Happy July! Now is the month to plant those pumpkins for Halloween harvesting. Good for us, pumpkin seeds are relatively cheap and easy to grow. Pumpkins have amazing varieties that are deliciously nutritious to eat and super fun to carve. The presence of pumpkins, and other colorful gourds, announces fall as much as a tree’s vibrant changing leaves.
All kinds of winter squash can be grown easily and enjoyed for both cooking and decorating. The following pumpkin growing directives can be applied to all winter squash.
Note: all squash should be started in spring whether they be “summer squash” or “winter squash” and they are both harvested through summer and fall. “Winter squash” can keep going, holding on to the vine into fall and be stored for months and preserved for years. “Summer squash,” on the contrary, is thin-skinned and quick-cooking: i.e. zucchini, crookneck, pattypan. “Winter squash” has a tough rind and is usually pureed or baked: pumpkin, butternut, acorn. The sheer number of varieties are inspiring. Let’s grow some!
First let’s talk about the how-to’s of planting and then we will explore the varieties.
Start pumpkins indoors 4 weeks before frost if you like, or plant directly in the ground once the weather warms up. Here in Los Angeles, we can plant directly in-ground from April on. I have read that filing large pumpkin seeds helps the baby pumpkin burst from its seed more easily. Worth trying! File all sides of the seeds except the pointed end and plant the seed with the pointed end down. You can also soak the seeds for a couple hours to improve your chances of germination.
It is recommended that you plant your seeds in mounds. I usually make a 12″ wide mound, 3″ high and put 2-3 seeds in each mound. The mounds can be made 12″ apart. The pumpkins will vine out from there wherever their instincts take them!
The more space you give your pumpkins, the larger and more prolific they will become. That being said, I’ve grown carving-size pumpkins in containers. Just try to give your pumpkins as much air as possible by keeping inter-planting to a minimum and giving them room to ramble. Snip away pumpkin seedlings that look weak or are crowding their stronger brethren. Be ruthless for the greater good! You may notice that your squash vine is rooting as it rambles. Let it if you can. Those roots along the vine help bring nourishment to the plant. (If you don’t stake a tomato, a tomato vine will do the same thing.)
I also like to plant a border around my pumpkins of bee-attracting flowers as it is essential to their pollination and production. More on pollination later.
Pumpkins need sun. Lots of sun. Like most summer veggies, they need 6-8 hours of full sun. Afternoon sun is preferred over morning sun but work with what you have.
Pumpkins also need good drainage. The mounds help with this, but still, they don’t want to be sitting is soggy conditions. Add natural amendments such as vermiculite and coir to your soil before planting, and of course, compost, to help with drainage. Peat moss is often recommended for improving drainage. I like to use it to increase acid in my blueberry pots. But there has been much written questioning the sustainability of harvesting peat moss. Something for you to research and decide for yourself.
Pumpkins are shallow-rooted (be very careful walking around your pumpkin vines) so they need water more often. It’s best, if possible, to water from underneath with drip, bubblers or soaker hose to control powdery mildew. I water mine from above as that is the system I currently have and it’s fine. Water during the morning so the leaves can dry in the sun. That being said, let’s move on to the single biggest challenge of growing pumpkins.
I would like to go out on a limb and say mildew on squash is inevitable. (I’m looking at you, cucumber.) What starts as tiny, imperceptible dots of white quickly take over an unsuspecting plant. The best defense is to treat the plant well, from the get go, so it is as healthy as possible. The next defense is to treat the plant before you even see the mildew. First, let’s look at the completely organic treatments. The most-recommended, well-researched organic treatment is milk and water. A 10% milk to water solution sprayed on the leaves 2x a week. I used to say compost tea was the best thing but the research is debunking this theory. It’s still worth spraying it as a fertilizer but spraying the leaves should only be done while you are employing the milk spraying as well.
There is research that says the best defense is rotating the use of your homemade fungicides so that the mildew does not have time to adapt. You can also use whey and water on your plant. Now, I don’t have whey sitting around (that I know of, God help us) but some of you are very, very, very, very DIY and you may make your own cheese and you may be interested in this whole way cool whey discussion. And for you, I give you this:
Don’t ask me anything about this in the comments, cause I’m not going to do it. But if YOU do it, please let us know!
You can also use a baking soda solution: 1 tablespoon baking soda, half teaspoon of liquid soap mixed with 1 gallon of water and spray all over leaves 1x a week. Use this in a rotation with the milk solution.
For those willing to look at other options, we have had luck with Green Cure Fungicide. It is a concentrated powder you mix with water and spray on the leaves. Use early in the process. As soon as you see one spot, start in with your remedies. Nothing cures powdery mildew that has already formed, you can only prevent it from getting worse.
Other general certified organic fungicides can be found here. We use a lot of Safer and Serenade products and have success with them.
Leaves bearing powdery mildew should be removed and disposed of immediately. Be merciless and quick. This is how it spreads. Don’t worry…your plant will grow new leaves. Clear the bed of plant debris often.
Let the vines get 8-10 feet long. They’ll send out male flowers first, then female.
The female flowers have a baby squash at the base. Male flowers are more plentiful and do not have any fruit attached to them. If you often see dead female flowers with the baby fruit falling off, you are having pollination issues. You will need to open up the petals of both male and female flowers. Then take that healthy male flower, remove it from the plant by the stem and rub the stamen inside the female flower. You are now a fertility expert! Also, plant more flowers. You may also want to give bees a watering station (bird bath, solar water fountain) nearby to attract them.
To achieve the largest possible pumpkins, let three or four pumpkins grow on each vine and, once they’re well established, remove all but the strongest one or two. If you’d rather have more pumpkins than larger pumpkins, let the pumpkins be.
If you are growing on a large dirt plot, you can dig a trench beneath the leaves so the vines can root as they grow. The idea is that this provides even more nourishment for growing pumpkins and contributes to a larger pumpkin harvest.
After flowers appear, you can add a granular fertilizer around your pumpkin’s soil. Kelp meal is a good choice as is adding more compost!
You can also fertilize your plants with a liquid fish emulsion and they will love you. Spill it on yourself and no one will love you…until you shower.
I don’t generally mulch with straw as I find it can house weeds and it tends to attract pillbugs and earwigs which can munch on your pumpkins causing unsightly marks. I like UNTREATED wood chip mulch (or more compost), if I’m going to use mulch at all. It’s not totally necessary. If you do use mulch, increase your fertilization.
I like to provide support for my pumpkins and squashes. This gives them some more growing room and increases aeration. Below are simple redwood trellises I bought ready-made and just lashed together into an A frame.
Above, I used pantyhose to hold small pumpkins to the support. This kept their stems from snapping and gave them plenty of room to grow!
Pumpkins start off green and turn orange as they mature. The small ones can be grown in as little as 3 months. Large pumpkins take up to 4 months. Gourds are ready for harvesting when the stems dry out and turn brown. Cut the gourds with a few inches of stem intact.
Throw out any bruised or eaten gourds during our regular maintenance as we don’t want those pumpkins getting the plant’s energy. You can throw these pumpkins in your compost bin or in a flower bed to rot. You will very likely have pumpkins growing there next year!
First off, avoid the varieties found at this link, as they have been trademarked by Monsanto and no one wants them earning another penny.
DON’T BUY: Applachian, Harvest Moon, Jamboree HG, Orange Smoothie, Phantom, Prize Winner, Rumbo, Snackface, Spirit, Spooktacular, Trickster.
Let’s move on to the ones we DO want to buy.
Pumpkins are great eating. From their flesh to their seeds they are delicous and nutritious. Here are some of the best eating/cooking pumpkin varieties.
And here are some great ornamentals.
Of course, the Jack-O-Lantern
There are even many un-edible ornamental gourds you can grow that can be preserved indefinitely. Check out these amazing varieties of non-edible, ornamentals.
The health benefits of pumpkins are many and I found some quite surprising. Here’s a taste (tee hee) from an article at Suite101.com.
- Pumpkins are rich in proteins that are antiviral and antifungal
- Pumpkins are high in vitamin A, potassium, iron, and other vitamins and minerals
- Pumpkins regulates digestion and have traditionally been used to expel intestinal parasites
- Pumpkins contain chemicals that inhibit the growth of candida (yeast infection) and other harmful bacteria.
- Pumpkin seeds are now considered a super food! They are high in protein and fiber, rich in essential fatty acids, high in potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, beta carotene, and iron and you betcha…high in anti-aging antioxidants.
There you have it! Thanks for reading. Now go enjoy your garden.
“I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”
- Roast Pumpkin Seed & Toast Pumpkin Seeds | Pottery Barn (potterybarn.com)
- Jack-O-Lantern Patterns (costumediscounters.com)