Growing Pumpkins – A Symbol of Autumn

Article written by Troy-Bilt brand ambassador Teresa O'Connor of Seasonal Wisdom
Are you hungry for homegrown pumpkins for Thanksgiving pies, breads and soups? Then the time to get started in the garden is actually late spring and early summer. Pumpkins can be grown throughout the United States, but their growing schedule needs to be planned in advance for those holiday meals.
Ironically, this symbol of autumn is no friend of freezing temperatures. Pumpkins and winter squashes (just like summer squashes) need warm soil to germinate and grow. So, wait until the soil reaches 70 degrees F. If you plant pumpkins too early, you'll risk injuring your plants during unexpected spring frosts. If you plant them too late, they won't be ripe before the cold weather comes. The University of Illinois Extension recommends U.S. gardeners plant pumpkins for fall 'from late May in northern locations to early July in extremely southern sites.'


Planting and Maintaining

Want healthy pumpkin plants? Here are some growing tips to keep in mind:
  • Location Matters: Pick a planting spot with full sun to light shade. Pumpkins are picky about soil. So, before you plant, take the time to amend the soil with compost, worm castings or well-aged manure. Also allow plenty of space! Some pumpkins can require from 50 to 100 feet for their vines. If space is tight, select smaller or semi-bushier pumpkin varieties. My friend grew miniature pumpkins on trellises in her small garden.
  • Seeds Best: Pumpkins grow best from seeds sown directly into the soil. If you want to start them inside in colder climates, plant them 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. Harden seedlings gradually before planting outside, and be careful the roots aren't disturbed when you transplant. 
  • Space Right: You can plant pumpkins in rows, but many plant pumpkins in small hills the size of a pitcher's mound. These pumpkin hills allow the soil to heat up faster, help with pest control and improve drainage. Typically, vining pumpkins are planted one inch deep with about 4 to 5 seeds per hill. Once plants are established, thin hills to 2 to 3 plants by pruning other plants away carefully. Planting in rows? Sow seeds 6 to 12 inches apart in rows that are 6 to 10 feet apart. Later, thin rows to pumpkins every 1.5 feet to 3 feet. For best results, follow the spacing directions on your pumpkin seed packages.
  • Proper Care: Show your pumpkin plants love by keeping them watered during dry spells. (They'll be fine with short periods of hot, dry weather.) Try to avoid wetting the foliage when watering to help reduce fungal diseases. Or, water early in the day, so plants can dry out before evening. Weed carefully around the plants. Avoid any insecticides that could harm bees, which are necessary for pollinating pumpkin flowers. To encourage more bees, plant pumpkins near flowers like nasturtiums, bee balm or sunflowers.
  • Harvest Tips: The best time to harvest pumpkins is when they have reached their mature color (usually deep orange), and they have a hard rind. Often, their vine has begun to die back by the time of harvest. But if not, harvest pumpkins before the first heavy frost. When you cut the vine, try to leave 3 to 4 inches of stem on your pumpkin, as this helps it store better. Keep pumpkins in a dry spot, where the temperature is about 50 degrees, until you're ready to use. Be careful not to cut or bruise them when storing them for best results. Unripe or cut pumpkins won't last long before starting to rot.


Five Fun Pumpkins to Grow

  • Atlantic Giant Pumpkin - 110-125 days. This heirloom pumpkin can reach up to 800 lbs. If your dream is to win 'Best in Show' at the county fair, this might be the one to try.
  • Jack Be Little - 90 days. Tiny, popular pumpkins only weigh about 8 ounces, and are tasty in holiday meals. 
  • Jarrahdale - 100 days. Blue-gray pumpkins are decorative, delicious and good keepers. Save these for special holiday soups, stews and pies.
  • Peanut - 90 days. Amaze friends in the garden with these attractive flesh-colored pumpkins marked with 'peanut warts.' Later, impress them in the kitchen with the rich flavor of the delicious French heirlooms.  
  • Sugar - 110 days. Small, heirloom pumpkins have orange-yellow skin, good texture and sweet flavor. This one keeps well, and is popular for pies.