While pumpkins are known as fall decorative staples, especially when it comes to Halloween, they also make fun objects for carving or delicious pies for gatherings or after-dinner dessert. There are orange, white, mini and large options you can choose from your local pumpkin patch. But if you want to experience what it'd be like to have some in your own garden, we're sharing expert tips on growing pumpkin plants.
Browse through our pumpkin-growing guide to inspire your backyard plant collection. We've got pointers from Rosie Lerner, extension consumer horticulture specialist at Purdue University, on how to grow, harvest and care for your pumpkins, including how to protect them from pests to keep them in the best shape for weeks.
1. Choose your pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkins come in hundreds of varieties differing in size, color, taste and texture, so no singular type can claim the title of "best." From ballooning giants to teeny-tiny gourds, there's a variety out there for you. Check out some seeds available for online ordering below:
2. Plant the seeds in a full-sun spot.
Pick a day after the last frost to sow seeds directly in the ground. Each seed packet will list how long on average the plant needs to produce full-grown pumpkins ("Days for Maturity"). For example, Small Sugar Pumpkins need 100 days to reach maturity. If you wanted them to ripen about a week before Halloween, then plan on planting them in mid-July.
Select a full-sun spot and space out the seeds based on the recommendations provided on the packet. Pumpkin vines can sprawl quite far, although there are some "bush" varieties that grow in a more compact form.
If you're feeling ambitious, plant the seeds in pumpkin "hills" — mounds of dirt slightly raised off of the ground. "The hills tend to warm up faster and they drain water faster than just planting them flat on the ground," Lerner says. "It gets the plant up and allows the long vines to cascade down a bit."
3. Water and care for your pumpkin plants.
Most vegetable crops need a deep yet gentle soaking once per week — about an inch of water at a time. Adjust based on rainfall accordingly. Note: Pumpkin leaves can look wilted in the afternoon heat, even if the soil is still moist. Resist the temptation to douse the dirt even more if the foliage perks back up again in the evening or under cloud cover, as overwatering can contribute to root rot. Mulching your beds will help keep pumpkin plants more consistently hydrated and also tamp down weeds.
In general, you do not need to prune your vines. Big leaves help them produce more carbohydrates, which mean more pumpkins. Some people will thin their plants to one or two fruits each in order to grow giant prize pumpkins, but everyday backyard gardeners can skip this step.
4. Fertilize the soil as needed.
Pumpkins are heavy feeders. Using an all-purpose vegetable garden fertilizer (not one designed for lawns) can provide them with the right food they need. It's also a good idea to test your soil every couple of years. The results will reveal what type of dirt you're dealing with — including the pH and nutrient levels — and help you plan accordingly.
5. Harvest your pumpkins.
After several months of growing, your pumpkins will reach maturity when the rinds harden and reach the desired shade. Definitely harvest before a heavy frost, which will damage the fruits, Burpee advises. Cut the vine with pruning shears, leaving several inches of stem attached. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor — either by carving, cooking or decorating.
Common Mistakes When Growing Pumpkins
Growing your own pumpkins can be a great learning experience, especially for those looking to expand their green thumb. However, if you don't take the proper time to care for your future jack-o'-lanterns, you may find them quickly crawling all over your garden and taking up more space than wanted. Here are a few mistakes and how to solve them.
- Underwatering the plant: Because pumpkins grow so quickly, they require plenty of water daily. Use a watering can or steady drip hose to give them the proper amount.
- Harvesting them too early: Pumpkins turn orange when they're ready for plucking. If they're yellow, leave them on the vine until they turn a bright orange.
- Leaving the pumpkins on the ground for too long: To prevent the bottom of your plant from becoming soft or rotting, use a barrier, such as cardboard, underneath.
- Growing them close to other plants: Pumpkin plant vines can become overwhelming, so growing them too close to your other plant babies won't leave space for the others to prosper. Leave at least one foot of space between each one and give them their own bed.
- Ignoring pests: Always pay close attention to your plants to make sure they're healthy. After diagnosing the issue, treat certain pests (such as cucumber beetles, slugs and flea beetles) with insecticide, while fungal disease can be cured with fungicide.
FAQ About Growing Pumpkins
Have more questions about growing gourds? Here's what you need to know.
Can I plant the seeds from a store-bought pumpkin?
You're better off buying seeds from a reputable brand than saving ones from a random pumpkin. "It may or may not be harvested when the seeds are completely mature," Lerner says. "Chances are pretty good they're not."
Even if the seeds do germinate, they may produce a different plant if cross-pollination with another squash species occurred. Using saved seeds could serve as a fun experiment, but it's worth spending a couple bucks on vetted seeds for reliably growing jack-o'-lanterns by Halloween.
Can I grow pumpkins in containers?
What should I put under growing pumpkins?
Spreading a layer of straw underneath your developing crop can help protect the gourds during the hot summer months. "Having some kind of mulch, like straw, will help reduce the evaporative loss of moisture from the soil, and it will help cool the soil a little bit and keep the pumpkins cleaner," Lerner says.
How long does it take to grow a pumpkin?
Pumpkins generally take about three months to reach maturity, but it can depend on the variety. Check the seed packet for the "Days to Maturity" to determine when you can expect to harvest your crop.
Is it too late to plant pumpkins?
It depends. Many varieties need at least 100 days to grow gourds, making July a great time to start planting. But as long as you have enough time before cold weather and winter frosts set in, go ahead!
Why are my pumpkin flowers falling off?
Pumpkins produce both male and female flowers. (You can tell them apart because female flowers in the squash family have an ovary — what looks like a mini fruit — right below them.) The male flowers typically open first and fall off. That's okay! As long as the female flowers get pollinated, you're set to go.
How can I protect my pumpkins from pests?
At the beginning of the season, cover your plants with floating row covers to protect them from common culprits like squash bugs, squash vine borers and cucumber beetles. Remove these covers as soon as flowers develop, because you'll need bees to pollinate them! For that same reason, always take care when using any type of insecticide on your garden. The chemicals can harm these all-important creatures and consequently prevent the plants from producing any pumpkins!
Caroline is a writer and editor with almost a decade of experience. From 2015 to 2019, she held various editorial positions at Good Housekeeping, including as health editor, covering nutrition, fitness, wellness, and other lifestyle news. She's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism and dreams of the day Northwestern will go back to the Rose Bowl.
Monique Valeris is the senior home editor for Good Housekeeping, where she oversees the brand's home decorating coverage across print and digital. Prior to joining GH in 2020, she was the digital editor at Elle Decor. In her current role, she explores everything from design trends and home tours to lifestyle product recommendations, including writing her monthly column, "What's in My Cart."
Mariah Thomas (she/her) is an assistant editor for Good Housekeeping, where she covers home and lifestyle content. Mariah has more than four years of editorial experience, having written for TLC, Apartment Therapy, Women's Health and Avocado Magazine. She received her master's degree in journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and published her first book, Heart and Soul: Poems of Thoughts and Emotions, in 2019. She's also the founder of RTF Community a platform for creatives of color to connect, learn and showcase their work.