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Growing Pumpkins: How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Pumpkins | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Pumpkins

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Maximkabb/Getty
Botanical Name
Cucurbita maxima, C. moschata, C. argyrosperma
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Pumpkin Planting & Growing | Learn How Pumpkins Grow

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Whether you use them for carving or cooking, pumpkins do not disappoint—if you have the space to grow them. Learn how to plant pumpkins—especially in time for Halloween—as well as grow, harvest, cure, and store this nutritious, delicious American native.

About Pumpkins

Did you know pumpkins have been grown in North America for almost 5,000 years? It’s a lot of fun to grow this native plant.

There are two requirements for growing this winter squash: 1) Having the space to grow them (ideally 1,000 square feet per plant) and 2) having a long growing season (generally 75 to 100 frost-free days). Growers in northern locations need to plant by late May; in southern states, plant by early July. 

Pumpkins do require a lot of nourishment. That said, pumpkins are easy to maintain.

Of autumn’s wine, now drink your fill;
The frost’s on the pumpkin, and snow’s on the hill.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, 1993

Planting

Pick a spot in full sun with space for sprawling vines to run: 50 to 10 square feet per plant. If space is limited, plant at the edge of the garden and direct vine growth across the lawn or paths. Vines will be bothersome for only a few weeks. In a very limited space, grow pumpkins in 10-, 12-, and 15-gallon buckets (depending on variety) or try miniature varieties. Pumpkins are heavy feeders! It’s important to mix aged manure and/or compost into the soil.

When to Plant Pumpkins

Pumpkins are sensitive to the cold. Do not sow seeds directly until well after danger of frost is past and the soil is between 65° and 95°F (18° to 35°C). If the soil is at 70°, seedlings should emerge in 5 to 10 days. For cooler climates, this is often in late May. Our Planting Calendar shows you the FIRST planting date for your location.

  • To have pumpkins for Halloween, look at the seed packet for how many days to harvest. Count backward from a week or so before Halloween to know when to sow the seeds.
  • Where the growing season is very short, start by sowing indoors in peat pots, 2 to 4 weeks before last spring frost.

How to Plant Pumpkins

  • Plant in rows 6 to 10 feet apart. Or, plant in hills 4 to 8 feet apart. A hill does not mean the soil has to be mounded; it’s a spot containing a group of plants or seeds. Hills warm soil quickly (so seeds germinate faster) and aid with drainage and pest control. Prepare hills by digging down 12 to 15 inches and mixing/filling in with lots of aged manure and/or compost.
  • In rows, sow seeds 6 to 12 inches apart. Once seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to one plant every 18 to 36 inches.
  • In hills, set seeds 1 inch deep with four or five seeds per hill. Keep seeds moist until germination. When seedings are 2 to 3 inches tall, thin to two or three per hill by snipping out unwanted plants.
  • If sowing indoors in peat pots, harden off seedlings before transplanting into warm, aged manure/compost-enriched soil.

Learn more about preparing soil for planting

In this video, Ben shows us his method for growing pumpkins!

Growing
  • Use row covers to protect plants early in the season and to prevent insect problems. However, remember to remove covers before flowering to allow pollination.
  • Bees are essential for pollination, so be mindful when using insecticides to kill bugs or fungicides to control fungus. If you must use, apply only in the late afternoon or early evening, when blossoms are closed for the day. To attract more bees, try placing a bee house in your garden. Or, grow colorful flowers near the patch. 
  • Pumpkins need 1 inch of water per week. Water deeply, in the morning and on very hot afternoons, especially during fruit set. Avoid watering foliage and fruit unless it’s a sunny day. Dampness invites rot and disease.
  • Add mulch around your pumpkins to retain moisture, suppress weeds, and discourage pests.
  • Weed gently; pumpkins have shallow roots that can be easily damaged. Also, take care not to damage the delicate vines; the quality of the fruit depends on them.
  • Side-dress with aged manure or co most mixed with water. 
  • Small vine varieties can be trained to grow up a trellis. Larger varieties can be trained upward, too, to support the fruit, usually with netting or old stockings.
  • Pumpkins are heavy feeders. Side-dress with aged manure or compost mixed with water. When plants are about 1 foot tall, just before vines begin to run, fertilize regularly with a high-nitrogen formula. Just before the blooming period, switch to a high-phosphorus formula fertilizer.
  • If your first flowers aren’t forming fruits, that’s normal. Both male and female blossoms need to open. Be patient.

How to Grow a Bigger Pumpkin

  • After a few pumpkins have formed, pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine to stop vine growth and focus plant energy on the fruit.
  • Pruning the vines may help with space and fruit formation. Pumpkins produce main vines (from the base/center of the plant), secondary vines from the main ones, and tertiary vines from the secondary vines. All may have flowers. Once fruit has started to develop, prune the main and secondary vines to 10 to 15 feet and remove the tertiary vines, if desired. Bury the cut tips in soil.
  • Or, gardeners who are looking for a “prize for size” pumpkin might select the 2 or 3 prime candidates and remove all other fruit and vines.
  • As the fruit develops, turn them—with great care not to hurt the vine or stem—to encourage an even shape. Slip a thin board or stone or piece of plastic mesh under pumpkins to protect them from rotting on the soil.
  • To grow a giant pumpkin, try the ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’ jumbo variety. Fruit can grow to 200 pounds on 25-foot vines. Plants need 130 to 160 days to mature, so start seedlings indoors, then thin to the best 1 or 2 to plants. 
  • Feed heavily and cultivate shallowly.
  • Remove the first two or three female flowers to generate more leaf surface before a plant sets fruit.
  • Allow one fruit to develop. Remove all other female flowers.
  • Take care that the vine does not root down near the joints to avoid breakage.

Spacing for Pumpkins

Harvesting

Your best bet is to harvest pumpkins when they are fully mature—and not before. They will keep best this way. Do not pick pumpkins off the vine because they have reached your desired size. (If you want small pumpkins, grow a small variety.)

  • Harvest on a dry day after the plants have died back and the skins are hard.
  • The skin of a ripening pumpkin turns a deep, solid color (orange for most varieties) and the stem hardens. 
  • Thump the pumpkin with a finger; the rind will feel hard and sound hollow. Press a fingernail into the pumpkin’s skin; if it resists puncture, it is ripe.
  • Carefully cut the fruit off the vine with a sharp knife or pruners; do not tear it. Be sure not to cut too close to the pumpkin. Leave 3 to 4 inches of stem to increase its keeping time. 
  • Handle pumpkins very gently or they may bruise. Never carry a pumpkin by its stem.

How to Cure, Store, and Display Pumpkins

  • To toughen the skin and intensify flavor, cure pumpkins in a sunny spot for about 10 days in an area that is 80º to 85º F, with 80 to 85% humidity. This is a great time to display your pumpkin on the front porch! If you’re carving a pumpkin, carve no more than 3 days before Halloween or the pumpkin will begin to rot. 
  • After curing, store pumpkins in a cool, dry cellar or root cellar or the like at 50º to 55ºF for 2 to 3 months.
  • Properly saved seeds should last for 6 years.

Check out this video for tips on curing and storing pumpkins.

Wit and Wisdom

Pumpkin Trivia

  • A slice of pumpkin pie before bedtime may help you to sleep.
  • Pumpkins were once thought to cure snakebites.
  • Pumpkins have been grown in North America for almost 5,000 years.
  • Pumpkins are a nutritional powerhouse! Learn more about winter squash’s health benefits!
  • Pumpkin halves were once used as guides for haircuts in colonial days, giving rise to the nickname “pumpkinhead.”

Carving Pumpkins

Pests/Diseases

Be aware that poor light, too much fertilizer, poor weather at bloom time, and reduced pollinating insect activity can result in poor fruit set, shape, and excessive blossom drop.

Pumpkin Pests and Diseases

Pest/Disease Type Symptoms Control/Prevention
Anthracnose Fungus Yellow/brown/purple/black spots on leaves; sunken, dark spots on stems and fruit; spots may develop a salmon-pink, gelatinous mass; eventually, rot Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties; provide good drainage; avoid overhead watering; apply compost; use mulch; rotate crops
Aphids Insect Misshapen/yellow leaves; distorted flowers/fruit; sticky “honeydew” (excrement); sooty, black mold Grow companion plants; knock off with water spray; apply insecticidal soap; put banana or orange peels around plants; wipe leaves with a 1 to 2 percent solution of dish soap (no additives) and water every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks; add native plants to invite beneficial insects
Blossom-end rot Disorder Dark, water-soaked spots on blossom end of fruit (opposite stem) may enlarge and become sunken and leathery Caused by lack of calcium in fruit, often due to roots failing to obtain sufficient water and/or nutrients. Remove affected fruit; plant at proper soil temperature; water deeply and evenly; use mulch; maintain proper soil pH (around 6.5) and nutrient levels; avoid excessive nitrogen; provide good drainage; prevent root damage
Cucumber beetles Insect Holes in leaves/flowers; rasped fruit; plants stunted/die Handpick; mulch heavily; use row covers; destroy plants infected with bacterial wilt (Bacterial wilt signs: wilting; plants die; ends of cut stems, when pressed together for 10 seconds and pulled apart, release stringy, white sap)
Downy mildew Fungus Yellow, angular spots on upper leaf surfaces that turn brown; white/purple/gray cottony growth on leaf undersides only; distorted leaves; defoliation Remove plant debris; choose resistant varieties; ensure good air circulation; avoid overhead watering
Powdery mildew Fungus Typically, white spots on upper leaf surfaces expand to flour-like coating over entire leaves; foliage may yellow/die; distortion/stunting of leaves/flowers Destroy infected leaves or plants; choose resistant varieties; plant in full sun, if possible; ensure good air circulation; spray plants with 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 quart water; destroy crop residue
Mosaic virus (cucumber) Virus Varies with plant, but may include stunting, mottled green/yellow/white pattern or ringed spots on leaves/fruit; distorted leaf growth; warts on fruit Destroy infected plants; choose resistant varieties and certified virus-free seed; use row covers; disinfect tools; weed; control aphids; use mulch
Squash bugs Insect Many small, yellow/brown/black spots on leaves; wilt; scarred fruit Handpick; crush yellow/bronze egg clusters on leaf undersides; lay boards on soil and check for pests underneath each morning; remove plant debris; use row covers; rotate crops
Squash vine borer Insect Vines wilt suddenly; plants die; mushy area and /or green to orange-yellow, sawdust-like excrement on/near base of plant stem If detected early, slit infested stem lengthwise halfway to remove borer larvae, then bury the cut in moist soil to encourage rooting; wrap seedling stems in aluminum foil collar; catch moths with yellow sticky traps; use row covers if no pests previously, but uncover before flowering; destroy crop residue; rotate crops
Cooking Notes

Gardening Calendar