Pumpkins are typically thought of as a Halloween decoration, however, they are also a staple of our holiday season. Everyone loves pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also, pumpkins and gourds make great Thanksgiving decorations!
Pumpkins are a member of the cucurbit family of plants. They are in the same family as cucumbers, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, zucchini, and gourds. They can be grown throughout the United States. For mass production, most of our pumpkin comes from Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Illinois grows around 90-95% of the processed pumpkins for the Libby corporation which is located there. Libby is the company that makes a lot of the canned pumpkin products found in stores.
Selecting the Pumpkin
There are a lot of different pumpkin varieties to choose from, each having their own niche in the pumpkin market. It is best to use the correct pumpkin for the task. Jack-o-Lantern type pumpkins are medium sized and good for carving. According to the University of Illinois Extension, the Jack-o-Lantern type is not good for cooking, they don’t have the best flavor and texture. For cooking and baking use the pie pumpkin, a smaller type with sweeter flesh that is less watery. There are many other choices including Fairytale pumpkins which are squattier, heavier, and light orange colored. Mini pumpkins are fun for easy decorating indoors and out and can be found in many colors including traditional orange and white. Giant pumpkins are grown for competitions and festivals and are specially grown. A regular Jack-o-Lantern type can get large, but for the extraordinarily large, choose seed for giant pumpkins. There are pink pumpkins, striped pumpkins, blue pumpkins, warty pumpkins, and even gourds that can be used to help accent your fall decorations.
Pumpkins are easy to grow, as long as they have plenty of space. They need full sunlight and a lot of water. Vining pumpkins need 50-100 square feet of space per hill. Allow 5-6 feet between hills. It is hard to keep the correct spacing when planting little seeds, but the plants will fill in fast. If they are planted too closely together, they can get diseases from the humidity during the summer months among all the large leaves. Pumpkins can be planted when tomatoes can, as long as it is after the last frost of the spring. However, if planted too early, you will have pumpkins for Halloween in August, so it is best to wait until late-May to mid-June to plant your pumpkins. You know when your pumpkins are ready to harvest when they have turned color and resist a fingernail when it is gently pushed against the rind of the pumpkin. They need to be harvested prior to a hard frost.
Saving seeds from pumpkins can be done easily when carving, however the next year your pumpkins may look different. Plants can cross pollinate with other plants within the same species. Some pumpkins, zucchini, gourds, acorn squash, and spaghetti squash all share the same plant species, Cucurbita pepo. These plants could then cross-pollinate among each other and cause a unique type of pumpkin to grow. However, the cross-pollination will only change the plants that are grown from saving seeds. So, if you save seed or throw old pumpkins into a garden patch and don’t disrupt them too much next spring, you will get plants to grow, but the pumpkins you grow may not look the same as what you had this year. Cross-pollination does not affect the current seasons produce.
After the pumpkins are harvested, they should be cured to last longer in storage. Leave pumpkins in an area where they receive 80-85 degree temperatures with 80-90 percent relative humidity for 10 days. Pumpkins will store if not cured, but they will store longer, up to 3 months, if they are cured first. After they have been cured, they will last longest if they are kept at 50-55 degrees. This will help so you can keep them through Thanksgiving for your decorations all season.