Published on 06/10/98

Halloween Pumpkins Have to Start in Summer

Everyone wants a Halloween jack-o-lantern, and many people have their hearts set on growing a giant pumpkin. That takes a lot of patience.

Some giant pumpkins take 140 days to mature. Others take 80-100 days. Halloween is the last of October, so -- if the one you want takes 100 days to mature, count back 100 days and plant around July 10 (allowing 10-15 days leeway).

You may not break the record. But you can enjoy growing an American tradition. And you can have the satisfaction of knowing that jack-o-lantern on the porch grew in your garden.

Growing big or normal-size pumpkins is mainly a matter of starting with the right seed and adding lots of space, water and food.

Prepare the Soil

Choose a sunny spot. For really huge pumpkins, the vines need plenty of space -- at least 20 feet between plants.

Next, amend the soil with well-rotted manure or compost. If you can, cover the patch with three inches of it, plus a sprinkling of fertilizer or an organic mix of blood meal and bone meal.

If you don't have that much manure or compost, put what you have into six-foot circles for each plant. Till it into the soil. It's not as important how deep you till as how wide.


Pumpkin seeds need warm soil (75-85 degrees) to germinate. Most Georgia soils are warm enough to germinate them in place.

Cover three to four seeds, pointed ends down, with an inch of sterile potting mix. Check the soil daily, and water when the mix is dry.

When the seeds sprout -- usually four to five days -- make sure the seedlings don't dry out. When the first true leaves appear, thin to one plant per hill by cutting off the weaker seedlings with scissors.

Thin Fruits

When baby pumpkins appear, select two on separate runners, about 6 to 10 feet from the plant center. Cut off the rest and any that set later.

This forces the vine's energy into growing a few large pumpkins, rather than a lot of smaller ones. From mid-August to October, pumpkins grow at an amazing rate.


All pumpkins must be pollinated by bees. Male and female flowers grow on the same plant. The female will have a tiny pumpkin at its base. Don't be alarmed if you see 10-12 male flowers before a female flower appears. Be careful with insecticides. You don't want to kill bees.

Water, Feed and Care

As the pumpkins grow, keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. Pumpkin vines develop an extensive root system. Irrigate the entire area to water all of these roots evenly.

Feed each vine weekly with a liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion. Use half the recommended rate if you feed weekly. If cats are around, fish emulsion may attract them and damage your vines.

Insects and diseases are a problem, so check with your county Extension Service office for recommendations. It will help to get the pumpkin off the soil. Pumpkins can get sunburn, too, so try to keep a good leaf cover.

Don't try to set the pumpkin "up" to grow it with a flat bottom. This may cause the stem to separate from the vine.


When the pumpkin is mature, the vine will start dying, and the stem will become woody. The fruit will take on a golden color (some varieties may be cream or even whitish) and a dull sheen.

Leave as much stem on the fruit as you can. Cut (never pull) the stem from the vine. Handle the pumpkin from the bottom, not by the stem. Store it in a well-ventilated place out of the sun, and keep it dry.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.