Pumpkins are a classic crop that has been harvested for nearly 5,000 years. The pulp, seeds, and flowers were popular long before Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock; Native Americans traditionally used them for food, as a medicine to treat kidney trouble, and as a topical healing method for cuts and scrapes. They were even believed to cure snakebites.
This classic North American gourd makes a tasty treat on its own, and it's also a must-have addition to desserts, soups, and dressings. The biggest varieties of pumpkins reach over 1,000 pounds!
Pumpkins grow best when you plant their seeds directly into the soil, making them an ideal outdoor plant. Pumpkins don't perform well in the cold, so aim for an optimum soil temperature of 95ºF, and make sure the soil is rich and well-drained. The plants require nutrient-heavy soil, so mix plenty of compost prior to planting and whenever the soil gets moist.
Pumpkins grow on winding vines that require 50 to 100 square feet to spread out, although miniature varieties are available for smaller gardens. While this sprawling growth pattern requires ample soil, planting pumpkins at the edge of your lot can direct the vines up and over the lawn, making a larger plot unnecessary.
Keep an eye on the variety you're growing: miniature pumpkins weigh up to two pounds, average plants weigh between seven and 11 pounds, larger types can get up to 25 pounds, and giant pumpkins hit the scale in the hundreds.
For optimal growth, pumpkins require full sunlight. They can grow in a wide range of environments, and are suitable in hardiness zones three through nine. This wide range extends from cooler climates in the Northeast and Middle America to temperate soil in the Southwest.
The best states for growing pumpkins are California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, and Michigan, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Due to their sprawling growth, pumpkins require loads of water — around one inch each week — so get the sprinkler ready, but wait until it's sunny out, as dampness can easily foster disease. Water deeply into the soil, ensuring that dehydrated roots can soak in every last drop. At the same time, add mulch to lock in moisture and ward off pests.
Pumpkins attract an array of pests, so keep an eye out. Beetles are the most common, but they're easy to treat by spraying pesticides across your vines. Snails and slugs devour pumpkin flesh during its younger stages, but you can place a ring of sand around growing plants to keep these critters at bay.
Aphids are also attracted to pumpkins, but they don't do damage unless in large numbers. A strong spray of water paired with insecticide can successfully stop an infestation.
Vine borers can cause serious issues, however. These intruders burrow deep into vines while sucking out moisture from the entire plant. Prevention is key here: spray the vine with a strong pesticide to ward off invasion.
Foliar diseases frequently affect pumpkins. Powdery mildew causes white, powdery spores that cover the lower leaf surface, eventually working their way up and defoliating the entire crop.
Anthracnose starts as small brown spots outlined by a darker circle, which expands as the disease worsens. White speck is similar, with tan lesions appearing on leaves. Black rot results in grey splotches, while gummy stem blight is a rotting disease that affects the entire plant.
Fungicides can kill any of these diseases in their early stages, so consider applying them every 10 to 14 days once leaves develop. For best results, combine this approach with crop rotation, especially of plants that aren't susceptible to these same diseases.
Pumpkins are heavy feeders, so special nutrients can make all the difference. A regular routine of compost, manure, and fertilizer will boost growth throughout the season. During the early stages, before vines start spreading, seek out a fertilizer with high nitrogen content, switching to one with high phosphorus levels before blooming.
While most gardeners grow them from seed, it's possible to propagate pumpkins straight from the vine. Bury the vine deep into the soil, then wait 7 to 10 days to cut off the new plant. Ensure that you have enough space for these fresh vines to stretch out.
A bonus? This new plant creates an additional root system that feeds the primary plant as well.
You'll know your pumpkins are ripe and ready to harvest when you see that deep, signature orange hue. Thump the exterior to get a feel for freshness; the rind should feel hard, the sound should be hollow, and the vegetable should be resistant to puncture.
Pumpkins last longer with a few inches of stem remaining, so cut them free carefully. Don't tear them away or you risk losing those extra inches.
Once your pumpkins are ready to eat, you'll enjoy a whole host of health benefits. This nutrient-rich, low-calorie treat can help fill you up, and its high antioxidant content protects skin against sun damage while lowering your risk of cancer and eye disease. Plenty of vitamin A and C strengthen your immune system, while potassium and fiber boost heart health.