All about homegrown pumpkins
Nothing says October better than pumpkins, gourds and jack-o’-lanterns. Add a few to your doorstep, front porch or even a planter. Shocks of corn stalks and baskets of mums or asters can complete an attractive autumnal display.
If you’re shopping for a pumpkin, select one that is blemish-free and firm all over. If you’re going to carve a jack-o’-lantern, look for a pumpkin that sounds hollow. One for cooking should have thicker walls, which are more difficult to carve.
How to grow your own
Although some farmers in Virginia grow pumpkins as a cash crop, you may want to grow a few of your own for next fall. It’s easy if you start now.
First, decide if you want to grow pumpkins as décor or as food. Some varieties (Cucurbita moschata) are appropriate pie pumpkins due to sweeter and less watery flesh, while others (C. pepo) make better decorative pumpkins.
Pumpkins typically grow better from seed, and this month you can set aside seeds from the pumpkins you bought this season to plant in 2020.
Keep in mind that seed from hybrid pumpkins might produce a specimen more closely related to one of the species used to create them. If you save seeds from heirloom pumpkins, the new pumpkins will be more like the source of the seeds.
To dry out seeds, place rinsed seeds on a dry paper towel or newspaper covering a cookie sheet. Space them so they’re not touching. Place the pan in a cool, dry place for about a week. Once the seeds are completely dry, store them in an envelope marked with the date and type of seed.
You’ll probably have more seeds than you’ll want to plant; enjoy the extras by sprinkling them with salt and tossing them in butter or oil. Roast them at 325°F for 25 minutes for a tasty, nutritious snack.
Make sure you have enough space before you plant. Vining pumpkins require a minimum of 50 to 100 square feet per hill (small mound of dirt approximately 12 inches in diameter, six to eight inches tall).
If space is an issue, read seed packets and select “compact growing habit,” “semi-bush” or “bush-type.” Semi-bush pumpkin plants require four feet of space between hills and eight feet between rows, while miniature pumpkins can be grown as closely as two feet apart in the row.
Grown pumpkins can be from less than a pound (Jack Be Little) to hundreds of pounds each. Do not plant in the same location where other vine crops were planted during the past two years.
Check your soil’s pH; the optimum is 6.0 to 6.5. Do some math — pumpkins need about 100 to 120 days to grow. As long as there’s no danger of frost, you can plant the seeds; however, pumpkins planted too early may get soft by Halloween.
To aid germination, soak the seeds for about two to six hours in warm water before planting. Plant seeds one inch deep with four or five seeds per hill.
Allow five to six feet between hills, spaced in rows 10 to 15 feet apart. When the young plants are well-established, thin each hill to the best two or three plants.
Care and pollination
Pumpkins grow in heat as long as they are watered during an extended dry period, especially critical in early summer. Keep the ground free from weeds by cultivating it with a hand tool or hoe.
Bees are essential for pollinating squash and pumpkins. If the blossoms are not pollinated, the plant won’t produce fruit — or the fruit will be misshapen. Insecticides will harm bees as well as insect pests.
As pumpkins develop, place a piece of cardboard beneath the fruit to prevent soil contact, which could lead to rot.
Harvest pumpkins when they are a deep, solid color (orange, of course, for most varieties) with a hard rind. If vines remain healthy, harvest in late September or early October, before heavy frost.
Wear gloves to protect yourself from the sharp prickles on the stems. Avoid bruising the pumpkins when handling them. Cut them from the vines carefully, using pruning shears or a sharp knife, rather than snapping the stems.
Ideally you will leave three to four inches of stem attached as a “handle,” since pumpkins without stems usually do not keep well.
Store picked pumpkins in a garage or dry shed where the temperature is between 50 and 55°F until you want to display (or cook) them. An unblemished pumpkin can last eight to 12 weeks; however, a carved jack-o’-lantern usually lasts only five to 10 days.
A white, powdery growth on the upper surfaces of the leaves is a sign of mildew. It can kill the leaves prematurely and interfere with proper ripening.
Cucumber beetles and squash bugs can attack seedlings, vines, and both immature and mature fruits. Watch for infestations early in the season when they feed on seedlings, and then in late summer as populations build. Use integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.
Treat yourself to a homegrown pumpkin next year.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Members of the gourd family (Cucubitaceae) include pumpkins, gourds, squash, cucumbers and melons. Often called “vine vegetables,” gourds are typically high in vitamin A and delicious to eat. The large, fleshy fruits have a hard outer covering. Traditionally, we use the word “pumpkin” to describe the orange species of the gourd family. Often there is confusion about the difference between a pumpkin and a squash. The answer is related to use rather than taxonomy. The definition of “pumpkin” involves its use as puree (i.e., it is not baked whole) and as an ornamental jack-o’-lantern. Most ornamental pumpkin varieties are C. pepo, while most winter squash used for baking whole are C. maxima.