By Barbara Fahs, Garden Guides Contributor
A member of the Cucurbita genus, the pumpkin is related to cucumbers and other squashes. Although we think of pumpkins in connection with Halloween, they are a great fall and winter vegetable full of beta-carotene, vitamin A, potassium and fiber. And they're not always orange: some varieties come in shades of green, yellow, white, red or even gray. Pumpkins are cultivated in North America (including Alaska!), Europe, Australia, India and other countries for their delicious, nutritious benefits.
Pumpkins love the sun. If you have a hillside that faces south, they will do very well there. Pumpkins also favor an area with deep, well-drained soil. Grow your pumpkins in a different spot from where you grew other vine crops (even melons) last year: this helps to avoid disease and ensures that the soil nutrients are at their highest levels.
Of course, we think of Halloween jack-o'-lanterns and pumpkin pie when we think of pumpkins. But they are likewise a delicious, nutritious squash that provides a fresh vegetable to the dinner table after the tomatoes and zucchini of summer have ended their season. Pumpkins provided more than food to the North American Indians: they dried the shells, cut them into strips and wove mats from them.
Choosing a Variety
How large would you like your pumpkin to grow? Some varieties, such as Atlantic Giant, can reach 75 pounds or more. If you want your pumpkin for eating, the smaller varieties are sweeter. Look for Sugar or New England Pie seeds. If it's the delicious, crunchy seeds that you love, Trick or Treat is a good choice. Cute, tiny pumpkins used for fall decorating include Sweetie Pie and Jack Be Little. Nurseries sell seeds, but seed catalogs have the best selection.
Pumpkins grow well if you plant seed directly into the garden, but wait until the soil warms up in April or May. Pumpkins do well in hills. Dig some compost into a circular area and then mound up the soil into a hill, with a small trench encircling it. Flatten the top and plant seeds around the outside edge, about 2 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Thin them to about 6 plants per hill, favoring the healthiest-looking ones. Remember that they will take off and spread in all directions, so allow space for them to roam. You can train them up a fence or trellis to conserve space.
Avoid overwatering while plants are young, but when they start to develop fruit, they like more water. Only water in the morning and avoid late afternoon and evening. Also, water from below and try to keep the leaves dry to prevent powdery mildew. Pumpkins respond well to an occasional dose of fish emulsion.
The cucumber beetle can attack pumpkins and can introduce powdery mildew. Hand pick beetles as you find them and dust your vines with an organic sulfur powder.
Harvesting and Storing Pumpkins
The expression "frost on the pumpkin" gives a clue as to when to pick your pumpkins. When they develop a deep, rich color and the vines start to die, cut them off, making sure to include a good piece of the stem. Pumpkins keep well in a cool, dry place.