These days pumpkins are typically carved into jack o’ lanterns for Halloween. But in Colonial America they were essential to the colonists’ survival. Pumpkins, winter squash, and summer squash are native to the Americas. All of these are gourds are grown as annual plants in a vegetable or ornamental garden.
How to Grow Pumpkins and Squash
All pumpkins and winter squashes, like acorn and butternut, are warm-season vegetables, but some require a longer growing season than others. Summer squashes, like zucchini, can grow and mature much faster than winter squashes. However, they all are planted and maintained in a similar manner. Pumpkins and winter squashes will grow on long vines, so be sure to allow enough garden space for these plants or grow on a sturdy trellis. Some summer squashes may also grow on vines, although most varieties grow on upright plants.
- Plant the pumpkins and squashes in full sun with plenty of space for the vines to spread. Make sure you leave space to walk in the garden without harming the vines or fruit.
- Amend the soil by digging in compost and well-aged manure.
- Because pumpkins and winter squashes take as long as 85 to 100 days to mature, some gardeners prefer to plant transplants instead of direct sowing seeds in the garden. If you’re starting your own transplants, plant seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the average last frost date.
- As an alternative, plan to purchase transplants.
- Summer squash can also be planted as transplants, although many gardeners direct sow seeds into the garden because of their shorter time to maturity.
- Wait for the soil to warm to between 60 and 80 degrees before planting. Pumpkins and squash do best when they start in warm soil. Be sure to acclimate (harden off) transplants before planting in the garden by exposing them slowly to sunny conditions.
- Space plants according to the variety, so read seed packets or transplant stakes carefully. In general, plant seeds ½” to 1” deep and 24” to 36” apart; rows 48” apart. Plant transplants 12” apart in each row.
- Set up a drip irrigation system or a soaker hose to ensure the pumpkin and squash plants will get adequate water through the season.
- A layer of organic mulch will help maintain soil moisture and eliminate weeds.
- It’s important to grow healthy vines and roots, so keep up with watering and don’t let the soil dry out.
- Make sure to keep leaves dry to prevent any foliage diseases from developing.
- As vines begin to grow, sidedress the plants with a nitrogen fertilizer. Sprinkle a dry fertilizer along the rows of plants, 6 to 8” away from the plants, then carefully rake in so you don’t disturb roots or vines; then water in the fertilizer.
- Keep track of the number of days to harvest for the varieties of pumpkins and winter squashes you planted, and use that as a guide for when to harvest.
- Pumpkins and winter squashes need to have a hard outer rind before they can be cut from their vines. To test the rind, press your fingernail into the skin; if it resists puncture, the fruit is ready to pick. Use a sharp knife or pruners to cut fruits from the vine, but leave a length of stem attached. Let fruits cure in a shed or garage for several days to help with long-term storage.
- Summer squashes can be harvested at any time when they’re growing, while the skin is still soft. Watch the summer squash fruits and harvest when they’ve reached the perfect size, about 7 to 9” long for zucchini. If you neglect the garden, you may find huge and less-tasty fruits hiding beneath the leaves.
Plant Pumpkin and Squash with these companions:
- Annual flowers and herbs like marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, and oregano
If you intend to save seeds, avoid planting near other species of pumpkins and squashes to prevent cross-pollination.
Materials for Success
- Soil thermometer
- Soaker hose
- High-quality compost or well-aged manure
- Well-balanced fertilizer
- Organic mulch
- Pruners or sharp knife
To learn more about growing pumpkin and squash or about growing your own edible vegetable garden, contact the pros at Nick’s Garden Center.