How to Grow Organic Pumpkins
Pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, jack o' lanterns for Halloween - all good reasons to plant your own backyard pumpkins. If you want the kind for eating, you'll probably want to plant organic pumpkins, grown from certified organic seeds and with organic soil amendments and fertilizer. Growing organic pumpkins is relatively easy, provided that you keep up with fertilizing and are mindful of the weeds.
There are several great sources for organic pumpkin seeds, my favorite being Seeds of Change because they offer interesting heirloom varieties, including the "sugar pumpkin." This is a fantastic pumpkin for cooking as it is small enough to handle in the kitchen and has a very sweet flavor.
Sugar pumpkins also keep very well on the vine or, after picking, at cool, dry temperatures indoors. They are also a good carving pumpkin for Halloween, albeit on the small side. I plant sugar pumpkins in my backyard garden every season, in a surprisingly small 1'x1' planting mound containing 5 plants, with very good results. Here's how:
Tip: Grow Pumpkins in a Bag of Manure
If you're really tight on space, or if you're a patio gardener, try growing your pumpkins directly in a bag of composted manure. You can buy composted manure at the nursery or from your local home improvement big-box store. Slice a hole into the center of the bag and add a shovel-full of ordinary soil to the hole in the bag, mounding it as necessary. Plant the pumpkin seeds in the soil to a depth of about 1" deep, pressing the soil around the seeds to make good contact. Water well. The composted manure in the bag will feed the plants after they germinate and maintain the plants until pumpkins are ripe and ready for harvest.
Best Way to Use Pumpkins
How do you use pumpkins?
How to Grow Pumpkins
Successfully growing backyard pumpkins is all about timing. If you direct-sow your seeds too soon, before the weather is warm, your plants will grow sluggishly or worse, not germinate at all. Planting too late means missing the prime summer months for growing, leaving you with unripe fruit rotting on the vine. If you are trying to time your pumpkins to be ready by Halloween, it's important to get the seeds in the ground during the first week in June, or risk having a lovely summer harvest with no pumpkins remaining in October.
Most pumpkin varieties need about 100-120 days to harvest, so you will need to buy your seeds before June in order to have enough time to grow them. For organic seeds, look for "Certified Organic" on the package and the USDA Organic logo.
Assuming that most gardeners have an Oct 31st goal, be ready to sow seeds during the first week in June. About a week or so ahead of time, prepare your site for planting.
Most backyard gardeners are tight on space. If you're growing organically, selecting a site may be even more challenging. You want a spot that hasn't been subjected to inorganic weed killers or fertilizers. It needs good drainage and sun for most of the day.
If you're lucky enough to have a raised bed, you can use that, even if it is already very crowded with other crops - you just need about a 1'x1' space to create the planting mound. Otherwise, even a spot among your perennial flowering plants will work, as long as you're committed to keeping the spot organic.
Pumpkins are heavy feeders, and organically grown pumpkins need a reliable and consistent supply of nutrients during the growing season to help fend off diseases and bug infestations. The best organic fertilizer for pumpkins is sterilized manure that you buy in bags from the nursery or home improvement store.
A week before planting, dig in a bag of manure into your planting spot. Assume you'll use a full bag of manure for a 3'x3' space. In my 1'x1' space, I use about 1/3 -1/2 of a bag to start, but go through the full bag of manure during the growing season.
Sowing Pumpkin Seeds
On or about June 1st, you'll plant your pumpkin seeds. I create a mound of soil and manure mixed together in an area of about 1'x1', and about 6" high. Plant 5-6 seeds per mound to a depth of about 1". Press soil to make good contact with seeds. Water well.
Pumpkin seeds will germinate in about a week; if nothing happens in 10 days, you may need to re-sow with new seeds to a depth of 1/2" - 3/4".
Pumpkins needs consistent daily watering during the summer months, particularly when it is forming fruit. Never allow the soil to become too dry, and if you see the leaves wilting, give plants a good drink from the hose. Pumpkins lose a lot of water from their leaves.
If you use sprinklers or micro-sprayers in your garden, the pumpkin leaves may block the water from the plant roots. Soaker hoses, drippers or hand watering from a hose works well.
Tending Pumpkin Vines
Since pumpkins grow quickly, the vines need to be "trained" to grow where you want them to be. Otherwise, if you are growing in a crowded garden, you may end up with pumpkins growing among your daylillies, or on the lawn. Simply move the vines as needed so that they grow in the "right" direction.
When pumpkins begin to form, you can pinch off the growing ends of the vines. This will cause the energy for growing to be directed to forming the pumpkins instead. Pinch the vine ends when you have 1-3 nice pumpkins on the vine. If you have more than 3 pumpkins on a vine, you can remove the smallest pumpkins if you like, leaving 1-3 larger ones. This will make the remaining pumpkins on that vine get a bit bigger.
When to Fertilize
Side dress the plants with two or three shovels-full of manure when blossoms form, and again when fruit has formed.
Tip: Keep Pumpkins Off Ground
To keep small pumpkins off the ground while growing, and possibly protecting it from pests or disease, prop it up using small stones set in a circle. Rest the pumpkin on top of the stones so that it does not touch the soil.
Common Pumpkin Diseases
Even the most careful gardener may find that their beautiful pumpkins come down with some horrible disease, scarring the fruit or even killing the plant or fruit outright. Some common diseases you may see include:
- Powdery Mildew - patches of white powdery-looking areas on leaves and fruit.
- Bacterial Spot - tan or black scabs on fruit; yellow or black spot on leaves.
- End Rot - white or black mildew at the stem end of fruit, which causes the fruit to rot on the vine.
When growing organically, there isn't much you can do in terms of using chemicals to kill or control disease. Some gardeners will pre-treat their seeds before planting in order to sanitize them, thus reducing the probability of getting a bacteria or fungus later on. But pre-treating seeds involves soaking the seeds in a mixture of chlorine bleach and water for a prescribed time, and may go against your ideas of organic gardening. An alternative method is to heat small batches of seeds to 100 degrees, soaking the pre-heated seeds in 122 degree water for 25 minutes, and then plunging the seeds into cold water to stop the heat treatment. The seeds are then sun and air dried and then planted.
If you see that your pumpkin plants have picked up a disease, keep the plant stress down by making sure that water and fertilizer remains consistent. Next season, rotate your crops so that you aren't planting pumpkins in the area where you previously had a disease.
Growing PumpkinsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Types of Organic Pumpkin Seeds
Cooking and baking
Heirloom variety, about 100 days to harvest
Rouge Vif D'Etampes - "Cinderella" pumpkin
Baking and decorating
French variety, about 110 days to harvest
Jack o' Lantern
Traditional look, about 115 days to harvest
Jack Be Little
Miniature pumpkin, about 100 days to harvest
How Libby's Grows Pumpkins
Pumpkins are ready for harvest when most of the leaves have withered on the vine and the stem attached to the pumpkin is brown and fairly hard. If there are tendrils next to the pumpkin, they will be dry and brown as well.
Pumpkins keep on the vine for quite awhile, a couple weeks at least, and will store in a cool dry spot for a month or longer indoors.
If you plan to use your pumpkins for cooking, pick them when ripe and ready, and then cut in quarters and roast, cut side up, in a 300 degree oven for 45 - 60 minutes, or until softened. Allow the pumpkin to cool and then peel and cut into cubes. Cubes can then be frozen and used when needed.