What child among us, or in us, doesn’t like picking out a pumpkin? And what baby boomer didn’t grow up hoping Linus would finally see the Great Pumpkin? And, who doesn’t wish they could grow their very own? It’s not easy in Texas, but it can be done. The key is planting during the late summer and providing water until fall arrives. There are a number of obstacles in your way, including powdery mildew, viruses, and squash vine borers.
Pumpkins require warm soils to germinate. They cannot tolerate frost or freezes. To produce a fall crop of jack-o’-lanterns, plant the seed approximately four months (generally around July) before the first killing frost (generally around November 15 here). Different varieties have different number of days to reach maturity, so be sure to check the variety description and add about 25 days for slower maturity in the fall. Nobody said it was easy! Pumpkins should be planted in hills 4 to 6 feet apart and thinned to the strongest two plants seven to ten days after sprouting.
Pumpkins require at least eight hours of direct sun each day for maximum production. They aren’t choosy about soils as long as the soil drains well. Ideally, till in several inches of compost or organic matter and incorporate 2 pounds of a complete lawn fertilizer (15-5-10, 18-6-12, etc.) per 100 square feet of bed or every 35 feet of row before planting. The ideal soil pH for growing pumpkins is 6.0 to 7.5.
Pumpkins are direct seeded into the garden and make very large plants. Create a raised row about 6 inches high and 12 inches wide. Multiple rows should be around 8 feet apart. Pumpkin seed should be planted in groups of seed every 6 feet. This is known as planting in hills. Open a shallow depression about 1 inch deep and 4 inches wide with a hoe. Drop four to five seeds evenly spaced apart in the hole and cover lightly with loose soil using a hoe or garden rake.
About three weeks after thinning your pumpkins, apply an additional application of fertilizer. This is known as side-dressing. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of a high-nitrogen fertilizer (21-0-0, etc.) around each hill, being careful to keep it off the plants. Work the fertilizer into the soil lightly with a hoe or rake and water. After side-dressing, it is ideal to apply a layer of organic mulch (hay, straw, grass clippings, and so forth) to conserve water and prevent weeds. The most common pest problems on pumpkins are cucumber beetles, squash bugs, white flies, squash vine borers, powdery mildew, and viruses. Control the insects as they occur with appropriately labeled insecticides following all label directions. There is no cure for a virus, but controlling the insects spreading it will help lessen its occurrence.
Pumpkins should be ready to harvest 90 to 120 days after planting the seed, depending on the variety. The pumpkins are ripe when they are fully colored and have a hard rind and a woody stem. Cut the pumpkin from the plant with a pair of hand pruners leaving a 3- to 4-inch stem on the fruit. Fall pumpkins can tolerate frosts without damaging the fruit but should be harvested and protected if the temperatures are going to dip below 30 degrees.
Recommended pumpkin varieties in Texas include ‘Big Max’, ‘Connecticut Field’, ‘Funny Face’, ‘Jack-B-Little’, ‘Jack O’Lantern’, ‘Jackpot’, ‘Small Sugar’, and ‘Spirit Hybrid’. Pumpkins are native to Central and South America.