Small pumpkins are so much fun to grow! They’re easy and productive, often yielding a dozen or more pumpkins per plant. Kids love them but so do adults and the mini fruits can be used as autumn or Halloween decor, in crafting, or baked in pies and muffins. The fruits can be as small as a couple of inches across and have orange, white, or even bi-colored rinds. Keep reading to learn more about planting, growing, and harvesting a bumper crop of small pumpkins.
What are small pumpkins?
Small pumpkins are those that weigh less than four pounds, with many small pumpkins being truly miniature and weighing less than a pound. Like large pumpkins, small fruited varieties need a long growing season, often up to 100 days for the plants to grow and the fruits to mature. Different varieties also have different growing habits. Some produce long vines, while others have semi-vining or bush-type plants.
Planting small pumpkins
Small pumpkins are warm season vegetables and should be direct seeded a week or two after the risk of frost has passed in late spring and the soil has warmed to at least 65F (18C). Don’t sow seeds if the spring weather is cold and damp as the seeds can rot if planted in cold, wet soil. The best site to grow small pumpkins has at least eight hours of direct sun each day and rich, fertile soil. I amend my garden beds with several inches of compost or aged manure before direct seeding or transplanting. Because pumpkins are greedy plants I also like to add a slow release organic vegetable fertilizer to the planting hole. For application rates, refer to the fertilizer package.
For short season gardeners who may not have enough time to mature pumpkins that are direct seeded, start the seeds indoors a month before you intend to move the seedlings to the garden. Sow the seeds in four inch pots and place them beneath a grow light or in a sunny window. Harden off and transplant them outdoors once the spring weather is settled and the soil has warmed. If you’d prefer to buy pumpkin seedlings, many garden centres offer transplants of small pumpkin varieties.
Growing pumpkins in gardens, containers or straw bales
Small pumpkins can be grown in raised beds, containers, in-ground gardens, straw bales, or hills.
- Hills – Planting pumpkins in hills is a traditional technique and maximizes production in a home garden. Make low hills about 6 inches above grade and 15 to 18 inches in diameter. The advantage of hills is similar to that of raised beds; they warm up quicker in spring and drain well. I plant five seeds in each hill, sowing them an inch deep. Once the plants are growing well, thin to the strongest three plants.
- In-ground gardens – When growing small pumpkins in rows in an in-ground garden, sow the seeds 12 inches apart, eventually thinning to 24 inches apart. Rows for bush types need to be spaced 4 to 5 feet apart, while rows for vining varieties should be given 8 to 10 feet between each row.
- Raised beds – When I plant small pumpkins in my raised wooden beds, I sow the seeds along the edge of the bed so the plants can trail over the side. This prevents the vigorous pumpkin vines from crowding out the other plants in the bed. You can also grow small pumpkins up a trellis attached to the side of a raised bed or a tunnel erected in between raised beds. Learn how to build a cattle panel arch in this article.
- Containers – I’ve had great success growing small pumpkins in containers and fabric bags. I mix equal parts potting mix and compost and add a slow release organic vegetable fertilizer.
- Straw bales – One of my favorite ways to grow pumpkins is to plant the seeds in straw bales or in free-formed piles of straw and compost. To make free-formed piles, I layer half rotted straw with compost or aged manure. I also add old potting mix from the previous seasons containers. The final ingredient is a slow release organic vegetable fertilizer. This rich mix provides the perfect growing conditions for small pumpkins.
Growing pumpkins vertically
Pumpkins are traditionally grown on the ground where the plants take up a lot of space. Small pumpkins, however, can also be trellised or grown up fences, tunnels, and other vertical supports. This reduces the area needed to grow the vigorous plants but there are other benefits to growing plants up: fewer insect and disease issues, better air circulation, it’s very decorative, and it allows you to grow pumpkins in small urban gardens on in containers on decks and patios.
When growing pumpkins vertically be sure to plant vining varieties. Bush pumpkins won’t climb as they only grow 2 to 3 feet across. My trellis of choice is a 4 by 8 foot piece of wire mesh panel which is sturdy and can be easily mounted on supports at the back of a raised bed.
Growing small pumpkins
Once the pumpkin seeds have germinated, it won’t take long for the plants to size up. Encourage healthy, vigorous growth by watering regularly and deeply, especially when the weather is hot and dry. When watering, try to avoid splashing water on the foliage of the plants which can encourage and spread disease. I use a long-handled watering wand to direct water to the base of the plants. I mulch around my plants with straw to hold soil moisture.
Pumpkin plants are heavy feeders and it’s also important to ensure they have a steady supply of nutrients throughout the growing season. I feed my plants every two weeks with a liquid organic fish or seaweed fertilizer.
Why and how to hand pollinate
Once pumpkins start to flower you’ll likely notice male flowers first. They have a straight stem beneath the bloom, while female flowers have a tiny fruit under the flower. Once the male flowers open, it won’t be long before female flowers appear. For fruits to form and grow pollen must be moved from the male flower to the female flower. Bees typically do that job, but if you have few bees or notice the tiny fruits rotting instead of growing, you may want to hand pollinate.
Step 1 – Hand pollinate in the morning soon after the flowers open. Hand pollinate on a dry day.
Step 2 – Use a clean, dry small paintbrush or cotton swab to transfer pollen from a male flower to a female flower. Or, snap off a male bloom, remove the petals, and gently touch the stamen to the stigma (don’t worry, it’s pretty obvious once you’re ready to begin).
Step 3 – That’s it! You’ve hand pollinated. I often use a single male flower to hand pollinate several female flowers.
Common pests of small pumpkins include squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and squash vine borers. I try to deter all of these pests by combining crop rotation and covering the newly planted beds with a lightweight row cover or insect barrier fabric. Once the plants begin to flower remove the covers so pollination can occur.
If you didn’t cover your pumpkin patch with a row cover or insect barrier, check often for squash bug eggs, nymphs, or adults by looking beneath the leaves. To reduce the risk of squash vine borer, wrap a four inch long piece of aluminium foil around the stem at ground level. Check out this article by Jessica for more details on deterring squash vine borers.
If cucumber beetles are an issue in your garden start with floating row covers early in the season. You can also mount yellow sticky cards on stakes so that the card is just above the foliage. Be aware, however, that the sticky cards could also capture beneficial bugs. Damage by cucumbers beetles isn’t always severe but they can carry bacterial wilt to your small pumpkin plants. Read on to learn more about wilt and powdery mildew.
Bacterial wilt is a disease that occurs on cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins. The first sign is often wilting of the leaves which then spreads to the entire plant. Prevention begins with limiting cucumber beetles – use floating row covers early in the season. If your pumpkins are affected by wilt, pull up and destroy the plants.
Another potential disease is powdery mildew, a fungal disease that causes powdery white patches to form on the leaves. It’s most prevalent when the days are hot and humid and can coat both the top and bottom surfaces of the leaves. A bad infestation can weaken plants and reduce yield. Reduce the occurrence of powdery mildew by choosing resistant varieties, spacing plants appropriately, and trying to avoid wetting the foliage when watering. If you can, water in the morning so leaves have time to dry off before evening.
When to harvest pumpkins
Pumpkins are ready to harvest once the fruits have reached the mature color indicated on the seed packet and the rind has hardened. Another indication is the plant. As the fruits mature, the leaves begin to die back and the stem dries.
When the pumpkins are ready to pick grab your hand pruners to cut them from the plant, leaving a stem at least 3 inches long. Don’t try to pull or twist pumpkins from the plants as this can damage the stem or the plant. Cure harvested pumpkins to thicken the skin and prolong storage quality. Leave the pumpkins outdoors to cure for 7 to 10 days if the weather is warm and dry. If rain is forecast, bring them indoors and keep them in a cool dry room.
8 small pumpkin varieties to grow
Pick the perfect small pumpkin by selecting from this list of outstanding varieties below. Key considerations include plant size – bush, semi-vining, vining – as well as fruit color and size.
Baby Bear – This All-America Selections Award winner is a perfect mini pumpkin with deep orange skin and long, slender handles. Each Baby Bear fruit weighs one and a half to two and a half pounds and can be used as autumn decor, miniature Jack O’Lanterns, or for pies. The seeds are delicious roasted. Expect up to eight fruits per plant.
Wee-B-Little – Wee-B-Little is a pint-sized pumpkin that matures to the size of a baseball with the fruits weighing about a half to three-quarters of a pound. The plants have a semi-bush growing habit which means you can pack quite a few plants into a small space or even in a container or straw bale. The 3 1/2 inch diameter fruits have a smooth orange rind that makes them easy to paint for autumn decor. Each plant yields up to eight pumpkins.
Black Kat – Black Kat is one of my favourite small pumpkins to grow! I love the compact fruits which have a perfect pumpkin shape are are both ornamental and edible. The unusual color also makes Black Kat a standout with each fruit having dark green, almost black skin. The plants have a semi-bush habit and produce a handful of the one pound pumpkins.
Baby Boo – This was the first small pumpkin I ever grew and it’s become a favorite in our garden. The vigorous vines grow up to 8 feet long and I like to grow them vertically on trellises. The mini fruits are just 3 inches across and 2 inches tall with bright white skin.
Jill-Be-Little – Jill-Be-Little is the orange version of Baby Boo with the plants producing strong vines and a bumper crop of super small pumpkins. Expect each fruit to mature to just 3 inches across and 2 1/2 inches tall. This is a great choice if powdery mildew is an issue in your garden as the plants offer good resistance to mildew. Average yield is fifteen pumpkins per vine.
Casperita – Casperita is a super productive variety that can yield up to twenty mini pumpkins per plant! The ghostly white fruits average a half to a full pound and have an attractive pumpkin shape with deep ribs. Casperita isn’t just pretty, it’s also delicious with a texture and flavor similar to acorn squash.
Snowball – Snowball is a perfect ‘kid-sized’ white pumpkin with fruits that weigh between two and three pounds. They have an attractive rounded shape, smooth skin, and long green handles. While many ‘white’ pumpkins mature to yellow, Snowball stays reliably white. The plants offer good resistance to powdery mildew.
Spark – Light up the garden with Spark. This bi-colored pumpkin has fiery orange and yellow striped fruits that grow just 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The long vines are very resistant to powdery mildew and yield about fifteen pumpkins per plant.
Kandy Korn Plus – This small carving pumpkin grows just 4 inches across and 3 1/2 inches tall, perfect for pocket-sized Jack O’Lanterns. The smooth, almost round fruits are bright orange and have long green stems. The plants are semi-bush in habit and can be grown in containers or garden beds. Expect ten to twelve pumpkins per plant.
To learn more about growing pumpkins and squash, be sure to check out these articles:
- When to plant pumpkins from seeds or transplants
- Growing round zucchini – a tender treat!
- Zucchini companion plants
- Growing spaghetti squash in gardens
- When to harvest winter squash
Are you growing small pumpkins?