DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS

DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS
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6 February 2014

Growing and hand pollinating pumpkins

I want to move our dependence further away from the shops and closer to food we grow ourselves or find locally. I am hoping to grow enough pumpkins to store for at least six months so we don't have to buy them. Pumpkin is one of those vegetables like garlic and onions that, if stored correctly, will last quite well for a long time without you having to do anything to it.  If I can grow enough for 12 months, I'll be a very happy gardner.


The seeds I had were taken from a very good pumpkin we bought on the back roads of Queensland somewhere. It was a Japanese pumpkin with dark orange firm flesh, dark green skin and a delicious flavour. One taste and I wanted to reproduce that pumpkin. After that meal, I took the pumpkin out of the fridge, removed all the seeds and washed them. I didn't dry them because I didn't want to store them - I wanted to see if I could grow its babies and store them year after year after year.

Hanno loves eating pumpkin but he hates their growing habits. Most pumpkins will take over a small garden if you let it but I thought that if I planted my pumpkin on the edge of the garden, during our down time, that would solve the problem. In December, I planted about five seeds in three pockets in our compost heap. It was late in the pumpkin growing season, I wished I'd planted earlier but that was when I did it. Theoretically, we can plant pumpkins all year but we go very close to one and two degrees at night here during winter so I didn't want to risk it. My hope was that this one planting, if I did it organically and with care, would supply us with a crop of top quality pumpkins that could be stored. Instead of having those vines meandering all over the garden, as much as I love the look of that, I could see "someone" snapping. No, this way was better.

Pumpkins, like all cucurbits, are prone to powdery mildew - a fungal disease that causes the fruit to fall off and the vine to eventually die. Planting them in a mound - either of soil or compost, or in the compost heap itself, is ideal. About five days after I planted them, up came the shoots, green and healthy. I removed several of the smaller ones. There is a knack to watering pumpkins successfully. Watering at night or late afternoon will encourage powdery mildew so I always water in the morning. When the vines have established and sent out long shoots, roots will form under some of the nodes. Water (and fertilise) at those points too. Pumpkins are hungry feeders so the nutrients these vines extracted from the compost allowed me to skip the fertilising but I did give them a couple of watering cans full of seaweed concentrate. If you plant them in garden soil, add some nitrogen fertiliser and sulphate of potash. The nitrogen will help the green growth and the potash will encourage flowers to form.

Male flower on a long stalk.
Female flower with the small unfertilised pumpkin under the flower.
This is the stamen of the male flower with petals removed.
Pollinating the female flower with the male.

Many people get concerned when the first flowers form without it being followed by a small pumpkin coming soon after.  Pumpkins always set male flowers first. These are the flowers on long stalks and can sometimes grow 10 or 12 inches and reach up above the leaves. The male flowers are there to encourage the bees to start visiting before the female flowers grow. Another difference is that the male flowers are closer to the where the vine started growing and the female flowers are always on the vines ends as they spread out in search of sunlight. When you look at the flowers together, and strip off the petals, you'll see distinct differences. The male flowers are tall and slim and have a long stamen in the centre which holds pollen.  The females have a shorter stem and the flowers are wider. Just under the female flower sits a tiny pumpkin. At their bulbous centre is a stigma that traps the pollen to fertilise that small pumpkin.


Pumpkins are naturally pollinated by bees and ants.  The flowers are only open for a short period so if they open before or after the bees arrive, and there are no ants, they might not be pollinated. You can pollinate by hand. Do this early in the morning. Find a healthy looking male flower and peel off the petals, leaving the stamen (like in the photo above). You'll often see some of the yellow pollen has dropped to the bottom of the flower.  Find a female flower, gently open the flower and rub the stamen over the centre of the female flower. Close the flower if you can, and go on to repeat this process on every female flower you want to pollinate, using the male flower for one or two flowers only.  I tend to pollinate two pumpkins on each vine, then I get a new male flower. If you pollinate all of them, you'll get smaller pumpkins.

In a week or so, if pollination is successful, the female flower will have fallen off and the pumpkins should be getting bigger. If they are, cut off the ends of each vine. That way you can keep the plants fairly well contained. If you have a small garden you might care to try the small bush variety Golden Nugget. It produces a large apple sized pumpkin on a bush. It can be grown in a container.

Depending on the variety, pumpkins generally need about 120 frost-free days to grow to maturity. They're ready to harvest when the stem goes corky and the vines start dying off. Cut the pumpkin from the vine leaving about six inches of stem attached. Dry in full sun for about two weeks, then store in a cool, dry, rodent-free place, not the fridge, for as long as they last. Most will last at least six months in ideal conditions.  The drying process is vital because it allows the pumpkin to fully ripen, it improves the flavour and it hardens the skin enough for long term storage.  Keep the stem attached during storage but if it falls off, seal the hole with bees wax and use that pumpkin next.

Are you a pumpkin or squash gardener? What are your secrets to a good crop of pumpkins?

24 comments:

  1. Hi Rhonda,

    This is the best information I have ever read on growing pumpkins. What a great idea to grow them on the compost pile. I can't wait until our weather warms up enough to plant some pumpkin seeds!

    Diane in North Carolina

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  2. Thank you for this very detailed information, Rhonda. I'll take note of it for when we have the space to grow pumpkins. I like how the vines look, but I can understand why Hanno would have a fit if the vines and giant pumpkins take over the whole garden :-)

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  3. Rhonda, I always find that the best plants are the ones that grow them selves from the compost! I have a beautiful butternut that's doing that now, and even have entered one of the pumpkins in the local show :) I blogged about that yesterday.

    I also have a Turks turban pumpkin growing and I hand pollinate too. I have grown the Turks turban before, but can't remember the taste clearly, but it's so cute I'd be tempted to grow it just for looks. It's growing in a 3 sisters bed that's doing really well this year.

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  4. Thank you Rhonda I needed this little "education". I normally just plant seeds from pumpkins we have bought & they grow well. However this year has not been very successful & I think we might have powdery mildew. This is the first year I had taken over the veggie garden because of dh's disability so I am now looking at fertilising the garden in winter to get ready for next year. Dh keeps saying we should not grow anything next year & rest the garden, but I can't see me doing that! I have set up compost bins so should have plenty to put on the garden once the weather is more friendly. We are now heading back to 40 deg on Sunday so not really gardening weather.

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  5. Oh this is so useful. I have a new sunny spot where I plan to plant some ornamental bushes this spring and thought I might plant a pumpkin too since right now there is lots of space and the leaves are so nice and big and happy looking. Maybe i will actually follow through and see what happens.

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  6. Hi Rhonda! My Dad grows hundreds and hundreds of pumpkins on the farm every year (sometimes as a commercial crop). He tells me they cross pollinate really easily so you have to be careful about planting them far enough apart (although this still doesn't always work). It does a pose a problem for seed saving though. Using the scooped out seed from a saved pumpkin may not grow true to type. It depends how the farmer has grown them. The pumpkin vines will still grow pumpkins, but they might be funny looking! Generally still tasty though. Apparently butternuts grow true to type (they won't cross pollinate with pumpkins) so you can use the saved seed from those. If you're really particular about growing a "true to type" pumpkin then bought seed is the safest way to go :) He grows them right near the bee hives (in his commerical kiwifruit orchard, under the kiwifruit) to ensure good pollination. They sure are messy things though (I'm with Hanno on that one). We've grown them a few times, but I prefer to pinch some of Dad's to save ourselves the mess!

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    1. Yes, they cross pollinate with other cucurbits which is another good reason to grow them in your down time when you don't have cucumbers or zucchinis growing. As I've only got one type of pumpkin growing here if they cross pollinate, they'll just cross with themselves. I've grown "compost" volunteer pumpkins before and they've been delicious so I'm not concerned about the type. It's more about the taste. And yes, I agree that if you want a true to type pumpkin, or any other vegetable, you need to source open pollinated seeds.

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  7. I haven't grown pumpkins because I don't have the space, but I'll look for seed for those Golden Nuggets now to put in a pot.......thanks for the tip. My local farm store often has them for sale and I love the look of them, but they can be expensive to buy

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  8. We grew around 25 pumpkins last year, we picked the last ones in October and still have 8 left, they keep forever!

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  9. we had a medium sized garden in chicago. and we always had vegies for dinner from our own garden. we had zuchinni and it really grew. the vines were also on the outside of our fence so our neighbors also enjoyed them. I live in an apt. now and do not have a garden unfortunately.

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  10. Oh yes; I grow pumpkins almost every year. Since we are in drought, I don't know if I can this year; but will try at any opportunity. It is serious when there is not enough water and they are asking everyone to cut our use by 20% already. If we are in a mega drought, we are in real trouble. So it remains to be seen what we can do with gardens this year.

    hopflower

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  11. The male flowers are eaten in China, stir fried with a little cooking wine, they are delicious. Thank you Rhonda. x x

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    1. Most parts of pumpkins are edible. My Korean DIL tells me the leaves are often used as a wrap for food to be rolled in.

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  12. Thanks so much Rhonda! I have a few pumpkins growing on a huge vine (we do have the space thankfully) and am finding that I do have to pollinate by hand. I did not know about the drying out though and will try that with the next pumpkins we pick. I found out about the male flowers coming first via google as I wondered for ages why we had such a large vine and no baby pumpkins. I was wondering how your pumpkins were going! :)

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  13. This is such an interesting post. Thank you for sharing! We raise a lot of sugar pie pumpkins in the Southern Oregon sunshine and heat. They take plenty of water and the only amendments to the soil are during the winter and early spring from the barn. We have sandy loamy soil, so soaker hose watering seems to work best for us. When we harvest them, the 'perfect pumpkin' seeds are saved for next year's planting. Then pumpkin are baked and then frozen in 2 cup portions. The cross pollinated and extra large pumpkins are served to our pigs or chickens if we aren't using them for storage. Again, thank you for this great post and for teaching about the flowers. Happy Days ~ Kari

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  14. Thank you for such a great post, Rhonda - really helpful. I have a self-seeded pumpkin coming up (very messy!) and am letting it do it's own thing, just for fun!

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  15. Oh my goodness. Thank you for this post. I have been trying to mate my pumpkins unsuccessfully for several years now.

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  16. I love posts like this one! I have learned so much from this blog! Thank you Rhonda! One thing I did try was to make a weak solution of Epsom salts when planting seeds. I planted the seeds in toilet rolls in a seeds tray and put water in the bottom of the seeds tray. It has all worked! The water at the bottom of the tray is absorbed by the cardboard toile roll so it keeps the seedlings moist. Ingenious!
    One question, though! Seeing though Epsom salts stimulates root growth does that mean you don't need Seasol? I was recommended Seasol by the garden centre to stimulate root growth. Can I use the Epsom salts instead?

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    1. Hello Dayamitra. You could use Epsom salts only but seaweed solution will add a lot more minerals. It's a general plant tonic and can't be beaten when used on newly transplanted seedlings. It helps a lot with transplant shock and settles those seedlings in much quicker than just water, or epsom salts would.

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  17. Hi,
    Thank for the detailed tutorial Rhonda! This is one thing I CAN grow in my garden here...

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  18. I tried that one year when I had a vine wandering through my patch and it worked. You have a wonderful way of making your instructions very easy to follow.

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  19. Very informative blog thank you. Your pumpkin sounds like it might be a Kabocha which is very popular here in Hawaii. The skin is very thin and edible.

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  20. thanks for sharing this info Rhonda. I only ever have pumpkin pop up as volunteers and let them go about their own way and harvest what I am lucky enough to get. I am trying to care for the one that is sprawling about right now and the hand pollination and male/female flower info you have provided are helpful to me. x.

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