Pumpkins are a popular fall crop grown by backyard gardeners and small farmers alike. Their bright orange colors and sweet flavors have made them a staple of autumn traditions. Beyond decoration and pies though, pumpkins provide nutritional and health benefits. Their flesh is high in vitamins A and C as well as fiber. Growing your own pumpkins isn’t too difficult either – with some planning, care and the right companion plants, you can have a bountiful harvest. This complete guide will walk you through everything you need to know about successfully planting pumpkins alongside beneficial companion plants.
Selecting the Best Pumpkin Varieties
There are over 450 varieties of pumpkins, ranging dramatically in size, shape, color and more. With so many options to pick from, it can be overwhelming to select the right ones for your garden. Keep these factors in mind when deciding on pumpkin types:
Pumpkins vary greatly in their mature size, from just a pound up to over 1,000 pounds! For backyard growing, some good size varieties to look for include:
- Small (3-5 lbs): Jack Be Little, Baby Bear
- Medium (15-20 lbs): Sugar Pie, Cheese Pumpkin
- Large (25+ lbs): Connecticut Field, Big Max
The size you want will depend on your end use – smaller pie pumpkins for baking, medium carving pumpkins and large varieties for big holiday decorations.
Days to Maturity
Pay attention to days to maturity for the variety or number of days from when seed is planted to when pumpkins are ready for harvest. In northern climates with shorter growing seasons, quick maturing varieties under 100 days are best. Southern gardeners can choose longer season types up to 120 days.
Certain pumpkin types have resistance bred into them against common diseases like powdery mildew and downy mildew. Choosing one of these varieties means your crop will be less prone to issues. Some disease-resistant favorites include: Gladiator, Touch of Autumn and Gold Medallion.
While orange is the standard, there are also interesting varieties available in shades of white, blue-green, red, tan and more. Grab some unique types to use as eye-catching decorations!
When and How to Plant Pumpkins
Pumpkins need lots of space, heat and time to fully grow – which is why timing on both planting and variety selection matters. Follow these guidelines on when and how to sow pumpkin seeds successfully:
Start by prepping soil in the planting area. Pumpkins thrive in nutrient-rich, well-draining earth amended with lots of organic compost or manure. A soil test can tell you specifically what nutrients your dirt lacks pre-season. Once soil is prepared, create hills or mounded rows 2 feet in diameter and 1 foot tall. These are where you’ll sow seeds.
Digging in soil amendments ahead of the growing season gives them time to fully mix in the dirt. It also elevates seeds and pumpkin fruits off wet ground, reducing rot.
When to Sow Seeds
Pumpkin plants are extremely sensitive to cold or frost, which can damage them beyond recovery. They also take up ample space and need a long growing period of 80-120 days. For these reasons, direct sow seeds outdoors only once soil is thoroughly warmed in late spring / early summer. This is typically 1-2 weeks after your last expected frost date. Quick maturing varieties planted later often don’t reach full size in time before cooling weather sets in again come fall.
In short growing season northern areas, some gardeners get a head start by planting seeds indoors 3-4 weeks before last frost. Just be very careful in transplanting seedlings and hardening them off before setting out.
Planting Depth & Hills
Sow 3-5 seeds together per hill, planting 1 inch deep beneath loose soil. Space hills or rows 4-8 feet apart to account for extensive growth – pumpkins can spread 15 feet wide! For smaller varieties needed in bulk like Sugar Pie, plant more hills with fewer plants per mound. Or, space hills of larger carving and decoration types further apart.
Consistent moisture and warmer 70-90 degree soil helps pumpkin seeds germinate best, sprouting in 5-10 days. To retain moisture before sprouting, some gardeners place plastic wrap or fabric row cover over hills to create a greenhouse effect. Remove any covering as soon as seedlings emerge to prevent fungal issues from dampness and lack of air flow.
Caring for Growing Pumpkins
Once sprouted and thinned down to 2-3 seedlings per hill or mound, pumpkin plants require ample water, nutrition and pest management for strong growth and yield. Provide them with these elements all season:
Water & Nutrients
Consistently moist soil ensures smooth fruit swelling all season. Pumpkins are composed of 90-95% water on average! Lack of steady moisture causes misshapen, undersized fruits. Drip irrigation systems work wonderfully to provide regular hydration straight to roots. Or, lay down organic mulch like straw around plants to retain moisture near the soil.
In addition to initial soil amendments mixed in pre-season, fertilize plants again once fruits start actively growing. Side dress hills with nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer or compost. Watch out for over-fertilization though, as too much nitrogen leads to excessive foliage instead of fruits.
Pollination & Flower Care
The bright yellow male and female pumpkin flowers bloom in summer, often needing pollinator assistance in transferring grains of pollen for fruit formation. Different factors unfortunately inhibit fruit set at times despite there being abundant flowers. Protect your future pumpkin crop by:
- Hand pollinating flowers using a small brush during early morning hours when pollen is most viable if bee activity seems low.
- Only allowing a couple of pumpkins to develop per vine initially. Too many forming right away saps energy from healthy fruit growth. Additional female flowers can be pollinated later.
- Covering developing pumpkins with row cover fabric to prevent insect and animal damage to embryos. Just be sure to remove during flower bloom so bees aren’t obstructed.
Pumpkins spread extensively across garden space. This thick foliage actually makes good ground coverage to block sun exposure needed for weeds to thrive. But some still sometimes poke through planting hills and rows. Pull these weeds as soon as spotted before they compete with developing pumpkins for soil moisture and nutrients.
Pests & Diseases
A variety of pests like cucumber beetles and squash bugs target pumpkins, sucking juices from plants and stunting growth. Other dangers lurk in fungal and bacterial diseases like powdery mildew and bacterial wilt. Choosing resistant varieties avoids some issues. But be proactive too in scouting for problems early and using organic pest control measures at first sight like:
- Beneficial insects and nematodes
- Natural anti-fungal sprays
- Floating row covers as physical barriers
- Diatomaceous earth to kill soft-bodied insects
Remove and dispose of any severely infected plants right away to prevent spread.
Companion Planting for Healthy Pumpkin Growth
Growing beneficial companion plants amongst and around pumpkins builds a mini-ecosystem with natural pest control and greater pollination. Certain plants actually stimulus healthier, more productive pumpkin growth when planted nearby in a form of plant communication!
Use these time-tested companion options to get bigger, better yields from your pumpkins:
Corn & Pole Beans
The classic ‘Three Sisters’ planting well-known to Native American gardeners combines tall corn stalks, sprawling beans and low-growing squash or pumpkins in the same mounded space. Each fulfills a role, with corn providing a trellis for beans to climb. Beans in turn fix nitrogen into the soil to feed all three plants. Pumpkins then benefit from the living mulch of foliage above that helps retain soil moisture.
Quick-growing radishes mature and can be harvested long before pumpkins are ready. But during their early sprouting stage, their root exudates help control soil fungus that pumpkins are prone to. After pulling radishes, ample space is left for pumpkins to spread out.
Marigolds & Nasturtiums
Ring pumpkin hills and rows with cheery marigolds and nasturtiums. Both bloom brightly all season, attracting important pollinators. They also deter certain pests likes aphids, whitefly and squash bugs that can damage pumpkins through chemical secretions from roots and petals.
The vibrant star-shaped blue flowers of borage attract bees while also potentially boosting disease resistance in nearby pumpkin plants. Grow some of these delicate herbs around your patch!
Harvesting Perfect Pumpkins
After putting careful work into nurturing your pumpkin plants all season, it’s time to reap the rewards! Follow these tips on timing harvest and handling fruits:
When to Pick Pumpkins
It takes 80-120 days on average from when seeds are planted to fully mature, ripe pumpkin fruits. The timing on harvest though goes beyond just days. It’s also indicated by changes in appearance and feel:
- The rind hardens and rich fall color develops
- Vine and leaves being to die back
- Fruits detach easily from the vine with a gentle tug
- The bottom touching soil flattens and turns from white to a tan/yellow hue
On average, figure pumpkin fruits are ready to harvest anytime from early September through October. Ripe pumpkins left unpicked too long can crack or rot.
When fruits pass the indicators above of being harvest-ready, carefully cut each pumpkin from its vine using pruners or a sharp knife. Leave 3-4 inches of stem attached to seal in flavor and extend storage lifespan.
Harvest fruits with gentle care, wearing gloves to avoid scratching. Never yank or twist vine stems, which can damage pumpkins. Any nicks or cuts create entryways for decay organisms during curing and storage.
Move freshly-harvested pumpkins to an outdoor location away from direct sun and cover loosely with mesh fabric. Allow to ‘cure’ for 10-15 days post-picking so skins further harden and sugars concentrate.
Storing Perfect Pumpkins
Once cured, store pumpkins in a cool, dark place around 50-60 degrees F like a basement or cellar. Prevent them from freezing or overheating. The elevated temperature, ventilation and steady humidity of such locations extends how long pumpkins keep for weeks or even months. Warm rooms with temperature fluctuations cause faster deterioration.
Check stored pumpkins every 2-3 weeks, wiping away any condensation that promotes rot. Discard any showing signs of mold or soft spots spreading. With proper post-harvest curing and storage methods, many pumpkin varieties last 2-3 months or more to delight in through fall and early winter!
Common Problems When Growing Pumpkins
Even with the best care, pumpkin plants sometimes struggle with various issues that stunt growth and reduce yield. Catch and remedy these common problems early using organic methods:
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease encouraged by high humidity and dense foliage. It manifests as a white powdery coating over leaves and vines, eventually spreading to fruit as well. Avoid by planting resistant varieties and properly spacing plants for airflow. Remove initially affected leaves immediately before it spreads. Spray neem oil or potassium bicarbonate weekly as prevention.
Squash Vine Borers
Squash vine bores are a destructive pest that burrows into main stems, essentially cutting off plant vascular systems. This causes vines to suddenly wilt and die. Cut open stems to remove borers, then bury affected stem sections under soil so new roots may form. Cover young squash plants with floating row covers to create a physical barrier against the adult borer moths laying eggs.
Poor Pollination and Fruit Set
Issues with pollination and subsequent pumpkin fruit setting leads to small, misshapen or no pumpkins come fall. Ensure bees actively work over flowers by having plenty of companion plants offering pollen sources before and after pumpkin blooms. Hand pollinate early flowers using a small brush too. Excessive heat over 95 degrees, nighttime temperatures above 70 degrees and high humidity interfere with pollination as well.
Blossom End Rot
Blossom end rot causes a dark sunken area on the bottom of developing pumpkins, eventually rotting and destroying fruits. It’s caused by calcium deficiencies made worse by uneven soil moisture, particularly early on after pollination occurs. Use drip irrigation for consistent hydration. Spray blossoms and fruits with calcium chloride or work soluble calcium into soil to prevent issues.
Squash Bug Damage
Squash bugs are a common pest that inject a toxin into plants while sucking juices, causing distorted growth, plant wilt and lower fruits. Handpick adults early on and crush egg clusters underneath leaves. Trap bugs underneath boards near plants that you can scrape them off to dispose of. Introduce beneficial parasitic tachinid flies.
Stretching Your Harvest Yet Further
Part of the wonder of pumpkin plants lies in their versatility to offer tablefare and decor across much of the year – not just fall through winter storage. Consider these techniques for lengthening enjoyment of pumpkins:
Pick Early & Cure
Harvest pumpkins intended for decoration a couple of weeks before completely ripe on the vine. Post-harvest curing then further dries and hardens the exterior skin so they resist decay months down the road, including when displayed indoors.
Freezing Cooked Pumpkin Pie Filling
Cook, puree and freeze excess pumpkin fruits at their peak of flavor to use later on. Measure pureed portions into packages or muffins tins to pop out and thaw as needed for baking.
Save & Roast Seeds
Fresh pumpkin seeds offer a healthy snack option. Rinse and dry seeds from carving pumpkins. Toss with oil and desired seasonings before roasting until crispy in the oven. Store roasted seeds in airtight containers for snacks over following weeks.
Create Pickled Pumpkin Relish
Pumpkins add a unique twist to traditional pickled relishes. Puree cooked pumpkin flesh and combine with white vinegar, sugar and favorite spices. Store the sweet-tart condiment in sterilized jars several months.
With all these preservation methods beyond winter storage, your pumpkin harvest can delight for many more months to come!
Some of the best companion plants for pumpkins include corn, pole beans, radishes, marigolds and borage. These help with pest control, soil health and pollination.
Pumpkins are spreading vines that require lots of space. Plant them in hills or rows 4-8 feet apart to account for growth spreading 15 feet wide or more.
Direct sow pumpkin seeds outdoors 1-2 weeks after your last expected spring frost once soil is thoroughly warm, around 70-90 ̊F. This is typically late May through early June for most regions.
Pumpkins require full sun – at least 8 hours per day of direct sunlight. Choose a location with southern exposure for maximum light intensity.
Pumpkins are composed of 90-95% water! They require consistent moisture for the entire growing season for proper development. About 1-2 inches of water per week is ideal, either through rain or supplemental irrigation.
Insufficient pollination, lack of nutrients, inconsistent moisture, cold temperatures and pest damage are among the common causes of small, misshapen pumpkins that fail to properly size up.
Pumpkins are ripe and ready for harvesting when the rind hardens and they change to a rich orange color (depending on variety). The vines start to die back, fruits detach easily from stems and the bottom touching soil flattens and yellows. This typically occurs by September or October after around 80-120 days of growth.
Enjoy an Abundant Harvest
As you can see, growing pumpkins successfully alongside companion plants involves plenty of preparation and care. But the effort pays off tenfold when it’s time to harvest stacks of bright fruits straight from your own backyard. Pumpkins from the garden simply taste better and last far longer than store-bought varieties. With these complete tips in hand on selecting types, sowing, maintaining growth and harvesting, savor a plentiful yield this season. Soon you’ll enjoy carving, baking and decorating with the legacy of perfectly planted pumpkins!