By mid-autumn, pumpkins seem to pop up everywhere—decorating front porches, filling pies, and, of course, spicing up lattes. It may feel like you can’t truly appreciate fall without experiencing this seasonal squash in some form. But an outing to a pumpkin patch can be a pretty costly proposition these days and pumpkin prices have been rising since 2017. Fortunately, they’re fairly easy to grow your own for next to nothing so long as you’ve got a good amount of outdoor space. Just follow the steps and strategies here and reap a bounty of festive pumpkins for your family to enjoy.
Part I: Stockpile Pumpkin Seeds in the Fall
Pumpkins, a member of the Cucurbitaceae family along with squash, cucumbers, and melons, are ideally planted in late spring through early summer, but you can get started in the autumn by salvaging seeds from a pumpkin you plan to use immediately for cooking or décor.
Decide what kind of pumpkins you want to grow.
For eating, that means small sugar pumpkins, which have dry, sweet flesh that’s less fibrous than larger ones (there are many different varieties, usually with the words, “sugar,” “sweet,” or “pie,” in the name). For decoration or carving jack-o-lanterns, medium- or large-size pumpkins are perfect. There are also different varieties beyond classic orange, from ghostly white to pale yellow to a pretty blue green, as well as all sorts of shapes from squat to tall.
Purchase a locally grown pumpkin.
Because it has grown in a similar environment and zone, this will better your chances that the seeds you take from it will flourish in your yard, as opposed to a pumpkin raised elsewhere.
Gather the seeds.
Cut open the the pumpkin (carefully removing the top if you plan on carving it), and remove the pulp and seeds with your hand or a large spoon. Place seeds in a colander and rinse well under cold running water, separating out the seeds and transferring them to a paper towel. Pumpkins typically have a lot of seeds, so sort through them, discarding puny ones in favor of the largest and plumpest, which will be most likely to germinate. Don’t be too discriminating, though—you’ll ultimately be planting several seeds in each hole dug. Save about three times as many seeds than the plants you plan on planting.
Dry and store the seeds.
Arrange rinsed seeds on fresh paper towels with some space between them, so they won’t cling to each other. Let dry in a cool, dry spot for about a week. Once dry, seal pumpkin seeds in a paper envelope, then place in a plastic container with a few holes punched into the top so moisture won’t build up. Store in the refrigerator—this mimics how seeds naturally overwinter and can hedge your bets for successful germination.
Part II: Prepare Your Patch and Plant in the Spring
Depending on your hardiness zone (pumpkins tend to thrive in zones 3 to 9) and the variety you choose, you’ll most likely be planting seeds between late May and early July.
Pick a sunny spot.
Ideally pumpkins will thrive in all-day sun, but even an area that only sees about six hours of direct sunlight a day can work.
Dedicate enough space.
Pumpkins have large vines and won’t do well in a crowded plot. Sugar pumpkin seeds should be planted about three feet apart, and carving pumpkins as much as five feet apart. Of course, if you haven’t got 20 square feet to devote to a patch, consider planting in a smaller area and then pulling out all but the healthiest one or two vines—even if that means winding up with just a couple of pumpkins.
Evaluate your soil.
Rich, well-drained soil with a pH between 6 and 6.8 is perfect for pumpkins. Till the area, removing all weeds and debris. Adding compost, aged manure, or humus can enhance drainage and boost nutrient value. Make sure soil is warm enough—no less than 65 degrees Fahrenheit—prior to planting.
Sow the seeds.
Mound the soil a bit wherever you intend to plant, then place three to five seeds in a hole just about one inch deep. Water well (and continue to water every morning, especially in hot weather). Surrounding each mound with mulch can help maintain hydration.
Part III: Nourish Pumpkins until Harvest Time
Like all garden crops, pumpkins require some TLC to yield ample, healthy fruit. With proper attention, each vine can produce between five and 10 pumpkins, depending on variety and size.
Use the right fertilizer.
Pumpkins are considered “heavy feeders,” so appropriate fertilization is key. Early on, promote vine and leaf growth with nitrogen-based fertilizer and, when yellow flowers start to show, switch to a phosphorous-rich product. Finally, a potassium-heavy fertilizer will nourish pumpkins once they appear.
Prune the patch.
Thin seedlings when they’re three or four inches tall, then prune the vines as flowers and fruits appear, pinching off the fuzzy ends. Remove any foliage that causes shade and pull any weeds that sprout up in the surrounding area.
Watch for pests.
Squash bugs can be especially destructive, so banish them before they reach adulthood. Examine vines for clusters of eggs and/or small nymphs, typically on the underside of leaves, and remove them immediately.
Rotate the pumpkins.
Gently turn the pumpkins every few days to expose all sides to air and sun. This will encourage even shape and color. If soil seems excessively damp, place pumpkins atop a flat stone or a piece of nylon mesh to stave off rot.
Time till maturity for pumpkins can be anywhere from 75 to 160 days. You’ll know they’re ready for harvest when they’ve achieved full color and the stem looks woody. To make sure, give the pumpkin a good knock. If the rind feels hard and the fruit emits a hollow sound, it’s good to go.