So you’ve found your land and are planning a move to your new small farm. Or maybe you’ve hobby farmed for a while and are looking to expand into something new. Perhaps you’re just trying to find a new venture to bring in money to help pay the chicken feed bill. Regardless of who you are, you might want to consider starting a pumpkin patch.
Why a pumpkin patch? One word: agrotourism. Every fall, city folks and suburbanites flock to rural parts in search of warm cider, petting zoos, hayrides and, yes, pumpkins.
And while you don’t have to go whole hog (though people love potbellied pigs), growing a crop with a proven, seasonal market is a great way to bring in some profits to support your small-farm dreams. This is true whether you’re going all in or just want to set up a roadside farm stand a few weeks of the year.
Plan Your Land
First things first: You have to grow pumpkins to eventually sell them. And that process starts by choosing which varieties you’ll grow and where your patch will be.
The most important considerations for where to grow them, of course, are determined by your pumpkins’ needs. Pumpkins aren’t the heartiest plants on the seed shelf, so growing success does require some planning.
Pumpkins need a lot of sun, so if you’re considering establishing your patch in a wooded area or in the shadow of a large barn … well, don’t. Rather, look for a piece of land that receives plenty of sun throughout the day.
And while these large winter squashes (yes, you can grow small ones, too) like sun, they’re not especially tolerant of high heat or other extreme conditions. So think ahead to how you’ll protect your pumpkin vines when Mother Nature does her worst. Think shade tents for blistering summer days or tarps to shelter against heavy rains.
Pumpkins like a lot of water, so plan ahead for providing moisture while they grow. Rain barrels or other water-collecting apparatuses can take some of the burden off your water bill.
And keep in mind that, while pumpkins need water, they don’t like wet soil. So, when planning your patch, make sure the land drains water well to ensure your future pumpkins won’t succumb to soggy conditions.
Finally, if you have a lot of deer in your area, determine how you’ll keep them from eating your crop.
When & How to Plant
O.K., so you’ve chosen your land. Now it’s time to get to work.
You want to get seeds going in late April to early May. But that time range finds some parts of the country still in danger of frost. Check where your farm is on the plant hardiness zone and start seeds indoors if you think you’re in danger of frost.
Plant seeds one per peat pot two weeks before you plan to put seedlings outside. (They’ll have four or five leaves when they’re ready to set in the patch.) Remember: Pumpkins like water, so keep them hydrated and don’t let the soil get dry.
Planting in hills has long been the preferred method for planting pumpkins. To form your hills, dig a 3-foot circle 12 inches deep. (Use a shovel, not a tractorâ€”pumpkins don’t grow deep roots).
Loosen the soil and clear out rocks, then mix in fertilizer. Pumpkins tend to like cow manure, but make sure you keep the pH neutral to slightly alkaline, which is what the plants prefer.
Mound up your amended soil in the center to form a flat hill. Plant one seedling or four seeds spaced 10 inches apart (from which you’ll choose one or two of the best), and give it all a good water.
Then build your next hill, keeping between 5 to 20 feet between hills. Pumpkin vines need a lot of room, so don’t skimp on space.
Again, pumpkins need a lot of waterâ€”they like around 2 inches a weekâ€”so your primary pumpkin patch maintenance will be keeping them hydrated. Mulching will help the ground retain moisture; grass clippings or straw spread 2 inches deep will do the trick.
As with growing any plant, you’ll also need to keep things weed-free. And stay vigilant for signs of powder mildew, cucumber beetles and squash bugs, all common threats to pumpkin health. If a vine starts to die with fruit on it, cut it off and store the pumpkin in a cool, dry place to ripen.
Because pumpkin blossoms are so reliant on pollinator insects, you should steer clear of herbicides (and definitely pesticides) that can kill the beneficial bugs. Mulching, which you’re already doing for moisture retention, will go a long way toward reducing your weeding efforts.
You may choose to fertilize the pumpkins when you notice tendrils forming on the vine. Remember, these plants are an investment for your farm, so give your pumpkin patch what it needs to produce.
Once late September rolls into October, your hard work should pay off with a patch of ripe, ready-to-sell pumpkins.
Most varieties will turn that deep orange we all associate with pumpkins. You’ll notice the rinds are hard when the fruit is ready, too. Don’t dawdle, either, because a frost can take out your whole pumpkin patch.
To harvest your pumpkins, carefully cut the stems at the vines with pruning shears or a sharp knife. Leave a few inches of the stemâ€”we all know what a good pumpkin “handle” looks like.
Don’t be tempted to break the stem off at the vine, as that would leave a less-than-desirable product for customers. Stemless pumpkins also rot faster.
Store your pumpkins in a cool (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit), dry place until you’re ready to take them to customers.
How you want to sell your pumpkins is up to you. If you’re going full agrotourism, you’ll need to check on rules in your area for selling produce on farm, as well as obtaining appropriate event permits.
If you want to sell at the farmers market, start early by contacting the market with your query before the season startsâ€”ideally before you even start your first pumpkin seed.
A roadside farm stand might be a good option, too, especially if your farm is on a busy roadway. Again, you’ll need to check on local rules and regulations for selling produce from your farm to make sure your stand stays legal.
Pay attention to what your customers like, and take notes that can help you improve your pumpkin business in subsequent years.