The pumpkin is a member of the squash family, which is, in turn, a member of the larger cucurbit group. The plant is thought to have originated from Central America where pumpkin seeds have been discovered that could date from 7,000 B.C. Aside from looking cool at Halloween as jack-o-lanterns and winning giant contests, as this squash can grow to over 1,500lbs, pumpkins are a rich source of fiber and also contain many other vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin A and vitamin C. Today, this fruit/vegetable is readily grown from plant hardiness zones three to seven; it is possible to grow pumpkins outside of these zones but cold and heat challenges will have to be overcome. Pumpkins can be ready to pick from 85 days from planting to 120 days, depending on the variety that you are growing.
You need to select just what you want your pumpkin for. Some varieties are better for eating, some for carving, and others for growing that monster pumpkin that could win you a contest. Start with quality seed and you will have a better chance of growing quality pumpkins, Southern States® has a wide range of good quality pumpkin seed and varieties.
You should be looking to select a sunny section of your garden, south facing with a slight incline is good too if you have it. Give your pumpkin patch plenty of space and prepare your bed early, around March/April for May/June planting. It is possible to plant directly into your garden soil or preferably, you can prepare a custom bed for your pumpkins, which should lead to better results. To prepare a soil bed for pumpkins, select the size of area you are going to prepare (bearing in mind pumpkin plants will need a good deal of space, vines can run 25 feet or more) and dig down two to three feet and then backfill with a rich compost and manure mix. Do not compact the soil when you are backfilling and avoid areas where vine crops have been grown before. Also, pay attention to the area around your patch where your pumpkin vines will grow and enrich this too; pumpkin vines will set down roots and richer soil beyond the bed should result in better pumpkins. Many pumpkin growers have closely guarded secrets when it comes to compost/manure mixes. If you are in doubt ask at your greenhouse as to what will work best for your soil conditions and the variety that you are planning to grow; pumpkins do well in a pH neutral soil between 6.00 and 6.5, a soil test will indicate if your soil needs work.
Commonly you will be mounding your soil two inches or so above the bed, follow the seeding directions on your seed packet. However, generally plant the seeds about two inches deep in holes around two to three feet apart; soaking your pumpkin seeds in warm water for four hours may hasten germination. You may also want to start your seeds off in a pot in a suitable growing medium and grow your seedlings before planting out in the garden. Your growing medium and the seed itself will have sufficient nutrients for the first few days; later, add liquid fertilizer to your water, but not full strength. Your plant will need plenty of light and watering every other day (do not soak the soil).
Whether you have planted directly into the soil or transplanted young plants the enemy, in terms of weather for pumpkin plants, is frost, cold and wind. The first will kill your plants, while the latter two will slow growth. In the early stages of growth, protect your plants as best as you can, use a cold frame, plastic sheeting, or anything that will allow light and keep out the wind and the chill; consider covering the plants at night if the temperature is going to dip. Continue to provide shelter and once your plants are established and the vines begin to grow, cover them with soil so they can take root. Water your pumpkin patch in the early evening (approximately one inch per week) so they can dry before nightfall, and if your soil warrants it (if in doubt get a soil test) add a liquid fertilizer, high nitrogen to start and switch to a high phosphorous before the plants start to bloom. Pumpkin plants are vigorous growers and pruning is common practice either to concentrate on the main vine or to prevent the plant getting out of control. Prune the secondary vines and the side shoots thus letting the main vine grow as long as it can or can be allowed to; tread carefully on the soil when pruning or use boards to avoid compacting the soil and inhibiting the root system.
Insect pests can severely damage your pumpkin growing ambitions. However, bear in mind before you resort to insecticides that you will need insects to pollinate your crop. Keep a watchful eye out for:
There are many bacterial and fungal diseases that attack cucurbits. However, the most common ones to watch out for in your pumpkin patch are Bacterial Wilt and Powdery Mildew.
Around eight to ten weeks after planting your pumpkin plants should start to flower. The male flowers usually appear first; female flowers can be identified by the fruit at the base. If you have no bees in your garden then pollinating by hand is the answer. Find a fresh male flower, peel back the petals and rub the male flower onto the female flower. As fruit begins to develop you may want to select certain pumpkins for pruning to concentrate on better fruits; wait until your pumpkins are grapefruit size before pruning. Some pumpkins are capable of getting very large indeed. As the fruits grow, arrange them so that they sit as squarely on the ground as possible to preserve their shape. When it comes to picking, generally late August, your pumpkin plant will start to have tattered, changing color, leaves, less flowers and will generally be less vigorous. When picking your pumpkins leave a few inches of stalk and, if you can, let the fruit cure in the sun for ten days or so. Pumpkins can stored in a cool dry place can keep until next spring. Alternatively, you can make lovely pumpkin pies for the freezer or process and can your harvest; see Southern States for ideas and a range of home canning equipment.