Whether you're looking to carve the spookiest Jack o' lantern on the block, win a prize at the county fair with a homegrown giant or grow the makings for your Thanksgiving pies, pumpkins are the quintessential fall crop in many parts of the country. While it's harvesting, not planting, time in most areas, it's not too soon to begin thinking about which varieties to plant next season and how to provide the conditions and care to produce your best crop ever.
Different varieties of pumpkins have been bred for different purposes. Some produce large fruits that are great for carving, while others have been bred for the sweet, tender flesh needed for cooking. The novelty varieties with miniature fruits or ghostly white rinds are perfect for fall decorating. And if you want to try your hand at growing a giant, a variety has been developed to help you do just that. The largest pumpkin grown weighed in at 1725 pounds- maybe you can top that!
Like other deep orange vegetables and fruits, pumpkin is a nutritional powerhouse. It is loaded with beta-carotene, an antioxidant that our bodies turn into Vitamin A and may reduce the risk of developing some cancers and heart disease. Pumpkin is also a good source of potassium.
Like other members of the squash family, pumpkins like it warm. So wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F before planting, usually a week or two after the last spring frost date. Gardeners in northern areas can speed things along by spreading black plastic to warm the soil for a couple of weeks before planting time. Pumpkins do best in light, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8 that's been enriched with organic matter.
If you garden in a short season area, you can get a bit of a headstart by starting seeds early indoors in peat pots 2 to 3 weeks before your last frost date. Pumpkin seedlings grow quickly and young vines transplant best, so don't start seeds indoors any earlier.
Sow seeds one inch deep. You can either plant seeds in hills, sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest vines, or in rows, spacing plants 3-5 feet apart in the row and allowing at least 8 feet between rows. When growing semi-bush varieties, plants can be spaced 1-3 feet apart in rows 4 feet apart.
Row covers placed over newly seeded or transplanted pumpkins are a great way to keep out pests such as cucumber beetles and squash bugs, but they need to be removed when the plants begin to flower so bees can get in to pollinate.
Keep your vines vigorous by giving them a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks. And make sure your vines get consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture.
To help keep your vines in bounds and encourage pumpkins to mature faster, you can pinch off the tips of the vines after they have set fruit. As your pumpkins grow, you may want to carefully rotate them so they develop a symmetrical shape.
Pumpkins are ready to harvest when they have developed their mature coloration and the rind is tough enough that you can't dent it with your thumbnail. The stems will also begin to shrivel and turn hard. Cut them from the vine with pruners, leaving a 2-5 inch stem. But don't use the stem as a handle; support the pumpkin from the bottom when you lift it and treat it gently so you don't injure the skin.
Don't worry about a light frost harming the mature pumpkins, but be sure to harvest before a hard frost, especially if you plan on storing the pumpkins for more than about a month. To keep pumpkins the longest, cure them by keeping them in a warm (85 degrees F), humid spot for 10 days. Wipe the pumpkins with a 10% solution of household bleach to kill mold spores, then store in a cool (50-55 degrees F), well-ventilated spot.
Q: I hate throwing away all those seeds when I carve a pumpkin or cut one up for pie. Can I eat them?
A: Pumpkin seeds make a nutritious snack. They are high in protein and healthy, unsaturated fats, as well as minerals such as iron, magnesium and zinc. So it's a great idea to eat your seeds! To prepare them, clean the stringy flesh off the seeds with your hands, then rinse them off and dry them on a kitchen towel. Toss the seeds with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, spread them out on a baking sheet, and roast in a 300 degree F oven for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the seeds are a light brown. The seeds will still be encased in their hulls. You can eat them, hull and all, or crack them to remove the seed inside.