Ah, the orange, glowing, delightful Jack-O-lantern: it’s perhaps the most immediately recognizable image of Halloween. Each autumn, thousands of families within the U.S. flock to farms, vegetable stands and even supermarkets to buy a pumpkin or two (or more!). But a few in-the-know growers avoid the rush by cultivating their very own decorative pumpkins.
How do these home growers do it? Pumpkin growing isn’t as difficult as you may think. All it takes is a little patience, a lot of yard space and a few tips on how to grow the best pumpkins in the neighborhood. Read on for a tutorial on growing your very own pumpkin patch.
Selecting Your Seeds
Your first consideration is how much land space you have for your pumpkin patch. Pumpkins require a lot of space—often ten feet or more per vine—so be sure you have a sufficient area available for the type of pumpkins you want to grow.
If space in your garden or yard is limited, try one of the two following options:
- Semi-bush hybrids. The most popular variety among these is the Spirit Bush Hybrid. It requires a mere 4-5 feet of space per vine and yields 10-12 lb. fruits, suitable for carving.
- Miniature decorative pumpkins. Jack B. Little, Wee B. Little and Baby Boo all fall under this category. Although the vines on these minis can still get quite long, the light weight of the fruits makes them ideal for a space-saving hanging garden. Simply fill a large size hanging basket with nutrient-rich soil, plant one to two seeds and allow the vine to dangle (it may reach the ground by the time its growth cycle is over). Be sure to keep the soil well watered and fertilized.
The most common commercially grown pumpkin in the U.S. is the Connecticut Field (Jack O’Lantern); you will find seeds for this variety in any plant nursery or store gardening section. Other popular carving-size choices include Howdens, Autumn Golds and Happy Jacks. Each has its pluses and minuses, so choose the variety that is best for you.
Preparing the Soil
Begin preparing your pumpkin bed after all danger of frost is over. Be absolutely sure of this timing – pumpkins are a warm-weather plant and new seedlings will not survive a frost. Depending upon what area of the country you live in, Final Frost will occur anywhere from mid-March to early May.
Choose an area that receives a lot of direct sunlight in the spring and summer; pumpkins prefer at least 6-8 hours of sunlight daily. Pumpkins do well in nutrient-rich soil; consider starting a compost heap or purchasing a fertilizer that contains manure. Otherwise, try turning shavings of your food and lawn leftovers into the soil. (Fruit parings and fallen leaves are popular choices among growers.) Do this well ahead of your planting date so your additives have time to decompose into the soil.
Dig an area approximately 4’X5’ and about 2’ deep and fill with your compost and soil. Remember that your plants will grow beyond this area; the bed is for the initial seedlings and the first root shoots.
Planting the Seeds
If you live in a northern area which experiences very short, cool summers, you can get a jump-start on your pumpkin growing by planting seeds in peat pots about 4-6 weeks before final frost. Otherwise, sow your pumpkin seeds directly into the soil. Poke a hole in the earth 1-2” deep with your finger and drop in two seeds; cover loosely with soil and water well. Space your seed mounds several feet apart (refer to your seed packet for the exact distance your variety requires).
In four to six days, you will be rewarded with a view of your first seedlings. As the plants grow, keep them well watered, but try not to let the leaves get wet; this can promote diseases, including the powdery mildew that is common to pumpkin plants.
Pollination, Maturation and Harvest
When your seedlings are approximately 2-3” high, cut the weaker of the two plants in each pair. You want the soil nutrients to go toward your most viable plants. Now sit back and watch your vines grow! Pumpkin plants grow at an amazing rate. About 40 days after planting, you will begin to see flowers on your pumpkin vines. Pumpkins produce male and female flowers; generally, the males appear first, with the females following a week or two later. Female pumpkin flowers have a tiny “node” below the base of the bloom. If pollinated, this node will begin to grow into a pumpkin. Insects will probably do the pollinating for you, but if you’re unsure, take the pollen from a male flower with a small paint brush or Q-tip and transfer it to the inside of each female flower.
Depending upon the variety, your pumpkins will be mature and ready to pick 95-120 days after planting. Be sure to leave a few inches of stem on the pumpkin when you cut it; an accidental slice into the fruit will dramatically shorten its shelf life. Store your pumpkins in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to carve them.
Pumpkin growing is a delightful activity for adults and children alike. Get your kids in on the growing action by involving them in every step of the growing process. You’ll leave them with an experience they’ll always remember. Just be sure to save some seeds for next year’s growing season!