yellow pumpkin

Earlier this spring, we looked at three ornamental plants promoted this year by the National Garden Bureau — dahlia, snapdragon and hybrid sage, Salvia nemorosa. It’s getting warm enough now (at least most days) that we can begin planting their final “Year of the …” feature — pumpkin. Pumpkins are a fun plant to grow, especially when gardening with children, with many uniquely colored or shaped cultivars from which to choose.

What is a pumpkin?

Pumpkins are members of the Cucurbitaceae, or cucumber, family and are related to squash, zucchini, cucumbers and melons. Most pumpkins belong to the species Cucurbita pepo, which also includes varieties of winter squash, summer squash, zucchini, and gourds. These pumpkins are characterized by round fruit with a thick shell that has smooth, slightly ribbed skin and a deep yellow to orange color.

However, some winter squash varieties from the species Cucurbita maxima (Jarrahdale, Turk’s Turban, and all giant pumpkins) and Cucurbita moschata (Long Island Cheese, Rouge Vif D’Etampes) are sometimes also considered pumpkins due to their similar appearance.

Diversity among pumpkin varieties is incredible. With sizes ranging from 4 ounces to over 1,000 pounds, various unique shapes, and brilliant colors like orange, yellow, white, green, blue, gray, pink, and tan, there are endless opportunities to select the perfect pumpkin.

Choosing the perfect pumpkin

When selecting a pumpkin for cooking, it is best to choose a “pie pumpkin” which has dense, sweet flesh. Pik-A-Pie is a go-to favorite! The sugars and lower moisture of these types hold up best in cooking. It is also easy to grow pumpkins for harvesting edible seeds. To save time, choose a naked-seeded (hull-less or semi hull-less) pumpkin with seeds that do not need to be hulled before eating. The variety Naked Bear is an excellent all-around choice for cooking, edible seeds, and making pumpkin seed oil. Pepitas6, an All-American Selection (AAS) Winner, has a strong handle, beautiful golden orange rinds with dark green streaks. The pumpkin is delicious, with nutritious flesh and bountiful “naked” tender, succulent, nutty seeds for roasting.

When selecting pumpkins for carving and fall decoration, choose varieties that suit your style. Traditional carving pumpkins are medium to large in size, deep orange, and lightly ribbed with a strong handle. Some standards are Gladiator, Magic Lantern, and Howden. If you’d like to get creative with your carving, try a warted (Warty Goblin), yellow (Mellow Yellow) or white pumpkin (Lumina or Super Moon, an AAS winner).

For painting, look for a small pumpkin with a strong handle and a smooth surface, such as Hijinks (AAS winner).

Add additional interest to fall décor using miniature pumpkins with unique colors and patterns. Miniature pumpkins are typically less than 2 pounds and can be found in a variety of shapes and colors; Hooligan, Baby Boo, Jack Be Little and Wee-B-Little (AAS winner) are favorites.

Growing pumpkins

Mid-May to mid-June, after all risk of frost has passed, is a good time for pumpkin planting in Nebraska. Seeds can be direct sown or started indoors and should be planted at a depth of 1” into well-drained soil that has warmed to 70°F. To ensure fruit set and yields, allow sufficient space between each plant. Give small pumpkins a 12-foot area, large pumpkins a 24-foot area, and giant pumpkins a 36-48-foot area per plant.

Pumpkins perform best when they are fertilized throughout the growing season and fruit set will be strongest if the flowers are pollinated by bees. If pumpkin flowers are not pollinated completely, the fruit will start growing but will abort before full development. To ensure a bountiful pumpkin harvest, encourage bees in your garden or pollinate the flowers by hand.

When the pumpkins have matured, the stem holding the fruit will begin to dry. Harvest the pumpkin by carefully cutting the vine on each side of the fruit stem, leaving a nub at the point where the stem meets the vine. This will encourage the stem to maintain strength as it dries down and will minimize infection by microbes that can cause decay.

To keep longer-lasting pumpkins, wash the fruits in a diluted bleach solution, allow them to dry, and place them in a cool shady spot after harvest. Then they’ll be ready to carve, decorate, or use in the kitchen.

As pumpkins grow in the garden, it is incredible to observe the changes throughout the season, and rewarding to finish with a harvest of beautiful, versatile fruits. The uses of pumpkins in the garden and kitchen are limitless, so let your creativity bloom.

Seeds for the pumpkin cultivars mentioned above are available from the following companies.

 Harris Seeds/Garden Trends,

 Johnny’s Seeds,

 Jung Seeds,

 Reimer’s Seeds,

 West Coast Seeds,

 Willhite Seed Inc.,

 Territorial Seed Company,

 Burpee,

 Park Seed,

 Botanical Interests,

 Bonnie Plants,

For more information on this year’s featured plants, visit the National Garden Bureau at The National Garden Bureau recognizes and thanks Garden Trends/Harris Seeds as author and contributor to this fact sheet.

Sarah Browning is a certified arborist and Nebraska Extension educator in Lancaster County.