University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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GROW YOUR OWN PUMPKINS

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

Apples, mums, colorful leaves, and pumpkins are what most appreciate about and associate with fall.  Spring may seem an odd time to be thinking about fall, but May is the time to plant pumpkins to grow your own.

Even if you’re not trying to grow one of those fair-winning pumpkins, upwards of 1000 pounds or more, there are other reasons you might want to grow your own.  You’ll have plenty of fresh pumpkin flesh for baking and seeds for roasting, lots of pumpkins for carving and decorating without spending much money, selections with unique fruit colors and shapes that you may not find locally, and just the joy (especially if children are involved) of watching them grow.  One supplier alone lists 79 varieties!  For these reasons, and the fact they’re easily grown, pumpkins have been named the 2019 Vegetable of the Year by the National Garden Bureau. 

Pumpkins grow quickly, like warm weather, and take a while to produce fruit, so you’ll want to get them started the end of May.  If you’re in an area that may get a late frost, have some frost protection ready, just in case.  You can either buy small plants ready to put in the garden, start your own from seeds a couple weeks before planting outside (this helps with our generally cooler and shorter northern summers), or sow seeds directly to the garden.  If sowing directly, sow in hills about 12 inches wide and 6 inches tall.  By starting your own pumpkin plants, you can save a bit of money, and get more variety. 

Another need of most pumpkins is sufficient space.  But, if you have a small garden or just grow vegetables in raised beds or large containers, look for smaller compact selections like Jack-Be-Little.  This pumpkin is great for kids to grow, or to use for decorating, the fruits being just 3 inches wide and 2 inches high.  If sowing direct to the garden, sow 2 to 3 seeds in groups about 3 to 4 feet apart.  Figure on about three months until harvesting mature fruits.  Similar in shape and size is the cultivar (cultivated variety) Munchkin, the All-America Selections winner Wee-B-Little, or the white-skinned Baby Boo or white Casperita.

A little larger are the sugar (so called for their sweetness) or pie pumpkins, often with string-less flesh inside.  New England Pie is a classic pie pumpkin in a small, jack-o-lantern shape, with fruit 4 to 8 pounds and 8 to 10 inches wide.  This one needs about 5 feet to spread, and 100 or more days to mature.  This is an heirloom variety, dating back to 1863, which you may see called Small Sugar. A more recent introduction and All-America Selections winner good for carving and decorating, as well as for pies, is Hijinks—its 6- to 7-pound fruit being a bit smaller, but on typically long vines.  It has good resistance to powdery mildew disease. 

Another pie pumpkin, about half the size of New England Pie, and a favorite for children to grow, is Baby Bear.   This one was an All-America Selections winner.  Beside its use in pies and for decorating, its semi-hulless seeds are good for roasting.  With slightly larger fruit—4 pounds or so—is Baby Pam, a cultivar often grown commercially for pies. 

Larger pumpkins—both fruit and plants— are typically the Jack-O-Lantern types.  Fruit of these are 8 to 15 pounds, and need about 100 to 115 days to mature from sowing.  One of the most popular in this group is simply called Jack-O-Lantern.  Spirit is another in this group, good for carving, canning, and pies.  It was a 1977 All-America Selections winner.  With only 4- to 6- foot long vines, it is good for smaller gardens.

Even larger pumpkins have fruit that are 15 to 40 pounds when mature, and need 100 to 110 days to mature from sowing.  On the lower end of weight in this group, with 15- to 20-pound fruits are Rival (which also has powdery mildew resistance), Racer, and Rocket (more upright elongated). These only take 85 to 90 days to mature, too.  A traditional favorite is Howden, with 20- to 30-pound bright orange fruits.  Some newer, similar cultivars include Expert, Rock Star, and Wolf.  Aladdin is on the upper end of weight in this group, with 25- to 35-pound fruits. 

Connecticut Field is a popular heirloom, sometimes called the original Halloween pumpkin.  Fruit weigh 15 to 25 pounds, and are the shape the original settlers would have found grown in this country by the native Americans.  Early Giant has a tall, elongated shape, whose fruits average 30 pounds.  Gladiator, with its 20- to 25-pound fruits, is one of the more popular cultivars with commercial pumpkin growers. 

Then there are the giant pumpkins as you see at fairs, those with fruits 100 pounds up to 1000 pounds or so, and needing 120 to 130 days to mature.  Dill’s Atlantic Giant is one of the more popular, with fruit generally 400 to 500 pounds, but which holds the world’s record at 1,810 pounds. First Prize has fruit upwards of 300 pounds when mature.  Big Moon has fruit that are a bit smaller, perhaps 200 pounds each.  With even smaller fruit, about 100 pounds each, are Prizewinner and Big Max. 

Finally, there are the specialty pumpkins with warty surfaces, or maturing in white, tan (a very light orange), blue, red, and striped.  The glowing orange-red fruit of Cinderella pumpkin are up to 15-inches across, with deep ridges.  This French heirloom was the model used by the artist for Cinderella’s carriage. 

Those with bluish skin include Jarrahdale, an heirloom from New Zealand with 6- to 10-pound fruit, mostly rounded with deep ridges.  Triamble has 8- to 12-pound fruit, which are a more greenish-blue and unusual triangular shape.  The Italian Marina Di Chioggia, with its 6- to 12-pound fruit, is good for Italian cooking.  It has a quite unusual warty or bumpy surface. 

Long Island Cheese is a tan pumpkin, its flattened 6- to 10-pound fruit resembling a wheel of cheese.  A similar shape to the latter, only with deeper ridges and more orange, and 8- to 15-pound fruit, is the southern French heirloom Musque de Provence.

In addition to the miniatures Baby Boo and Casperita, other white pumpkins include Moonshine (rounded fruits, 8- to 12-pounds), Valenciano (flattened, snow white, 8- to 10-pounds), Snowball (rounded fruit, only 2-pounds each), and Flat Stacker (very flattened, 15- to 25-pounds). 

For unusual pumpkins consider the “peanut pumpkin” Galeaux d’Eysines, the 15-pound fruit being tan and highly warty resembling peanut shells.  Blaze has small fruits, 3-pounds or so, yellow with orange stripes.  Others you may find more resemble ornamental winter squash.

When choosing which to grow, considerations include use, color, space needed, and time to maturity.  If powdery mildew disease is common in your landscape, look for cultivars with resistance to it.  Don’t plant pumpkins in the same bed where they or squash were grown last year.  (Such crop rotation helps with nutrition, and pest or disease prevention.) 

Make sure those with long vines have plenty of room to ramble. You can plant in, or around, taller vegetables such as pole beans, corn, or trellised vegetables.   Plant in well-drained soil, which you keep moist during the season.  Cultivate often to control weeds, or use a mulch (such as weed fabric covered with straw).  Pumpkins have separate male and female flowers, the male ones opening first, the female ones with mini-fruit behind the blossoms.

You can harvest the fruit when the surface (rind) is hard and of the right color for the variety, or light frost kills the vine.  Fruit are damaged by heavy frost.  Cut fruit from vines with pruning shears, leaving about 3 inches of stem attached.  Allow them to cure in the sun for a week, then store in a cool, dry place until ready to use. 

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