How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Pumpkins
Pumpkins can be an excellent addition to just about any garden. But they can be a bit picky to grow, depending on your geography, soil type, and climate. In this article, gardening expert Logan Hailey examines each step you'll want to follow in order to successfully plant, grow, and care for Pumpkins in your garden this season.
Whether you prefer pies, pastries, roasts, seeds, or jack o’ lanterns, pumpkins are a staple in any garden. Beyond the classic orange round pumpkin, there is an incredible diversity of these delightful winter squashes for every use. Fortunately, all of them can be cultivated in nearly the same way.
With some warm weather and a bit of tending, these beginner-friendly vines are super easy to grow and can yield in great abundance. There are also many different pumpkin varieties, giving gardeners plenty of options to pick from, depending on their use.
The quintessential autumn plant, pumpkins are a symbol of falling leaves, holidays, and the coming of cold weather. But they aren’t just for decor- pumpkins are incredibly nutritious and flavorful additions to any meal. Pound-for-pound, they are one of the most productive foods you can grow in your garden. Plus, when properly cured, you can eat them all winter long! Let’s dig into how to plant, grow, and care for pumpkins!
Pumpkin Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual
Species Cucurbita pepo, C. moschata
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-10
Planting Season Spring or Early Summer
Plant Height 20+ foot Vines
Fertility Needs High
Plant With Marigolds, Sunflowers, Beans
Don’t Plant With Brassicas, Beets, Other Cucurbits
Soil Type Well-draining Loam
Plant Spacing 18-72 inches
Watering Needs Moderate to High
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Days to Maturity 80-150 Days
Pests Squash Vine Borers, Squash Bugs
Diseases Powdery Mildew
Pumpkins elicit memories of childhood for many people. Whether carving them for Halloween, snacking on the seeds, or eating a scrumptious ice-cream-covered pie during the holidays, pumpkins have been a part of American culture for hundreds of years.
These warm-weather annual crops are remarkably resilient and fairly tolerant of poor soils. I remember planting pumpkins in compacted patches of dirt along the alleyway of my childhood home. With no fertilizer and very little water, we would still yield massive Jack-O-Lanterns by the time Halloween came around.
Pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family along with winter squash, cucumbers, zucchini, gourds, and melons. The word pumpkin comes from the Greek root “peopon” which means “large melon.” There are dozens of colors, flavors, shapes, sizes, and textures of pumpkins that have been bred for different uses. They all stem from a wild bitter gourd ancestor in the Cucurbita genus.
Recent archaeological evidence shows that these ancient baseball-sized gourds evolved closely alongside mastodons and mammoths. The plants used the giant elephant ancestors to spread their seeds and provide fertile manure patties for new plants to grow.
Those wild gourds eventually switched to humans as their evolutionary partners. Over thousands and thousands of years, humans selected and cultivated less bitter gourds, slowly breeding them into the large sweet pumpkins and winter squash we recognize today.
What is the Difference Between a Squash and a Pumpkin?
If only the answer was simple!
Pumpkin is a generic name for many species of the Cucurbita genus, including C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. The names “pumpkin” and “winter squash” are often used interchangeably to describe the hundreds of varieties that have been cultivated from these species. Here are a few of the common ones:
- C. pepo: Acorn Squash, Pattypan, Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Straightneck, Gourds
- C. moschata: Crookneck, Butternuts, Long Island Cheese Pumpkin
- C. maxima: Buttercup, Hubbard Squash, Georgia Candy Roaster
“Pumpkin” is not a botanical term and is more of a common name for the recognizable big orange pumpkins used for pies and autumn decor. The term “squash,” on the other hand, technically encompasses any of the fruits in the Cucurbita genus.
This includes everything from zucchini and summer squash to butternut squash, delicata squash, and pumpkins. Needless to say, squash comes in a huge range of shapes, sizes, and flavors!
Summer Squash vs. Winter Squash
To make things more confusing, both summer squash and winter squash are grown in the summer. Summer squash includes zucchini and yellow summer squash. These are typically bush plants with thin skins and mild flavor.
Winter squash has a denser texture, more flavor, and thick skins that allow it to be stored. The plants tend to have large sprawling vines, but there are some bush varieties. Winter squash is only called “winter” because it is typically cured and stored for eating all winter long. Perhaps a better term would have been “storage squash,” but we can’t go changing the books now!
In conclusion, all you need to know is this: Technically all pumpkins are squash, but not all squash are pumpkins. We’re going to use the terms winter squash and pumpkins interchangeably because a pumpkin is really just a type of winter squash.
Whether it’s a pie pumpkin, butternut squash, Jack-O-Lantern, delicata squash, kabocha squash, decorative white pumpkin, or hubbard squash, they’re all grown about the same! There are just a few different spacing quirks, which we’ll describe below.
One of the Oldest American Crops
Pumpkins are some of the oldest crops in the western hemisphere. Archeological evidence shows that they are native to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.
They have been cultivated since around 3500 BC. As part of the traditional “three sisters” planting of corn, beans, and squash, Native Americans grew indigenous varieties of pumpkins and cooked them over an open fire as part of traditional cuisine. The skins of pumpkins were even used to create woven mats.
The Tohono O’Odham people ground the pumpkin seeds into flour and mixed them with cornmeal as part of flavorful, nutrient-dense breads. Many tribes native to Mexico believed pumpkin seeds are a source of exceptional energy and endurance. And in Arizona, the Cocopa tribe considered pumpkin seeds as protective against cold weather.
The First Pumpkin Pie
When colonists arrived in America, pumpkins were a very popular and important source of food for early settlements. They learned to remove the seeds of the vegetable and fill the inside of the pumpkin with honey, milk, and spices. It was baked inside the squash and yielded the early version of the American-classic pumpkin pie.
Pumpkins are still a common food crop, but due to the widespread availability of commercially canned pumpkin, most people grow them for ornamental use as Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations.
But don’t be fooled: canned pumpkin is no match for a freshly baked homegrown pie pumpkin. While it requires a little more preparation and garden work, garden-raised pumpkins yield nutrient-dense delicious food that can be stored all winter long.
So Nutritional, It Was Used as Medicine
Pumpkins are a great source of beta carotene, lutein, protein, vitamin C, vitamin B6, fiber, magnesium, and potassium. Historically, pumpkin was used in some cultures as a medicinal plant to help treat and prevent cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inflammation. It is a dense, filling food that is low glycemic and has almost half of the amount of carbohydrates in sweet potatoes.
Modern research shows that the flavonoids in pumpkins and winter squash can help inhibit cancer cell growth. Moreover, the potassium content is excellent for heart health. Cooked butternut squash and acorn squash both contain about 500 mg of potassium in a single cup.
Best of all, pureed pumpkin is an excellent remedy for an upset stomach. It is easy to digest and has plenty of soluble fiber that helps with diarrhea, acid reflux, gas, bloating, and even vomiting. You can even feed pumpkin puree to your dog or cat if they are experiencing digestive issues. Who knew this plant was so incredible for health!
Just don’t eat it raw, or you may end up with the opposite effect! Now let’s get to the planting.
Propagation and Planting
Pumpkins are easy to plant and grow in most climates as long as they have enough warm frost-free days. If you garden in USDA growing zone 6 or colder, you may need to extend your season by starting indoors or using frost protection row covers.
How Much Space Do Pumpkins Need?
If you’re planning on growing pumpkins in your garden, you must first consider the amount of space you have. Pumpkins take up a lot of space. Their vines can grow over 20 feet long and sprawl over other plants very easily.
Pumpkins are not ideal for container gardens for small garden areas. Your valuable space is best used for other veggies like salad greens, peppers, or tomatoes.
Be sure you have plenty of space to let pumpkins ramble around. Ideally, they are planted in a separate bed from other crops or allowed to vine along the margins of the garden. You can help direct the vines toward where you want them to grow, but once they begin to flower and fruit you will want to leave them be.
If you don’t have a lot of space, don’t worry; there are a few compact varieties of pumpkins such as Jack Be Little and Sugar pumpkins that we’ll cover below.
How Long Do Pumpkins Take to Mature?
Pumpkins take quite a while to mature, with certain varieties requiring 80 to 120 days to produce a ripe harvest. Giant pumpkins can even take up to 150 days!
If you live in an area with a short growing season, your best bet is starting seeds indoors for a head start and carefully transplanting them into the garden when the risk of frost has passed. You can also choose one of the faster-maturing varieties outlined below.
How to Seed Pumpkins
Directly seed pumpkins in the garden in late spring when the soil has reached at least 70°F and there is no danger of frost. Use a soil thermometer to check the soil temperature. Pumpkins will not germinate in cold soil below 65°F.
Make a furrow ½” to 1” deep. Sow 1-2 seeds at the proper spacing for the variety you have chosen (chart below). Gently cover with soil and keep thoroughly watered until germination. A piece of row cover will help promote even germination. Mousetraps may be necessary to keep rodents from digging up and eating the seeds. Thin to one plant per spacing interval once the seedlings are established.
How to Transplant Pumpkins
You can start pumpkin seeds indoors roughly 3 weeks before planting outdoors. Keep in mind that gourd-family plants generally do not like root disturbance, so you must be extra careful when transplanting pumpkins.
Use plug flats or 3” square pots. Sow 2-3 seeds per cell about 1” deep. Keep the room or greenhouse around 75-95°F for germination. A heat mat underneath the trays will help their seeds germinate faster and more evenly.
Use scissors to thin to one plant per container or cell. About 4-7 days before planting, harden off the seedlings by gradually introducing them to outdoor conditions, ensuring that they aren’t exposed to nighttime temperatures below 50°F.
When transplanting, make a hole about the size of the root ball and very carefully remove the seedling from its cell, disturbing the roots as little as possible. Place it in the hole and gently backfill, keeping the soil surface at the same level as the root ball to avoid stem rot or damping off. Protect the sensitive newly transplanted seedlings with cloches or row cover.
With so many varieties and growth habits of pumpkins, there is no one-size-fits-all spacing. Reference the back of each seed packet for variety-specific spacing. Use this chart to help you determine how far apart to plant your pumpkin seeds or transplants:
|Small Plant Spacing||Small-fruit variety (ex: baby pumpkins, acorn, delicata): 18-24”|
|Medium Plant Spacing||Medium-fruit variety (ex: butternut, kabocha, buttercup): 24-36”|
|Large Plant Spacing||Large to XL fruited variety (ex: large hubbard, banana/Carolina candy roaster, large carving varieties): 36-72”|
|Spacing Between Rows||Bush: 4-5’ Short-Vine: 6’ Long Vine: 12”|
Growing in Mounds
Pumpkins and other squash family crops enjoy being planted in mounds for a variety of reasons. The mound allows them to sprawl more than a standard row planting like other vegetables. Hilled soil also warms quicker and drains faster.
For the happiest pumpkins, consider creating hugelkultur mounded beds by layering organic matter like small sticks, straw, leaves, manure, grass clippings, and compost. The woodiest materials (sticks, straw, leaves) should be placed on the bottom, and fluffier materials like manure or grass clippings toward the top. Finish the hill with a layer of compost about 1-5” thick.
If you create this mound in the winter or early spring and cover it with a tarp until the weather warms, the hugelkultur bed will have decomposed into rich soil by the time the pumpkins are ready to be planted. The tarp will also help suppress weeds and warm the soil more quickly than other areas of the garden.
Companion planting is an ancient practice of growing crops in symbiosis with each other.
In the Three Sisters plantings of Native Americans and the indigenous “milpa” of Latin American cultures, pumpkins are traditionally grown near corn and beans. The squash provides a weed-suppressing ground cover with its large leaves, while the corn provides a dappled shade and a stalk for beans to climb. The beans compliment both crops by fixing nitrogen and making it available to the hungry squash plants.
There are also several flowers, herbs, and other veggies that complement pumpkins in the garden.
Pumpkin Companion Plants:
- Certain Pea Varieties
- Sweet alyssum
Avoid Planting Pumpkins With:
There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins. Some of which are bred for eating (usually called sugar pumpkins or pie pumpkins), and others are specifically developed for ornamental use and carving. Certain varieties are adapted to colder, shorter growing seasons and/or have been bred to have resistance to common squash diseases.
The best pumpkins in my opinion are the multi-purpose types that yield big gorgeous fruits perfect for creamy baking, crunchy roasted seeds, and fall decor.
Best Pie Pumpkins
Sugary-sweet and perfect for baking, these are the cultivars you will want to use in your favorite pumpkin pie recipes. Canned pumpkin could never compare!
This is the sweetest, most velvety-textured luxurious pie pumpkin I’ve ever tried. It looks a little bit magical, too, with deep orange skin and silvery-colored netting. Try it in pies, soups, and cheesecake. Fruits average around 6 lbs and take 105 days to mature.
New England Pie Pumpkin
The classic pie pumpkin. Dry, non-stringy flesh and thick consistency for pies and baked goods. The fruits weigh 4-6 lbs and are as attractive as they are tasty: dark orange skin and light ribbing with a nice hardy stem. Creamy texture. This variety takes 105 days to mature.
Best Ornamental Varieties and Carving Pumpkins
Whether used for carving spooky Jack-O-Lanterns, decorating your front door, or crowning your Thanksgiving table display, ornamental varieties are bred specifically with beauty in mind.
Dill’s Atlantic Giant
If you’re looking for an obnoxiously giant pumpkin, this is your guy! Some people have grown this variety to be over 400 pounds, but you can get some more manageable pumpkins around 50 pounds if spaced on 10-15 foot centers.
This stunning green-and-orange striped pumpkin goes all the way back to the year 1057 from a naked princess riding into town on her horse (true story). This pumpkin was bred for delicious plump hulless seeds that are mildly nutty and earthy, making for the perfect snack. It takes 110 days to mature and also makes a gorgeous ornamental.
The most adorable heirloom decorative and edible pumpkins, ‘Jack-Be-Little’ is a compact plant that only spreads about 10-15 feet. These mini fruits are smooth-skinned and roughly 3” x 2”, and perfect for decor and crafting.
The classic Jack O’Lantern plus powdery mildew resistance. The tall fruits are medium to dark orange and 25-40 lb in weight. The handles are stocky and durable. Vines require about 30 square feet per plant. Matures in 95 days.
Best Disease Resistant Varieties
If you live in an extra rainy or humid climate, you may want to plant a disease-resistant squash variety that is less likely to succumb to mildew.
A gorgeous bright white pumpkin with great powdery mildew resistance. The 5-7 lb fruits are perfect for decorating or carving. About 100 days to mature.
Caring for Pumpkins
When caring for pumpkins in your garden, there are several factors to take into consideration. You need to make sure you pay attention to the needs of this plant, as it can be a little needier than others, depending on your soil type and climate. Let’s take a look at what to expect around soil, water needs, mulches, temperature, and sunlight.
Pumpkins resent being overwater or having “wet feet” by sitting in saturated soils. Pumpkins should get a deep watering about once a week, depending on the amount of rain in your garden.
Keep in mind that pumpkins as well as other squash will often have wilted leaves in the peak daylight even when their soil is moist. This is perfectly normal as long as they appear to perk back up around dusk. Check the soil moisture levels every few days to be sure they are getting plenty of water. Mulch will also help conserve water and give the fruits a dry rot-free surface to grow on.
Speaking of rotting, you should avoid overhead watering pumpkins. Pumpkins thrive best with drip irrigation or soaker hoses. In some regions, such as parts of the U.S. south, pumpkins can be “dry-farmed” with no irrigation because there are plenty of summer rains.
Overwatering pumpkins will result in rot and powdery mildew. Cucurbits in general tend to be quite susceptible to powdery mildew. If you live in a moist or humid climate, opt for disease-resistant pumpkin varieties and plant them away from cucumbers, squash, and zucchini to avoid mildew issues. Also, provide plenty of space and aeration to keep fungal pathogens at bay.
Soil and Fertility
Pumpkins are hungry, heavy feeders. Those giant orange fruits have to get their nutrition from somewhere! Pumpkins thrive in gardens rich in organic matter and manure-based compost. They can be amended with an all-purpose organic pumpkin fertilizer at the time of planting. They also appreciate the generous helping of diluted fish and kelp fertilizer every 2-3 weeks during the main growing season.
Mulching with straw or leaves is a great practice for anyone growing pumpkins. Your squash will end up larger, dryer, less dirty, and less susceptible to rot. As a result, the pumpkins will cure and store longer into the winter.
Mulch also suppresses weeds, which is very important for baby pumpkin plants. Once established, the plants shade out weeds quite well on their own. The mulch can also insulate roots in the case of a cold snap.
Like their cucurbit cousins, pumpkins are warm-weather crops that have absolutely no tolerance for frost. They need to be planted 2-3 weeks after the last frost date when the weather has thoroughly settled above 50°F at night.
The ideal temperatures for pumpkin plants are between 70 and 90°F. You can use row cover to protect young pumpkin plants in sudden cold snaps, but they quickly grow too large to feasibly keep under a cover. Planting in mounds or raised beds adds a little bit of extra warmth.
As true southerners, pumpkins love the heat and the sun. They need full sunlight to thrive in your garden. Avoid planting beneath the shade of trees or structures.
As with all plants, pumpkins aren’t immune to pests and diseases. There are many different types of problems you may run into, and each issue typically has a different solution. Let’s take a look at the most common issues you may face in your garden with this plant.
If you notice speckled leaves that are yellowing and brown, plus bugs that look similar to stink bugs, you’ve probably got squash bugs on your hands. These annoying pests are grey-black with orange and black stripes. Their eggs are large and copper-colored, typically laid on the undersides of leaves.
Squash bugs overwinter in old crop debris, so the best prevention is to remove, shred, and compost all squash plant residue. You can also use row cover to prevent the squash bugs from accessing the plants. Worst case scenario, an organic insecticidal soap or neem oil can kill off an infestation.
Keep squash rotated to different areas of the garden. Remove row cover when plants begin flowering to allow bees to pollinate.
Squash Vine Borer
Wilting plants, holes in the squash vines, or visible green insect poop (frass) around holes are all signs of squash vine borers. They overwinter in soil and emerge in the spring, then lay their eggs on leaves and the larvae burrow into your squash plants’ stems. The best prevention is the same as squash bugs: remove residues and use crop rotation when possible.
These annoying black-and-white yellow striped or spotted beetles consume all cucurbit family members, including pumpkins. They cause stunted seedlings, damaged leaves and stems, and scars on fruits. The beetles overwinter in soil and leaf litter.
Control is the same as squash bugs and vine borers. Kaolin clay is also an effective organic control option because it coats the leaves in microscopically sharp clay that dehydrates the cucumber beetles.
Powdery Mildew and Other Fungal Diseases
Cucurbits in general like warm weather and airflow. Excessively moist conditions (and those followed by sudden dry weather periods) can breed all types of moldy pathogens that appear like white powdery substances on the stems and leaves. These fungal pathogens are best prevented through proper spacing (don’t overcrowd plants!) and good air circulation. You can also choose resistant varieties and use diluted neem oil as an organic anti-fungal treatment.
How to Harvest
It’s typically best to start harvesting at the end of summer in September and October. Their rinds should be tough, their fruits fully colored, and their seeds developed.
You will see the vines of the plants start to wither and turn yellow, which is a good sign that the squash is mature. You can also look for hardened or cracked stems that are starting to die off of the vine. The skin should be hard enough to resist scratching from a fingernail. It should also sound hard and hollow when you thump it. These are all clues of ripe squash that is ready for curing!
Always harvest pumpkins before it frosts! If you wait until after the first frost, the squash will not ripen or store as well.
Cut squash from the plant leaving about 3” of stem. If you cut the stem too close, it may not cure or store as well. The stem is the pumpkin’s seal against disease and rot. Hold your squash from the bottom to avoid breaking the stem. Handle gently when first harvesting, as their skins are not toughened from curing yet. If you bruise or cut the uncured squash, it may rot far too early.
How to Cure Pumpkins
Curing is the secret to pumpkins that store all winter long. After harvesting, most pumpkins need 7 to 14 days of warmth and dry conditions to harden their skins and sweeten their flavor. This can be done in the sun of your garden, a warm, well-ventilated room, or a greenhouse around 80 to 85°F. Ensure plenty of ventilation and as low amount of humidity as possible.
If conditions are unfortunately cloudy or humid, simply rotate the pumkin more often and consider adding a fan to keep things aerated. Skins should harden in 2-3 weeks and seal your pumpkin from rotting and pathogens.
Cured pumpkins can be stored in a cool, dry room below 70°F such as a root cellar, pantry, or well-ventilated kitchen area.
Pumpkins are some of the most rewarding garden crops. They grow like crazy, don’t take much attention, and can yield hundreds of pounds of tasty nutrient-dense food or decor. Plan in the spring and savor the fruits of your labor all winter long.