What is easy to grow; comes in sizes from less than a pound
to over 600 pounds; has been worshipped and written into
legends and plays; inspires whole families to see and buy;
is very high in vitamin A; can be cooked, canned, baked,
carved, made into a pie, a Jack-O'-lantern, soup,
casseroles, bread, cookies, seed snacks, cattle feed, and
even a golden coach for Cinderella? The answer to this
overwhelming question is...a pumpkin of course!
References to pumpkins date back many centuries. The name
appears to originate from the Greek word for "large melon",
which is "pepon". This was nasalized by the French into
"pompon". The British changed that to "pumpion", to which
Shakespeare refers in his "Merry Wives of Windsor".
Finally, the American colonists changed it into "pumpkin",
where it is referred to in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow",
"Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater" and "Cinderella".
Botanically, there is no such thing as a pumpkin. Pumpkins
are certain varieties of squash which through local
traditions and use have come to be called pumpkins. Squash
and pumpkins belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which also
contains cucumbers, melons and gourds. The varieties of
squash most often considered pumpkins are found in four
species of the genus Cucurbita: C. pepo, C. maxima, C.
mixta, and C. moschata.
Pumpkins are warm-season vegetables that require soil and
air temperatures to be above 60 degrees F. before they will
thrive out-of-doors. Seeds planted too early could rot in
cold ground. Young plants exposed to 2 or 3 nights of 45-
50 degrees F. temperatures may become stunted from chilling
injury. Pumpkins are usually direct-seeded into the soil
because they do not transplant well. Late May
to mid-June is the best time to plant in most northern states. The danger of fros is past and the pumpkins will be mature when they are needed
in September and October.
Pumpkins will grow in most soils, if they are well drained.
They will not tolerate low areas with water-logged soil.
Sandy loams with high organic matter for good moisture
retention are best. Heavier soils with more clay, or
lighter soils with more sand can be improved by adding peat
moss, compost, aged manure, humus, or other forms of organic
matter. The pH should be maintained from slightly acid to
neutral. Slightly alkaline soils have been productive in
Western states. Very acid soils should be limed or avoided.
Your soil can be tested for pH, nutrient levels, soil type,
and fertilizer recommendations. See your county agent for
more information on testing.
Pumpkins can be planted in hills or drilled in rows. A hill
is a circular depression with soil mounded a few inches up
around the circumference. Three or four seeds are planted
6 inches apart and 1" deep in the center. These are later
thinned to the 2 strongest plants per hill. Hills should
be 3-6 feet apart within the rows, with the rows 5-10 feet
apart. Plants drilled in rows should be 1 1/2-3 feet apart
in the rows, with the rows 5-10 feet apart, and planted
1-1/2 inches deep. Large fruited and long vined varieties
should be given the maximum amounts of space. Bush and
semi-bush varieties can be planted closer together. Soil
fertility also affects spacing. The more fertile the soil,
the less space each plant requires.
Additional fertilizer broadcast or side-dressed is
recommended when the plants are beginning to set fruit. In
the home garden the 5-10-5 fertilizer can be sprinkled on at
the rate of 1 cup over every 25 square feet of pumpkin
plants, or manure tea can be fed to each hill.
Pumpkins are about 90% water and need a lot to develop into
large fruit. They are also subject to many foliar diseases
that can be spread by overhead or sprinkler irrigation. In
the home garden, a gallon of water each week at the base of
the plant is recommended if the rainfall is less than one
inch that week. Mulch applied after the soil has warmed is
helpful for moisture retention.
Most pumpkins acquire one flat, warty, unattractive side
from being in direct contact with the ground while growing.
Decay organisms can sometimes enter the fruit here, causing
it to rot, especially if the ground is wet. To prevent
these ground spots, fruits can be rolled over once or twice
during the growing season; or they can be taken out of
direct contact with the ground. Place a small box, board,
newspaper, mulch, or other material under each fruit to
prevent them from touching the ground.
The most common insect pests of pumpkins are cucumber
beetles, squash bugs and vine borers.
Cucumber beetles are narrow, 1/3" long, yellow and black spotted or striped
beetles that chew holes in the leaves and cotyledons and
spread bacterial wilt. In the home garden they may be
controlled with consistent hand picking and soap sprays, but
they are very mobile and require diligent control measures.
An insecticide may have to be used.
Mechanical shields such as cheese cloth or a box placed
upside-down over the seedlings, anchored by burying the
flaps, with the bottom replaced by screen, will shield out
all three pests until plants are well established. When the
shields are removed, place potted catnip and tansy around
the plants to further discourage cucumber beetles
Squash bugs are large, dark brown, flat-bodied bugs that
suck sap from the vines around the base of the plants. They
hide under foliage and are not very active. Handpicking is
an excellent control method in the home garden. Where this
is impractical, an insecticide may have to be used.
Vine borers tunnel into the stem and cause the vine to wilt
from the contact point to the tip. If these insects are a
problem, an insecticide should be applied once each week for
3 or 4 weeks, beginning 3 weeks after planting. If wilting
is noticed, look for piles of sawdust-like material at the
base of the plant. Slit the stem until you find a white
grub and kill it. The vine should re-cover and continue
growing. Removing stalks and vines from the field in the
fall should reduce infestation in coming years.
Powdery mildew is a fungus disease that often appears on
squash and pumpkin leaves late in the season. It looks like
white patches of dusting powder scattered on the leaves. It
can be controlled chemically if it appears early in the
season, but often it is so late that it does no affect the
Pumpkins should stay on the vine as long as possible,
especially pie and canning pumpkins, because cool weather
increases their sugar content and storage life. However,
heavy frost will damage their tissue and allow decay
organisms to enter. If storage time is important, harvest
just before a heavy frost. To assure that every fruit is of
harvestable size, the vines can be pruned a few weeks before
harvest. Cut off the vine to just after the last pumpkin
that looks large enough to ripen in the next few weeks.
To harvest, pumpkins should be cut leaving some vine
attached. Do not carry pumpkins by the stem. If a stem
breaks off the decorative value of the fruit is lost and the
storage life is greatly reduced. Be careful not to bruise
fruit or puncture the shells while harvesting. This will
also shorten storage life.
For maximum storage ability, do not stack pumpkins in a
pile. Arrange them on shelves or close together but with
ventilation space around each one, and keep them dry. Ideal
conditions are 50-55 degree F. temperature and 50-75%
relative humidity. Pumpkins may also be cured by placing
them, soon after harvest, in a 75-80 degree F. area with
good air circulation for 2 weeks, then reducing the
temperature. For home gardeners, this may be difficult, but
any place where the temperature is not over 60 degrees or
under 40 degrees and the humidity is not over 75% will
suffice. An attic, a dry basement, and unheated extra room,
or a closed garage are very good storage areas. A furnace
room, or between a stove and refrigerator may be excellent
Pumpkin is quite nutritious and a low calorie vegetable. It
is 90% water, 1% protein, has small amounts of the B
vitamins, and vitamin C. It contains 1600 units of vitamin
A. The darker orange fleshed varieties have even more
vitamin A. This is a considerable amount with only carrots,
winter squash, and certain cole crops containing more. It
is well worth using in baked goods, as a soup base or in
casseroles and other main dishes.
The Indians roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire
and ate them. Colonists sliced off the top and cleaned out
the seeds, then replaced the top and roasted the whole
pumpkin in hot ashes, or filled the inside with milk, spices
and honey and baked it in the hot ashes. This was probably
the origin of pumpkin pie.