Published on 06/17/99

Patience, Persistence Produce Prodigious Pumpkins

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Photo: Wayne McLaurin

With patience and persistent care, you and the family can grow your own Halloween jack-o'-lantern.

A long-term crop, pumpkins take 80 to 140 days to mature. If the one you select takes 100 days, count back from late October. Allow 10-15 days leeway, and plant about July 10.

Start with the right seed, and provide lots of space, water and food for the vines.

Prepare the Soil

Choose a sunny place to plant. For really huge pumpkins, the vines need at least 20 feet between plants (10 feet for normal pumpkins).

Then amend the soil. If you can, cover the entire patch with a 3-inch layer of well-rotted manure or compost, plus a sprinkling of fertilizer or an organic mix of blood meal and bonemeal.

If you don't have that much manure or compost, concentrate what you do have into 6-foot circles or hills for each plant. Till or dig the amendments into the soil.

Start the Seeds

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

Place three to four seeds, pointed ends down, where you want them to grow. Cover them with an inch of sterile potting mix. Check the soil every day, and water when the mix is dry.

As soon as the seeds sprout -- usually in 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. (Don't pull. This will disturb the roots.)

Thin Excess Fruits

When baby pumpkins appear, select two on separate runners 6 to 10 feet from the center of the plant. Ideally, each pumpkin's stem should be at a 90-degree angle to its runner, so the growing pumpkin won't force the stem to bend or break.

Cut off the rest of the fruits and any that set later. This forces the vine's energy into growing large pumpkins.


All pumpkins must be pollinated by bees. Be very careful with insecticides. You don't want to kill any bees.

Male and female flowers are on the same plant. The female will have a tiny pumpkin at the base of the flower.

Pumpkins will produce 11 to 17 nodes before setting the first female flower. Don't be concerned with an overabundance of male flowers early on.

Water, Fertilization and Care

As the pumpkins grow, keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy. Pumpkin vines develop extensive root systems because they can send down new roots at every leaf node.

Be sure to water the entire growing area to reach all of these roots. Watering in the morning will let the foliage dry before nightfall.

Feed each vine weekly with a liquid fertilizer. Follow the label directions. If you use fish emulsion weekly, cut back to one-half the recommended rate to keep neighborhood cats from damaging your vines.

Insects and diseases are a problem, so check with your county Extension Service office for recommendations. One thing that will help is to get the fruit up off the soil.

Don't try to set the pumpkin upright to grow with a flat bottom, though. This will put pressure on the vine and may cause the stem to separate.


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

Always leave as much stem on the fruit as you can. And cut -- never pull -- the stem from the vine. Handle the pumpkin from the bottom, never by the stem. And store it in a dry, shaded, well-ventilated place.

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