Sanctuary Spotlight: How to Grow Pumpkins

I admit, as much as summer is the greatest time for gardening, I love autumn and the fall planting. Fall gardening is great because of the (eventual) cooler temperatures and the decrease in pests (sooner or later), but also because of the cool weather crops that can be grown. These include pumpkins. In my area, we have two seasons to plant pumpkins – the spring and mid-late summer. I planted my first pumpkins in April this year, but the evil squash borers killed them. I planted them again earlier this month, adding an additional (hopefully, more resistant) variety to my planting. Because pumpkin pie is my all-time favorite pie, I’m determined to grow my own pumpkins – and have some ready for harvest by Thanksgiving (I hope). Have you ever thought about growing your own pumpkins?

GENERAL INFORMATION:

Pumpkins are a type of winter squash, belonging to the same family as squash and cucumbers: the cucurbitaceae family. Within that family, there are four species of squash that include summer squash, winter squash, and pumpkins. I never knew that pumpkin varieties are found in all four families: cucurbita pepo (includes the variety for making jack-o-lanterns), cucurbita mixta, cucurbita maxima (includes the varieties of giant pumpkins), and cucurbita moschata (includes the tan-colored variety used for canned pumpkin and pies). As a note, c. moschata is the squash/pumpkin species that is most resistant to squash borers. I’ll let you know how I fare with that this planting!

The word pumpkin originally comes from the Greek word pepon, meaning “large melon.” The French adapted the Greek word to pompon. The British changed it to pumpion, from which the American colonists got the word pumpkin. The origin of the pumpkin itself is not fully known, but it is native to North America. It’s likely the first European settlers here learned about pumpkins from the native Americans. The earliest known pumpkin-related seeds were found in Mexico and were dated to 7000-5500 BCE. Wow!

Although pumpkins are a winter squash, their stems are different than most winter squash. Pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly and set at a 5 degree angle, while winter squash stems are softer, more rounded, and more flared where joined to the fruit. Pumpkin size varies on variety and can range from one pound miniatures to giant pumpkins weighing 500 pounds or more – though the average pumpkin size is 9-18 pounds. Although Americans are most familiar with the large, deep orange variety used for carving at Halloween, pumpkins come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging from tan to light orange to dark orange. There’s even a white variety.

Pumpkins are a wonderful way to add nutrition to your winter diet. Loaded with eye-beneficial lutein, 1 cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin also contains many vitamins and minerals, including (based on daily recommended values): 245% vitamin A, 19% vitamin C, 11% riboflavin, 10% vitamin E, 16% potassium, 11% each copper & manganese, and 8% iron (among others).

PLANTING PUMPKINS:

Pumpkins can be grown in zones 3-9, but check your variety to be sure it will have time to mature during your growing season. Pumpkins like full sun and well-drained, loamy soil full of organic matter (compost) with a pH of 6.0-7.0. You can sow pumpkin seeds after the last frost in the spring, when the soil temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but no later than May in northern climates, else your pumpkins won’t have time to mature before the first fall frost arrives. In the South, where I live, pumpkins can be planted in the spring and again the end of July/beginning of August. For fall planting, be sure your variety will have time to mature.

Plant seeds one inch deep in hills with 4-6 seeds per hill. Thin to 2 or 3 plants per hill, keeping the healthiest plants, when the seedlings have their third set of leaves. Pumpkins are heavy feeders, so fertilize regularly. Use a high nitrogen fertlizer in the beginning for solid plant growth, then switch to a fertilizer heavier in phosphorus just before blooming. Pumpkins also need lots of water, so keep the soil moist (though not wet) throughout the growing season.  And don’t forget to weed well around your hills. Pumpkins don’t like competing with weeds for nutrients and water.

Depending on the variety, pumpkin vines can grow as long as 20 feet long, so leave lots of room for growth. Hills should be 5-6 feet apart to allow room if planting in a patch. I plant my hills about 2 feet apart and allow my vines to spill out of my raised bed and creep along the pathways around the beds.

Pumpkin vine

Pumpkin vine

HARVESTING PUMPKIN:

Depending on variety, pumpkins mature (on average) from 90-120 days. A mature pumpkin will turn the color for the variety (whether tan or a shade of orange), and the rind will harden so that your thumbnail can’t puncture it. The rind will lose its shine and become more dull, as well. The stem will change, too, hardening as the vine dies. Harvest when ripe – or harvest all fruit if the temperature will go below 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Pumpkins can’t handle a hard frost, and you will lose your entire crop.

When harvesting, cut the pumpkin from the vine, leaving a stem of about four inches. Do not carry the pumpkin by the stem, but hold the fruit in your hands, so you don’t pull the stem from the fruit.

If you’re going to store your pumpkins for later eating, they must be cured first. Set your pumpkins in a very sunny window or other warm and sunny place (80-85 degrees is great), so they will harden further and become sweeter inside. Depending on the size of your pumpkin, you may need to turn it upside down to cure the bottom, as well. Leave to cure for at least two weeks. If you need to turn it upside down, you may need to leave it another two weeks. This process will harden the rind enough to keep the fruit for two to three months. After curing, you may apply a light coating of olive oil to further seal the rind.

Optimal storage is obtained in a 50-55 degree Fahrenheit room, but pumpkins can be stored at room temperature of 68 degrees. Store them on wire racks (not solid shelves), and do not stack them or allow them to touch each other. Each pumpkin needs good air circulation for maximum storage life.

FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN:

When most people think of eating pumpkin, their first thought is usually pumpkin pie. And I’m sure there are dozens of favorite pumpkin pie recipes. But if you remember that pumpkins are winter squash, you can add more culinary variety to your diet with these recipes.

Pumpkin Challah Bread (I made this recipe and the bread is awesome! Freezes well, too.)

Pumpkin Soup (I’m going to try this one!)

Pumpkin Cookies (even without the icing, pumpkin cookies are awesome!)

Are you growing pumpkins in your garden?

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