How to Choose the Best Halloween Pumpkins to Grow in Your Garden

Is there anything more autumnal than walking into your garden, the scent of turning leaves in the air, to pick a pumpkin for Halloween?

A vertical close up picture of a large orange pumpkin, carved into a face with a bright candle inside to light it up in the dark autumn evening. To the top and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

I think not. And that’s why, this year, I decided to grow three different cultivars in my garden.

For some reason, I figured that since pumpkins (a variety of Cucurbita pepo or winter squash) abound in crisp fall stories and films, they’d naturally grow well in colder climates.

Not quite so. While you can grow these veggies as annuals in any Zone from 3-10, they have a long growing season. A germinated seedling will produce huge, deliciously orange fruit… in a whopping 100+ days.

That’s at least three months, often four, of frost-free growing time the plant needs. A light frost can kill the vines that support the fruit. While this won’t kill them, they won’t ripen anymore after a vine-killing frost.

In northerly climes like mine up in Alaska, we get maybe two and a half solid months of summer. By early September, the first frost looms.

A close up of a number of carved winter squash with lights, creating a spooky autumnal theme.

But harvested C. pepo can last for two to three months off the vine if they’re healthy. As long as you get your seedlings going in time, you can enjoy homegrown Halloween pumpkins.

In this article, you’ll learn how to pick the perfect Halloween pumpkin to plant – and we’ll reveal our favorite varieties, too.

Let’s get growing!

When to Plant for Halloween

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of when you should plant seeds to be ready for picking in the two months or so before Halloween.

Those of us in northerly climes – USDA Hardiness Zones 3-6 – should start seeds indoors in early April. The ground isn’t likely to be warm enough (60°F) for direct sowing at this time, but we can get a head start on our short growing season by sowing indoors.

A close up of a small black plastic seedling tray with young shoots growing, almost ready for transplant.

In warmer climates (Zones 7-9), plant seeds directly in the soil once it hits 60°F.

This will usually be around March, April, or early May. Remember that raised beds warm up a little faster than the earth, so if you’ve got a raised bed garden, you’re in luck.

A close up of a Cucurbita pepo seedling growing in the garden in light sunshine.

In Zones 10 and 11, you’ll have to either plant your seeds in March for a June harvest, or sow seeds indoors in July and set the seedlings out in August for a perfectly timed October harvest.

Keep in mind that all of these recommendations are general guidelines, and you should always check your seed packets and keep average times to maturity for the cultivars you have selected in mind as well.

For more information on calculating the length of your local growing season, see our guide to planting seeds indoors versus direct sowing.

The Best Halloween Pumpkins

When you think of carving jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween, what type of pumpkin do you imagine? What if you just want to use the winter squash as is, as decorations for your front porch, or if you want to be able to eat it as well?

Here are a few of the top uses for these beloved squash at Halloween time – along with the best cultivars to suit your needs.

Carving

To carve the best jack-o’-lantern of all time, you’ll need a big fruit (yup, it’s a fruit!) with plenty of room on its shell for artistic creativity.

This spooky, flickering decoration originated in Ireland, where people carved the faces of potatoes and turnips instead of winter squash.

I apologize in advance for the utter creepiness of this turnip jack-o’-lantern from the 1900s.

A vertical close up picture of a traditional Irish Halloween lantern, made from a turnip set on a white surface.
Photo by Rannpháirtí anaithnid, Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY-SA.

It’s kind of neat, but pumpkins are definitely easier to carve, with more room inside for a candle.

So, are you ready to plant the perfect carving pumpkin? Because I have one for you.

An autumnal scene, with pumpkins carved and whole, surrounded by straw and candles set on a wooden surface.

It’s called – drumroll please – the ‘Jack O’Lantern!’

Jack O’Lantern

This perfect carving squash grows to a big but not overwhelming size of 10-20 pounds and matures to a rich orange color in 105 days.

A close up of a blue and white plate with freshly made pancakes topped with butter and maple syrup, set on a wooden surface. In the background are small winter squash and a knife and fork.
Photo by Nikki Cervone.

And perhaps the best thing about it is that you can scoop out the flesh and bake it into pie, if that’s your favorite fall dish, or muffins, which are mine.

Or, try these amazing pumpkin spice pancakes from our sister site, Foodal, which taste like autumnal heaven when eaten with pure maple syrup and lightly toasted pecans.

A close up of bright orange Cucurbita pepo 'Jack O Lantern' with foliage and small yellow flowers in the background.

‘Jack O’Lantern’

Find ‘Jack O’Lantern’ seeds today available at Eden Brothers.

For those who want to enter into a carving competition, there’s another ideal cultivar: the ‘Howden.’

Howden

I happen to be growing this one at home this year.

A close up of a young Cucurbita pepo 'Howden' growing in a small black plastic pot, with a bright orange flower and large leaves, on a wooden surface.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

It obviously has a ways to go before it’s ready for Halloween, but I cannot wait to go into the garden with my son and harvest a massive, homegrown pumpkin to carve together.

‘Howden’ has a more elongated look than ‘Jack O’Lantern,’ and it’s heavier, too, weighing up to 25 pounds. It takes a little longer to mature – 115 days – but the wait is worth it.

Incidentally, ‘Howden’ boasts a strong, thick, orange rind with a sweet meaty inside that you can use in baking, so it’s another wonderful dual-purpose pumpkin.

A close up of three orange Cucurbita pepo 'Howden' set in front of a wooden background.

‘Howden’

Even better? It keeps well in storage once you’ve harvested (but before you cut into it).

Find ‘Howden’ seeds at Eden Brothers.

Decoration

Want to grow pumpkins for decoration, to create beautiful tablescapes or add a harvest feel to your front porch? Don’t buy the overpriced ones from the grocery store – you can grow your own instead.

A close up of two winter squash decorated with bats and lights, set on a wooden surface.

Here are my two favorite cultivars for long-lasting Halloween decoration that you can probably use through Thanksgiving, too!

Jack Be Little

Since I always love to decorate my home every autumn – both indoors and out – with little pumpkins, I decided to grow my own ‘Jack Be Little’ pumpkins this year.

These beautifully ribbed gourds grow to be about two inches tall and three inches wide. They mature in just 95 days.

My ‘Jack Be Little’ plant already has a tiny squash growing, and my son and I love watching it get bigger every day.

A close up of a small Cucurbita pepo 'Jack Be Little' growing on the vine with a toddler in soft focus in the background.
Photo by Laura Melchor.

It’ll be perfect for a pretty dining-table centerpiece.

And each ‘Jack Be Little’ plant produces four to six pumpkins, so if you plant several, you’ll be set for the fall season.

A close up of Cucurbita pepo 'Jack Be Little' fruits freshly harvested. To the bottom right of the frame is a black circular logo with text.

‘Jack Be Little’

They’re technically edible, but they’re so tiny you’re better off planting ‘Howden’ or another larger variety for the copious amount of flesh inside.

You can find ‘Jack Be Little’ seeds at True Leaf Market.

Lumina

For a ghostly pumpkin that brings to mind a plump harvest moon, choose ‘Lumina,’ a white variety that grows to 10 or 15 pounds.

‘Lumina’ can also make a nice, medium-sized carving pumpkin of an unusual color.

Despite the white exterior, the flesh is orange. As an added bonus, that flesh can go straight into a tasty curry, like this one from our sister site, Foodal.

A close up of Cucurbita pepo 'Lumina' hollowed out and a face carved in in the flesh. To the bottom right of the frame is a white circular logo with text.

‘Lumina’

Like ‘Jack Be Little,’ it matures in just 95 days. Plant them together and you’ll have two gorgeous gourds to decorate your home.

Get your seeds today from True Leaf Market.

Painting

If you’d rather not carve into your pumpkin but still want to decorate it, why not paint a face or a festive fall scene on the orange beauty?

A close up of four different gourds painted for Halloween and set on a wooden surface.

This is a perfect activity for kids, especially younger ones who aren’t quite ready to wield knives.

Plus, the decorations will last much longer than a carved squash will. (For more tips to make your carved jack-o’-lanterns last, give this article a read.)

Here are two perfect, medium-sized winter squashes to plant and paint:

Small Sugar

At 10 inches in diameter, smooth, round ‘Small Sugar’ is bigger than ‘Jack Be Little,’ but small enough for the kids (or you) to work with and paint.

Of course, if you’d rather bake ‘Small Sugar’ into a pie, that’s fine too. This particular cultivar has been a pie staple for over 120 years!

A close up of a small Cucurbita pepo 'Small Sugar' variety, set on a wooden surface with autumn leaves in the background.

‘Small Sugar’

It weighs anywhere from 5-8 pounds upon maturity, and reaches a harvestable size in 100 days.

Get your seeds today at Eden Brothers.

Casper

For a large squash that offers itself as an easy canvas for any painter – it’s white as paper – try ‘Casper,’ a 15-pound beauty that matures in 115 days.

A close up of the light colored Cucurbita pepo 'Casper' variety set on a wooden surface.

‘Casper’

The shell is smooth, providing the perfect surface for your artwork, and the flesh is sweet, making eating it very easy.

Get your ‘Casper’ seeds from Eden Brothers today.

A Few Tips

Your pumpkin is ready for carving when you knock on the shell and it sounds hollow inside.

Cut the vine with a knife, leaving at least four inches of stem, but don’t use the stem as a handle: carry the big old thing by grasping it around the bottom. If you break the stem off, the fruit will decay within 3-5 days.

A close up of two hands from the right of the frame holding a large orange pumpkin, and using a knife to carve a face for Halloween.

When you’re picking one to carve or use as decoration, make sure it doesn’t have any nicks or soft, rotten spots.

This helps ensure that it will last for two to three months until you carve it – or until the festive season is over.

Keep it away from wet, humid conditions, too, as they can invite fungus and rot, making your carefully cultivated squash go bad more quickly.

A close up of bright orange Cucurbita pepo set on straw in a wooden box.

Once you cut into it, you have those 3-5 days to enjoy it before it curls into itself and starts to rot.

So don’t do any carving until about three days before Halloween max if you want to display your jack-o’-lanterns on that spooky night.

A Hallowed Delight

Truly, there’s nothing better than harvesting your own homegrown pumpkins to enjoy as part of your Halloween festivities.

If you grow several different varieties, you can paint a few, carve a couple, and use the rest for decoration, pies, and other tasty fall treats.

An autumnal display of candles and various gourds for Halloween.

So get those seeds in the ground, and show us all your plump squashes come October! Please feel free to share your photos in the comments.

And don’t forget to check out these articles on growing ornamental and edible Cucurbits next:

Photos by Felicia Lim, Laura Melchor, and Nikki Cervone © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Eden Brothers and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Laura Melchor

Laura Melchor grew up helping her mom in the garden in Montana, and as an adult she’s brought her cold-weather gardening skills with her to her home in Alaska. She’s especially proud of the flowerbeds she and her three-year-old son built with rocks dug up from their little Alaska homestead. As a freelance writer, she contributes to several websites and blogs across the web. Laura also writes novels and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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