Field Guide to Growing Pumpkins

Pumpkin pie, jack-o-lanterns, painted pumpkins, planted pumpkins, pumpkins decorating fall tables, and, of course, pumpkin spiced lattes. Here's your guide to growing pumpkins.

Start with Seeds:

What're the best pumpkins to grow? 

  • Jack-o-lanterns: Try Connecticut Field Pumpkins, an heirloom variety that carves easily and makes tasty pies. Or, a newer variety, Charisma pumpkin is slightly smaller (12-14 lbs), is mildew resistant and is also pie worthy. 
  • Easy to paint: Lumina pumpkins or Ghost pumpkin. These are fun to paint because of their smooth, white skin. Paint glides on, and color stands out.  
  • Best to Eat: Sugar or PIe Pumpkin, also perfect for table decor. Small, weighing in at 5 lbs. 
  • If You Need a Carriage Ride: The common name is Cinderella pumpkin. The fancy name is Rouge vif d’Etampes. Great for stacking pumpkins because of its flat shape, and the red-orange color is showy.
  • Colorful Pumpkins: Jarrahdale pumpkins are deeply ribbed, grey-blue slate, but use only for decor. This one isn't for baking. Porcelain doll pumpkins are deeply ribbed, pink pumpkins weighing 16-24 lbs, are sweet to eat, and fun decor.  

Sugar or Pie pumpkins are perfect for baking, and are small enough to use with tabletop decorations.

Planting Tips:

  • Space is a consideration. The typical hill needs 50-100 square feet. If space is an issue, get creative with smaller pumpkins by using containers or training up trellises, or allow vines to grow over the sides of the garden beds.  
  • Full, direct sunlight is needed. That 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. direct, overhead sunlight is best.
  • Pumpkins are heavy feeders. They prefer fertile soil that drains well. Mix lots of compost (2-4 inches) or soil amendment (1-2 inches) into beds before planting.  
  • Plant seeds directly into the soil. For Western North Carolina, May 10-June 15 (after soil has warmed up to 70 degrees) is the time for planting pumpkin seeds. 
  • Plant seeds in rows or "pumpkin hills" allowing for the soil to warm up faster and drain better.  
  • For hills: Plant seeds 48" inches apart and 1.5" deep. (This is for the larger varieties, double check your package of seeds for instructions.) Plant 4-5 seeds per hill.
  • For rows: Plant seeds 6"-12" apart in rows 6'-10' apart.
  • Seeds germinate quickly. When seedlings reach 2-3" tall, thin to 2-3 plants per hill. In rows, thin to 1 plant every 18"-38".  
  • Mulch well to retain moisture and give pumpkins a dry, better draining area to avoid rot as the fruit forms. Using a mesh under the fruit helps with rotting. 

Ghost or Lumina pumpkins.

Care:

  • An inch of water a week is necessary for pumpkins. Be sure to water during drought, and early in the day for vines and fruit to dry off.
  • Fertilize young plants with high nitrogen fertilizer for vine growth. As pumpkins grow use a high phosphorous fertilizer to help with fruit production.
  • Roots are shallow, so be careful when weeding to avoid disrupting roots.
  • Pollinators are essential for fruit formation. Plant flowers nearby to encourage the bees, and be careful with herbicides.
  • Pinch off the fussy ends of the vine as the fruit forms to develop bigger and better pumpkins. If you're going for the biggest pumpkin contest, leave only one or two pumpkins per vine.
  • Rotate fruit to avoid rot and develop a rounder shape (and remember to be careful not to damage roots).
  • Watch for squash bugs, cucumber beetles, aphids and powdery mildew. 

The tall 'Harvest Time Hybrid' pumpkins make good Jack-o-lanterns and last long past Halloween. 

Fairy Tale pumpkins have deep ribs, mahogany color, and a thick stem. Great decor and good pies. 

Harvest:

  • When pumpkins are a deep color of orange (or whatever their color), they are beginning to ripen.
  • Do not pick when pumpkin is the right size, wait until it is ready to harvest. 
  • Let it ripen on the vine.
  • Thumb the pumpkin and push on the skin with your thumbnail. If it sounds hollow, and the skin won't puncture, it is ready to harvest. 
  • Cut from the vine. Do not tear. Use a sharp knife and cut 5"-6" inches from the vine. 
  • If storing for winter usage, let cure in the sun for a week, then place in cool, dry place at 55 degrees.

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blogger.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.