In this article, we will talk about pumpkin cultivation, also known as the “queen of gardens”. It is a cultivation with significant development and enormous productivity, capable of providing great satisfaction even in a home garden with a small number of plants. Pumpkins have a long tradition in our agricultural culture. This has led to the development and preservation of many native varieties, which we will explore together.
We will then discover the correct techniques for organic cultivation, including sowing time, plant spacing, and the necessary care required to self-produce these large vegetables and consume them throughout the winter.
Botanical Classification of Pumpkins
Before delving into the various techniques of organic agriculture and the care required for pumpkin cultivation, it’s essential to start with the botanical classification of the plant.
The pumpkin is an herbaceous plant belonging to the botanical family Cucurbitaceae, just like zucchini. However, while zucchinis belong to the species Cucurbita Pepo, pumpkins can be identified botanically as belonging to the species Cucurbita maxima and Cucurbita moschata.
To distinguish them from zucchinis, some pumpkins are colloquially called winter squash.
This name is probably due to their late maturation (always compared to zucchinis) and the possibility of preserving them for an extended period, particularly into the winter months.
Winter squash belonging to the species Cucurbita maxima are characterized by large, spherical fruits with variegated skin color, yellow flesh, and a very sweet taste. This particular species also includes the famous “Turban Turkish” squash.
On the other hand, Cucurbita moschata produces elongated fruits, usually oblong or cylindrical, with a more or less pronounced curve in the upper part. With a bit of imagination, you could say they resemble a sort of canteen.
The flesh of these fruits is firm and yellow-orange.
Botanical Characteristics of the Pumpkin Plant
In general, pumpkins are very hardy and vigorous plants. They have climbing or prostrate stems, highly branched, which can reach a length of 6-8 meters. They have a cylindrical or angular shape and are equipped with robust tendrils.
The pumpkin plant has a fasciculate root system with shallow, superficial development, generally extending 15-40 cm into the soil.
The leaves are upright, large, and palmate, with slightly accentuated lobes.
Flowers and Flowering
Pumpkins are monoecious species, meaning they have both male and female flowers of unisexual type.
Specifically, male flowers have a slender peduncle, with a corolla consisting of five yellow petals and five stamens.
Female flowers, on the other hand, have a shorter peduncle, inferior ovary, and a central pistil with three bilobed stigmas.
The flowering begins with the opening of male flowers (anthesis), which occurs early in the morning.
Pollination is entomophilous, meaning it is carried out by bees and other pollinating insects. After fertilization, the ovary swells rapidly, and the fruit, called pepo, starts to form.
Types of Pumpkins to Cultivate
The cultivation of pumpkins presents us with a rather challenging choice. There are numerous varieties that can be planted in our home garden. The choice of pumpkin seeds to sow, naturally, must take various factors into account. Among these, certainly, are individual tastes and preferences. Another essential factor for selection depends on the specific characteristics of each variety. Some criteria for choice depend on the cultivation area, the purpose of planting pumpkins (as there are many purely ornamental varieties), or the preferred harvesting time.
Another important factor to consider is the opportunity to cultivate local and native pumpkin seeds, a practice that we always recommend in favor of the normal purchase of seeds available on the market.
In any case, in general, the most common and easily accessible varieties of pumpkins on the market are as follows:
Napoletana Lunga Gigante
This is the famous “full Naples” pumpkin. Its flesh is firm, sweet, and abundant, of excellent quality. It is a well-known variety used in cooking, ideal as a pasta sauce and also for baking. It can be stored for a long time after harvesting.
Grigia di Bologna
Its fruits are small, about 1.5 kg, with light gray and yellow-orange skin. The aftertaste resembles that of nuts and is very sweet. It can be stored for a long time, up to 6-8 months, after harvesting.
Moscata di Provenza
This is a variety of French origin with medium-sized fruits weighing 10-15 kg. These pumpkins have ochre-reddish skin with evident grooves. The flesh is very thick and tasty. This variety also stores well for over 6 months after harvesting.
It is the sweetest variety of pumpkin available on the market. It has an elongated shape, about 40-50 cm in length, and weighs between 3 and 6 kg on average. The skin is rough and light orange, while the flesh is yellow-orange.
Tonda Marina di Chioggia
This is a very famous and appreciated variety of pumpkin. It has an average size of up to 5 kg. The skin is lumpy, with a green-gray color. It has excellent storage capabilities, and its large seeds are ideal for toasting.
Siciliana Lagenaria da Pergola
This is an ideal variety of climbing pumpkin for covering gazebos or pergolas. The fruits hang down, are cylindrical in shape, and can be over a meter long. They are used in cooking when still immature, and the plant’s leaves and shoots are ideal for various soups and side dishes.
This variety has late maturation and is excellent for winter storage. The fruits are dark green, medium-sized, and weigh up to 8 kg. The flesh is light orange with a high sugar content.
Hokkaido (Uchiri Kuri)
This is a variety native to Japan. Its fruits are small, red, and weigh up to 2 kg. The plant has distinct ornamental qualities, high-quality flesh, and a sweet taste. The skin is tender and can be eaten with the flesh.
Varieties recovered at farmer’s exchange fairs
As we mentioned, pumpkin cultivation can start from indigenous seeds, preserved from previous years, or recovered at farmer’s exchange fairs. Pumpkin seeds, in fact, are among the easiest vegetables to preserve and pass down from generation to generation.
Here are some of the pumpkin varieties recovered through the Semi Autonomi, an italian project by the Crocevia Calabria Association, with which our blog actively collaborates:
- Cavaiola, in Castelluccio Inferiore (PZ)
- Bottiglia collo lungo, in Bianchi (CS)
- A metro, in Decollatura (CZ)
- Vernitica a coste arancioni, in Bocca di Piazza (CS)
- Gialla di Marina, in Colosimi (CS)
- 7 meraviglie, in Bianchi (CS)
- Lunga a tromba, in Castelluccio Inferiore (PZ)
- Hokkaido, in Cirella (CS)
As you can see, there is a great biodiversity concentrated in a few municipalities. This highlights the potential of collecting and preserving indigenous seeds.
Climate and period
Pumpkin cultivation requires a warm climate to allow the plant to grow vigorously. Temperatures below 10 degrees can damage its vital organs. For this reason, it is cultivated in spring-summer, with final maturation at the beginning of autumn.
Pumpkins have the characteristic of having large seeds with excellent and rapid germination. For this reason, direct sowing is preferred. In practice, it is sufficient to create small mounds directly on the ground, placing 2-3 pumpkin seeds, with the tip facing upwards, at a depth of 2 cm. Subsequently, water generously and keep the soil consistently moist.
The period for direct sowing is from the second half of April to early June. Alternatively, or to advance the sowing, small plastic pots with a diameter of 12-14 cm can be used to sow and grow the pumpkin seedling until transplantation. The advantage of the pot is that it can be protected in a heated place in case of sudden drops in temperature.
Plant spacing in pumpkin cultivation
In pumpkin cultivation, a fundamental precaution is to maintain the right plant spacing (i.e., the geometric arrangement of the various plants, adequately spaced from each other). This is because the plants have a strong vegetative growth, and with their crawling habit, they can spread over several meters.
The distances to be maintained are at least 2 meters between rows and 1.80/2.00 meters between individual plants.
Once the vegetative growth starts, it is essential to direct the plants in different directions, so they cover the entire available surface and avoid ventilation problems.
Soil and ideal fertilization for pumpkin cultivation
The ideal soil for pumpkin cultivation is well-worked, loose, and deep, with a pH between 6 and 7.
Due to its large development, the pumpkin plant has strong organic fertilization needs. This is carried out in winter or early spring by adding well-rotted animal manure to the soil. In the past, pumpkins were even sown directly on the manure pile to keep it fresh during the summer.
If well-rotted manure is not available, pelleted manure can be used, easily found online, at the maximum recommended dosage. Alternatively, the pumpkin cultivation soil can be enriched with the result of home composting or vermicompost, always in large quantities.
Pumpkins also require a potassium-based fertilization, which can be easily obtained in winter months by adding wood ash to the soil.
Care for cultivated pumpkins
The pumpkin plant needs assistance with irrigation, especially during the flowering and fruit setting period. Therefore, it is advisable to set up a drip irrigation system. In any case, it is important to avoid waterlogging, which could cause fungal diseases to the plant. It is also necessary to suspend irrigation during the fruit maturation period to speed up their development.
Pumpkin cultivation requires weeding, meaning that the plants need to be cleared of weeds. This is particularly important in the early stages of vegetative growth. To save on this work and improve soil moisture, natural mulching with straw can be used.
Pruning of cultivated pumpkins
A common operation in pumpkin cultivation is pruning. This has a dual purpose: removing dry or damaged leaves to improve the canopy’s aeration, and apical pruning to enhance lateral shoots that typically bear more fruit.
To maximize fruit size, some growers also remove some newly formed pumpkins, concentrating the plant’s energy on 2 or 3 fruits. All pruning operations should be done with the use of the right tools.
Biological pest control
Pumpkin cultivation is quite robust, but the plant is susceptible to attack by some garden pests, as well as certain fungal diseases.
In particular, concerning insects, attention should be paid to the presence of aphids. As for fungal diseases, the ones that put pumpkin plants most at risk are powdery mildew and downy mildew. For all these issues, given the complexity of the topics, we recommend reading our dedicated articles.
Harvesting and storage
Pumpkins are typically harvested in the autumn when they have reached full maturity. You can determine the degree of ripeness by observing the change in color of the fruit. Additionally, you can try to scratch the surface with your fingernail; if the skin is too hard, it indicates that the fruit is mature.
As we mentioned earlier, the plants can be well-preserved during the winter, but only under the right conditions. Pumpkins are not afraid of cold temperatures and can withstand temperatures close to freezing, but they are sensitive to excessive humidity. Therefore, it is recommended to store them in a dark, cool, and dry place.
Uses of pumpkin
Pumpkin cultivation gives us a fruit that can be used in various ways. We have already discussed its nutritional properties. In particular, in the month of October, pumpkins are used as decorations for Halloween, where they are carved like demons. Throughout the winter, however, you can enjoy their flesh in a thousand fantastic recipes.
- TandFOnline – Antioxidant potential of phytochemicals in pumpkin – This article delves into the antioxidant properties of phytochemicals found in pumpkins and their potential health benefits.
- TandFOnline – Effect of Moisture Content on Thermal Properties – The study investigates how the moisture content in pumpkins affects their thermal properties, which is crucial for processing and storage.
- TandFOnline – Mechanical Properties of Pumpkin – A comprehensive analysis of the mechanical properties of pumpkins, providing insights into their texture and structural integrity.
- TandFOnline – Pumpkin flour qualities as affected by ultrasound and – The article explores how ultrasound treatments impact the quality of pumpkin flour, a popular alternative to traditional flours.
- TandFOnline – Effect of dietary pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata) seed oil – This research focuses on the dietary effects of pumpkin seed oil and its potential health implications.
- TandFOnline – Analysis of volatile compounds in flesh, peel and seed – An in-depth analysis of the volatile compounds present in different parts of the pumpkin, shedding light on their aroma and flavor profiles.
- TandFOnline – Evaluation of Physicochemical Properties and Sensory – The article evaluates the physicochemical properties of pumpkins and how they influence sensory perceptions during consumption.