I over-plant pumpkins every year—and with good reason. They’re slow starters, and right when the vines start taking off and the pumpkins start to appear, the fall rain hits and the temperature drops. There are a lot of challenges to keeping those pumpkins healthy, solid, and ripe enough for Halloween. Here are some tips for getting your pumpkin plants through Halloween (and even Thanksgiving).
It’s easy to get overexcited about all the pumpkins each vine can produce. Depending on the variety of pumpkins, a single vine can produce as many as 12 twelve pumpkins. Generally, we’re talking here about mini pumpkins like Baby Boo or sugar pumpkins—the kind you use in pies. The larger the pumpkin, the less each vine should have, so your standard carving pumpkins should generally only have one or two per vine. Regardless, now is the time to accept that new pumpkins are not going to have the time to grow before Halloween.
Like tomato plants, pruning your vines redirects energy into the pumpkins, so it’s time to do some lopping. Go to the last pumpkin of decent growth on the vine, and cut off the vine after it. This will give the existing pumpkins the best chance this month of ripening. Take off any flowers that grow after this point, too.
Pumpkins get their nutrients and strength from their leaves and vines, which is why powdery mildew is a real vibe killer this time of year. Usually the result of rain and too much moisture, this fungus manifests as a web of white over your leaves. The good news is that there are controls for it. While there are wives’ tales about using milk, and some people have success with Neem oil, I’ve always used vinegar with success. Mix four tablespoons of vinegar to a gallon of water, and spray your leaves every few days, particularly after rainfall.
Unless you’re someplace very dry and warm, your pumpkins don’t need as much water, if any, at this point. If you see really diseased leaves, those should be cut away. Anything with brown spots should go, and you want to ensure it goes into the trash, not your compost. The goal here is to keep the vines green and healthy as long as needed to ripen the pumpkins; once they turn brown, it’s over.
Your pumpkins will survive a frost, but your vines won’t. They’ll wither and brown, which means it’s go time, regardless of the state of your pumpkin. Ideally, you should harvest when pumpkins are dry. Leave a hefty stem on your pumpkins to prevent rot—three to four inches away from the pumpkin.Resist the urge to carry it around by the stem; to keep it healthy, you want to carry from the bottom. If you can cure the pumpkins, they’ll last longer, but that means ten days in eighty-five degree heat, so if you can’t get that outside, and can’t recreate it inside, your pumpkin is on a short timetable and will last about ten days. Time accordingly for Halloween or Thanksgiving.
It would be best if your pumpkin is ripe when you cut it down. A ripe pumpkin sounds hollow when you knock on it. The rind has turned color and hardened, which you can test using your fingernail. If it makes a dent, leave it on the vine if you can unless the vine is dead.
If you have to cut your pumpkin down prematurely before it’s ripe, there’s still a chance to turn it. First, be much more gentle; cut off a few inches of vine just as you would with ripe pumpkins. Bring your pumpkin inside and place it on a windowsill, because it needs light and air. Turn it daily. How fast it ripens depends on the amount of sunlight and warmth it gets, so just be patient. The pumpkin won’t just turn, it’ll cure, too, if you leave it long enough. A cured pumpkin is easier to carve, but an uncured pumpkin will work if you’re gentle. (It will not last as long after carving, though.)
Of course, pumpkins that miss the important Halloween window make great Thanksgiving pumpkins, so don’t overthink it too much.
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