How To Grow Healthy Pumpkins


Every fall I hear lots of talk about growing pumpkins. It sounds like a great idea – having your own pumpkin patch.

Ted Eddins, who lives in Apple Springs, told me he grew a pumpkin patch a few years back for his boys class at school and did quite well. He’s been thinking about doing that again.

Indeed, pumpkins have been grown in North America for thousands of years. Native Americans ate pumpkins roasted, boiled and stewed, and they roasted the seeds for food as well. Most pumpkins now are used for jack-o-lanterns, other fall decorations, or pumpkin pie.

Winter squash and pumpkins are closely related. The commonly grown types of pumpkins are the jack-o-lantern types such as Cucurbita pepo, and giant pumpkins such as ‘Big Max’ are Cucurbita maxima.

To have pumpkins ready for the first of October, you’ll have to commit to planting them in June and keeping them growing throughout the summer months. Maturity of pumpkins varies from 70 to 120 days, depending on growing conditions. Some varieties of pumpkins could be planted as late as July to ripen in time for Halloween.

Your soil should be well-drained with a soil pH of 6.2 to 6.5. Planting on a raised bed promotes drainage, so the roots do not have to deal with constant wetness, which leads to disease problems. Avoid poorly aerated soils, soils with nematode problems or fields where other cucurbits have been grown in the last three years.

Pumpkins are usually planted in hills. Plant two to three seeds per hill about 1 inch deep and thin to one plant per hill. Spacing varies with variety and vine size. Plant bush or short-vine varieties 2 to 3 feet apart in rows 3 to 5 feet apart. Large-vine varieties should be planted 3 to 5 feet apart in rows that are 6 to 8 feet apart.

Water the garden to provide a uniform moisture supply to the crop. Keep the leaves and fruit dry when watering and avoid overhead sprinkler irrigation. Water sufficiently to moisten the soil to a depth of 6 inches. Light, frequent sprinklings will encourage shallow rooting of the plants. The critical period for moisture is during fruit set and fruit development.

Disease control should start with cultural tactics. One of the least expensive and most effective disease control measures is crop rotation. Do not plant pumpkins after similar crops such as cantaloupe, squash, cucumber or watermelon for at least three years.

Keep the garden and surrounding area free of weeds that harbor insects that can spread viruses and bacterial wilt.

To protect pumpkins from rots, place a barrier under ripening fruits to lift them off the soil. An old shingle is better than paper or plastic, which will trap water.

Remove plant debris from the garden after harvest, since many diseases survive on plant debris from year to year.

Weed control will be difficult after the vines have spread. Pumpkins have many important feeder roots near the surface and roots grow to about the same spread as vines. Be especially careful when cultivating near the main stem and do not move them after the fruit have formed because they are brittle and can easily break.

Immature pumpkins do not store well; therefore, be sure that fruit is mature before harvesting. Mature fruits have very hard skins that cannot be punctured with your thumbnail. In addition, the fresh, bright, juvenile surface sheen changes to a dull, dry-appearing surface.

Harvest only solid, mature pumpkins with deep orange color. Cut the fruits from the vine, do not tear them. Leave a generous stem, also called a handle. Be careful not to injure the rind or break off the stem, as decay fungi will attack through wounds. Do not harvest pumpkins when the field is wet and do not let harvested fruit get wet.

After harvest, wash with soapy water to remove surface dirt. Then dip fruit in a dilute chlorine solution of 4 teaspoons bleach per gallon of water, or wipe with a clean cloth dipped in chlorine solution. Allow fruit to dry, but do not rinse until use.

To grow big pumpkins, select one of the following large varieties: ‘Big Max’ (matures in 120 days) or ‘Big Moon’ (115 days). These huge fruit are popularly grown for contests, but they usually do not have the rounded jack-o-lantern shape best for carving. The fruits can weigh up to 50 pounds or more and are partially resistant to disease.

Some secrets to growing giant pumpkins are to prepare each hill (50 to 60 square feet per plant) by incorporating 4 to 6 bags of manure or compost and 1 to 2 pounds of 10-10-10 into the soil. Mix in deeply. Plant three to five seeds per hill and thin to a single plant. Apply ½ to 1 cup of nitrogen fertilizer near the perimeter of the vine every two to three weeks, beginning three weeks after seeding. Keep plants well-watered, and allow only one fruit to develop on each plant.

Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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