Starting Pumpkins and Squash Early

I’m all about pumpkins—big, tiny, huge, warty, orange, white, or striped, if it’s a pumpkin I love it. Squash catch my eye with their lumps and bumps, smooth skin and deeply carved lobes. Both get bonus points for excellent flavor and long-term storage ability. Varieties the deer like are on my list. I bought pumpkins for the deer last fall and they’re still sitting in the food plot, nibbled on and passed up. If I grow a variety that’s new to us and we end up not liking the texture or flavor the poultry will probably devour it in the middle of winter. Being limited to one hundred dependable frost free days a year doesn’t allow for some of the pumpkin and squash varieties I love. It means starting pumpkins and squash early gives me the best chance of successfully growing some of my favorites.

It isn’t safe to plant our pumpkins and squash seedlings outdoors until the soil warms and the danger of frost passes in early June. Trays of six packs sit in the bay window to warm in the sun, on a shelf above my desk, and under grow lights where the soil stays a little warmer. On warm, still or barely breezy days I move the seedlings outside so they don’t stretch to reach light. Make sure the grow light is no more than two inches from the top of the seedling and adjust as the plants grow. If they’re getting tall and weak the light is too far away. A fan gently blowing around the seedlings will help strengthen the stems.

How to Transplant Vine Crops

Most of us have probably heard “you can’t transplant vine plants.” You can as long as you follow a few simple guidelines.

  • First, don’t start the seeds too early. I plant mine in six packs and individual pots three to four weeks prior to when I expect to transplant them into the garden. Seedlings that have no more than two sets of true leaves transplant easier than older plants that are susceptible to transplant shock.
  • Second, choose containers that are large enough to support root growth without the plants becoming root bound. I try to avoid moving the seedlings into larger pots before transplanting to the garden but it’s sometimes unavoidable. Use a container larger in width and depth than you expect to need.
  • Third, keep the seedlings under grow lights and outdoors as much as possible. If they have inadequate lighting they’ll stretch toward the nearest light source, as plants do, and become leggy. Vine crops have very wet, somewhat fragile stems. Leggy stems are weaker than short, dense stems.

Prepare the Soil

Prepare the soil before transplanting day. You’ll need rich soil to support the plants through maturity and might want to side dress later in the season.

Mounds warm up faster than flat soil. IRT (infrared transmissible) mulch will warm the soil and has the added benefit of blocking weeds. Low tunnels will help you get an early start with vine crops. A low tunnel with IRT provides two to three weeks of extra time by setting them up early to warm the soil. Short growing seasons don’t have to strictly limit us to varieties that mature in under 100 days. Starting pumpkins and squash early add varieties to what you can grow in your short-season garden.