or stripes on their backs feed on the leaves and stems of pumpkins and related plants; a heavy infestation may totally destroy young plants. The eggs they lay hatch into white grubs that can stunt plants by feeding on their roots. In addition to the direct damage they do, the beetles can spread bacterial wilt and mosaic virus, two diseases that can harm or even kill plants. Cover seedbeds or transplants with floating row covers immediately at planting time. You'll need to remove the covers when plants begin to bloom to allow bees in to pollinate, but covering helps to minimize damage to plants at the vulnerable seedling stage. Plants can be sprayed (or dipped, in the case of transplants) with a kaolin clay mixture. This natural product coats the leaves and repels beetle feeding. Combine with yellow sticky traps for additional non-chemical control.
Squash vine borers: These pests bore into the stems of pumpkins, as well as summer and winter squash, causing the plants to wilt and eventually die. Whitish caterpillars with brown heads, they are the larval stage of a day-flying moth that looks like a wasp. The adults emerge from cocoons in the soil in early summer and lay eggs around the base of the vines. After the caterpillars hatch out, they tunnel into the stems to feed. Look for holes in the stems near the base of the plant, along with piles of a sawdust-like material called frass (aka caterpillar poop). Once inside the stems, the caterpillars are safe from any externally applied insecticides. To help prevent egg laying, cover plants with floating row covers until they begin to bloom (as long your plants aren’t growing where borers were a problem the previous year; otherwise moth may emerge within the covering). After the covering is removed to let bees reach flowers to pollinate them, wrap the base of the stems and the soil that surrounds them with aluminum foil to prevent egg laying. Check frequently for evidence of borers in the stems. At the first sign, carefully slit open the infested section of stem, pluck out the borer with tweezers, and mound soil over the cut section of stem to encourage new roots to form there.
Powdery mildew: This fungus disease causes white, powdery growth on both the tops and undersides of leaves, causing them to wither and die and reducing yield and fruit quality. High humidity and shade favors the development of this disease, so be sure vines are spaced out to allow good light and air circulation. Try to keep vines as vigorous as possible, as stressed plants are the most susceptible to infection. At the first sign of infection, spray plants weekly with a powdery mildew-control product approved for organic gardening, such as horticultural plant oils or potassium bicarbonate sprays. Clean up the garden well at the end of the season. Choose powdery mildew-resistant varieties.
Pick your pumpkins when they have fully developed the color for their particular variety; when the rind is hard enough that you can't dent it with a fingernail; and when the stem turns hard and begins to shrivel. But be sure to harvest pumpkins before the first hard frost to prevent chilling injury that will keep them from storing well. Cut, rather than pull, pumpkins from the vine, leaving several inches of stem attached. Never carry a pumpkin by its stem; if it breaks off, the pumpkin won't keep long.
For the longest storage, cure your pumpkins to dry and harden their shells completely. Place in a warm (75-85 degrees F is ideal), well-ventilated spot for a week or two -- perhaps near a furnace or on an enclosed porch. Wipe the pumpkin's outer rind with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 4 parts water to kill mold spores. After curing, store pumpkins a cool, dark spot (50- 60 degrees F), such as a cool closet. Check them periodically and remove any that show signs of rot.
- To prolong the decorative lifespan of your carved pumpkin, coat the cut surfaces of the Jack-o'-lantern with petroleum jelly or vegetable oil.
- Don't forget to "harvest" the edible seeds when you carve your pumpkin. Separate the seeds from the stringy pulp by washing the seeds well. Spread them on a cookie sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt if desired. Toast them for 3 or 4 minutes at 375 degrees, stir, and toast another 2 or 3 minutes until they're evenly golden. Cool them to room temperature, and enjoy!
- The largest pumpkin grown in the U.S to date weighed a whopping 2,145.5 pounds. It was grown in 2015 by a factory worker in Streator, Illinois. Amazingly enough, this did not set the world record. That goes to a gardener in Switzerland who grew a 2,323 pound behemoth in 2014!
- The largest pumpkin pie ever made was twenty feet wide and weighed 3699 pounds. It was made by New Bremen Giant Pumpkin Growers (USA) at New Bremen Pumpkinfest in New Bremen, Ohio, in 2010. Try bringing that to the table at Thanksgiving!
With gratitude for the Abenaki agricultural traditions, Common Roots Farm shares squash! Journey with Farmer Fae into the fall harvest on the farm, discover the Seven Sisters, and enjoy a culinary lesson with Abenaki chef Jesse and Common Roots chef Zach.