Nothing says fall like pumpkin-flavored everything. This delicious orange vegetable can star in all kinds of recipes from pie to bread to soup and is pretty nutritious, too.
The only thing better than making your own creations from scratch with canned pumpkin is growing pumpkins yourself and baking them straight from your garden. If you’ve never done it before, you’ll be blown away by how much more flavor backyard pumpkins have!
To help you get ready for autumn baking, here’s what you need to know about how to grow pie pumpkins from seed to harvest.
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Growing Information for Pie Pumpkins
There are many different types of pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.): Jack O’Lanterns for carving, giant pumpkins for show, miniature ornamental varieties, etc. All are technically edible, but the ones designated as pie pumpkins have the most outstanding flavor and bake the best.
Of course, you can use pie pumpkins for more than just pie. They are fantastic for bread, muffins, soup, casseroles, and pretty much anything pumpkin-flavored you can think of.
If you are considering growing pie pumpkins in your garden, the first thing you’ll need is space. Pumpkins are a type of winter squash and grow on large vines that can get 15-20’ long! You can use a trellis to maximize your growing area, but they still need a fair amount of room.
The second growing requirement for pumpkins is a long season of frost-free weather. Pumpkins take anywhere from 75-100 days to mature, so make sure your growing zone will provide this for your plants.
Fortunately, pie pumpkins (with a few exceptions) tend to have more compact growth and mature more quickly than other varieties. They average about 4-6 pounds in weight, which makes them perfect for fitting in your oven.
Top Pie Pumpkin Cultivars
One of the best parts of learning how to grow pie pumpkins in your own garden is that you get to choose which variety to plant. There are many outstanding options, but here are some of the top ones to help you narrow down your choice:
- ‘New England Pie’– Classic pie pumpkin with dark orange skin.
- ‘Winter Luxury’– Heirloom with unique netted skin and superb flavor.
- ‘Baby Pam’– Smaller “personal-size” pie pumpkin.
- ‘Long Island Cheese’– Larger heirloom pumpkin with great flavor for pies and soups, plus great for storage.
- ‘Cinderella’ (aka ‘Rouge Vif D’Etampes’)– Large, red, decorative pumpkin that is also excellent for pies.
- ‘Jarrahdale’– Unique blue-gray pumpkin typically grown for decorative use but also fantastic for baking and storage.
Starting Pumpkin Seeds Indoors
There are two reasons to start your pie pumpkin seeds indoors.
First, it’s a way to get a head start on the growing season for gardeners further north. In addition to this, your plants will be protected indoors from pest problems, giving them a better chance of success once they get in the ground.
If you decide to go this route, get your seeds started about 3 weeks before your last average frost date in the spring. For the best results, use biodegradable pots that can be planted straight in the ground later.
Fill your pots with a good quality, damp seed starting mix. Inoculate your soil with a mycorrhizal fungi for stronger root development and healthier plants with more bountiful yields. Sow 1-2 seeds per pot, pushing them in an inch deep. Water your newly planted seeds well, and place them somewhere warm to germinate.
Once your seedlings sprout, thin them to one per pot by clipping off the weaker-looking seedling at soil level. I use my Fiskars Micro Snips. Give them at least 12 hours of light each day, and water them before the soil dries out.
About 1-2 weeks before you plan to transplant your seedlings to your garden, harden them off by gradually exposing them to outdoor weather. Discover how to harden off seedlings in this post.
How to Grow Pie Pumpkins
When and Where to Plant
Pumpkins are very sensitive to cold temperatures, so you should only plant them outside after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 65°F. This is typically late May or early June in cooler climates, earlier in warmer ones.
Give your pumpkins a space in your garden that gets full sun (6 hours of sunlight or more). Remember that the vines typically grow 10-15’, so choose somewhere that will allow them enough space.
Ideally, the soil you plant in should drain well and be rich in organic matter. Pumpkins are heavy feeders, so add lots of compost and/or aged manure before planting to give them a good supply of nutrients. I like to use a trick called making a melon pit that I learned from the book Compost Everything. Dig a hole a couple of feet deep, bury a bucket of kitchen scraps, and plant your pumpkins on top. They will love it!
Pumpkin Planting Tips
Many gardeners like to plant pumpkins in mounds or raised rows because this helps the soil to warm more quickly and have better drainage. Raised beds also work well for the home gardener.
If you have seedlings, plant them 18-36” apart in rows or 2-3 per mound with the mounds spaced 4-8’ apart. You can also directly sow seeds at this time if you have a long growing season using the same spacing.
Biodegradable pots can be planted right into the ground, but you should carefully tear the pot open before planting it so it doesn’t disrupt root development.
As always, water your newly planted seedlings (or seeds) well. If you plan to use a trellis, put it in now while your plants are still small to save yourself work later! Use a watering wand for a gentle shower that doesn’t destroy your new plants.
Pie Pumpkin Plant Care
The next step of how to grow pie pumpkins is plant care. Fortunately, pumpkins aren’t too difficult to care for, but they do like to be watered and fed throughout the season.
Watering is especially important while your seedlings are growing. Once established, pumpkins need about 1” of water a week to thrive. They do have shallow roots, so you’ll definitely need to supply water during weeks when it doesn’t rain.
To help retain soil moisture and suppress weeds, lay down a natural mulch (straw, pine needles, etc.) around your plants in early summer.
When your plants get about a foot tall, give them a high nitrogen fertilizer. (Liquid fertilizers can be applied weekly and slow-release fertilizers monthly.) When flowers start to appear, switch to a high phosphorus fertilizer that also has a fair amount of potassium.
Common Pests and Problems
Unfortunately, pumpkins can be prone to several pests, especially cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and squash vine borers.
If you know that any of these pests are a problem in your area, the best way to deal with them is to start your seeds indoors and plant the seedlings out under row covers to exclude insects. Remove the row covers only after the plants start to flower so pollinators can get in.
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Powdery mildew and downy mildew are fungal diseases that can affect pie pumpkins, particularly in damp and humid weather. You can do your best to prevent them by ensuring your plants have good air circulation and by not getting the leaves wet when you water.
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How to Harvest Pie Pumpkins
The final step of how to grow pie pumpkins is harvesting them at the right time. Don’t be tempted to pick them early, or you’ll end up with underripe pumpkin that has no flavor.
Most pie pumpkins will mature in 85-100 days after planting. You can check your seed packet or plant label to determine when the specific variety you planted will be ready.
There are a few signs that will help you know for sure your pumpkins can be picked.
The first is color. Has the pumpkin become a deep shade of orange (or another color) that looks like the picture on the seed packet? If so, that’s one sign it may be ripe.
The next test is trying to pierce the rind of the pumpkin with your fingernail. If it goes through, the pumpkin is not ripe yet. If the rind is hard and resists puncture, it should be ready to pick.
Once you’ve determined a pumpkin is ripe, cut it off the vine with 3-4” of stem intact. The stem will help your pumpkins keep longer but is not a handle! Carry your pumpkins from the bottom to prevent the stem from breaking and causing damage. Do not swing your pumpkin around like you see me doing in the photo below.
The final step is to cure your pie pumpkins. This helps them to last longer in storage and also improves their flavor.
Simply leave them in a warm, sunny spot (80-85°F) for 7-14 days to cure and toughen the rind, but bring them under shelter if rain threatens. Also, be sure to finish harvesting and curing your pumpkins before frost hits.
Baking and Enjoying Your Pie Pumpkins
Depending on the variety, your pumpkins will last for 1-6 months when stored in a cool, dry area. You can pull them out as needed to bake and cook with.
If you’ve never worked with a whole pumpkin before, the easiest way to bake it is to put several slits in the side with a knife, put it on a tray, and bake it whole. Once it has cooled, you can cut it open and dig out the flesh.
And when you taste the flavor of homegrown pumpkin, it will be hard to go back to the canned version!
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.