Our Growing Guide for Pumpkins: Harvest Tips, Varieties, and More

Save a trip to the pumpkin patch this fall and grow your own.

round orange ripe pumpkin grows in field with thick vine ready to harvest

Treehugger / Julia Cook

Never mind the artificially-flavored fall temptations of pumpkin-spiced coffees and desserts. After a long summer’s anticipation, the pumpkin patch’s broad leaves, vining stems, and yellow blossoms have finally produced the real deal.

Pumpkins, squashes, melons, and cucumbers are all members of the Cucurbit family. The pumpkin branch itself serves up everything from Halloween jack-o-lanterns, a surface for painting, delicious pie filling, and more. Don't forget, the pumpkin's flowers are edible too.

Here, we disclose everything you need to grow a bountiful batch of pumpkins this season.

Botanical Name  Cucurbita pepo, C. maxima, and C. moschata 
Common Name  Pumpkin
Plant Type  Annual vegetable
Size  4-5 feet wide, 14-24 inches tall. Vines up to 25 feet. 
Sun Exposure  Full sun
Soil Type  Slightly sandy with lots of organic matter 
Soil pH  6-6.8
Hardiness Zones  3-9 
Native Area  From northern Central America to Peru

How to Plant Pumpkins

Pumpkins take a lot of space for the vines to reach out and for the big leaves to soak up enough sunlight. Small varieties need to spread out, too, so evaluate the space you have to work with before getting started.

Growing From Seed

Pumpkins require warm soil to get going, and the plants are not frost-tolerant, so check your extended weather forecast before planting. For most locations, this will be sometime in May.

After you prepare the soil, create mounds about a foot high and a yard in diameter. You can make a rim around the edge to hold water if it’s scarce. These mounds have two functions: the first is that they warm up faster than flat soil, and the second is that they offer good drainage and room for young roots to start spreading. Plant 4-5 seeds per hill, each an inch deep, then once the young plants are well-established, thin to the 2-3 strongest ones.

Growing From a Starter or Transplanting

If you live in a colder climate, starting plants indoors can give you a head start on the season. Plant 2-3 strong starts in mounds when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees F.

Treehugger Tip

If you grow pumpkins and run out of things to do with your bountiful crops, please offer them to your local farm animal sanctuary. They will be happily enjoyed by the animals.

Pumpkin Plant Care

Small pumpkin varieties like Jack Be Little can be grown on a sturdy trellis, arch, or tunnel no taller than 8 feet. This not only lets you grow in a smaller space but also gives the plant good air circulation, which helps prevent diseases.

For such a big, tough-looking plant, pumpkins are surprisingly susceptible to water stress, frost, and several pests. Just be vigilant for these problems, and you'll be rewarded.

Light, Soil, and Nutrients

Pumpkins need a full day of sunlight, 6-8 hours. It takes a lot of energy to grow fruit this big.

Since they take up a great deal of space, precise care and preparation of the soil are especially important. A study compared no-till, strip-tilling (where only the area to be seeded is tilled and the rest of the plot is undisturbed), and regular tilling to find out the impact on pumpkin size, moisture, and soil loss. The result was that the pumpkins grew at least as large where conservation tillage was used and was largest in the no-till area. The authors deduced that this was due to better moisture storage, the benefits of cover-crop mulch residue, and reduced loss of soil during heavy rains.

Pumpkins fare well in many kinds of soil, though they like slightly sandy soil with a lot of organic matter mixed in. To prepare the soil for planting, mix in organic matter such as compost or well-cured manure, some lime if your soil is too acidic, and some natural fertilizer.

Water and Temperature

Pumpkins grow best between 70-90 degrees F. They dislike overly wet soil that, especially in warm weather, leads to diseases. But they are also sensitive to water stress from too little irrigation, especially when blooming and while forming and ripening the fruit. Drip irrigation on a timer can provide regular moisture and also be a means to inject liquid fertilizer.

Mulch vs. Weeds and Pollinators

Whether you use the heavy woven plastic sheet mulch or a thick layer of straw, mulch will help warm the soil at the same time it suppresses weeds and reduces competition for the nutrients the pumpkin needs.

Moreover, pumpkins have many more male flowers than fruit-producing females, so a good crew of pollinators is important to get pollen to where it is needed. Plant some flowers that attract bees around your pumpkin patch.

Treehugger Tip

Saving pumpkin seeds is easy and rewarding, especially if you have an heirloom or open-pollinated variety that you want to grow again. Scoop seeds out of a fully ripe, well-formed pumpkin, and rinse thoroughly to get all the slimy stuff off. Spread them out on a paper towel-lined baking pan to dry, and put them in a cool, dark place for about a week. Then, roast and eat some of them and store the rest in an envelope to plant next year.

Common Pests and Diseases

Pumpkins are prone to the same pests and diseases as the rest of the squash, cucumber, and melon relatives: squash bug, squash vine borer, cucumber beetle. Inspect your crops regularly. Traps and homemade repellent sprays can help.

Pumpkins are also susceptible to powdery mildew, black rot, stem blight, mosaic virus, and bacterial wilt, so cleaning away all plant residue from the plot before planting is important—especially if bacterial or fungal diseases have occurred there before.

Pumpkin Varieties

Variety of ornamental pumpkins
AlexPro9500 / Getty Images

Aside from the classic pumpkins we see on doorsteps at Halloween, specialty pumpkins are diverse and delightful. This selection includes warty and colorful varieties.

  • Wee-Be-Little is baseball-sized and round, flavorful, and perfect for stuffing.
  • Musquee de Provence is a French heirloom that grows to 20-30 lbs with a thick, adobe-colored rind and deep orange flesh inside. Its slightly flattened form suggests a big wheel of cheese, as does its smaller cousin, Long Island Cheese.
  • Big Max is known for its size, as it grows to 100 lbs. Plan ahead and make sure you have a way to move these out of the field.
  • Sugar Pie is the favorite for making holiday pie filling, as its flavor and size are just right for the job.
  • Kakai Squash has a mottled green-yellow-orange rind and hull-less seeds that are perfect for toasting.
  • Blue Pumpkin/Jarrahdale from Australia is a Blue Hubbard and Cinderella squash hybrid. It stands out for its spruce-blue rind, but inside it’s a deep reddish-orange.

How to Harvest, Store, and Preserve Pumpkins

When the rind is hard and deeply colored, use a sharp knife to cut the stalk 3-4 inches above the pumpkin. Some growers prefer to store them upside down and/or off the ground, on a pallet, for example, to keep the bottom from beginning to rot.

Pumpkins remain good a couple of months after harvest, so long as they are stored at a relative humidity of 50-70% and between 50-55 degrees F, according to the Penn State Extension. They can be preserved by drying or by blanching and then freezing. You can also cook, puree, and freeze or can the pumpkin flesh, and use it in a variety of fall recipes.

View Article Sources
  1. O'Rourke, Megan E. and Jessica Petersen. "Reduced Tillage Impacts on Pumpkin Yield, Weed Pressure, Soil Moisture, and Soil Erosion." HortScience, vol. 51, no. 12, 2016, pp. 1524-1528., doi:10.21273/HORTSCI11226-16

  2. Stivers, Lee and Tianna Dupont. "Seed and Seedling Biology." Penn State Extension, 2012.

  3. Harper, Jason K. and Orzolek, Michael. "Pumpkin Production." Penn State Extension, 2005.