The Beauty of Pumpkins

Earlier this spring I attended a webinar all about pumpkins, hosted by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I took a lot of notes and asked questions related to pumpkin-growing in Southern California. Here’s what I learned.

First, A History of Pumpkin Growing at Johnny’s

The webinar began with a timeline of pumpkin-growing and -breeding at Johnny’s. They’ve been breeding to address two challenges common in the Northeast:

  1. Short growing season: anything that takes longer than 100 days to mature is not a viable product in their climate
  2. Powdery mildew: New England summers offer a lot of rain and disease pressure

Johnny’s began selling pumpkin seeds for growing in 1985, when they offered Connecticut Field, New England Pie and Young’s Beauty. In 1987, they first carried hybrid, Autumn Gold. In 1995, they brought their own hybrid to market, Rocket, which was bred by the founder of Johnny’s.

In 1998, they had a breakthrough, introducing Racer, which matured in 85 days and became their flagship pumpkin. In 2005, they introduced their first variety with powdery mildew resistance, Charisma PMR (powdery mildew resistant).

Johnny’s Top Varieties

VarietyDays to MaturityWeightNotes
Racer8512-16Very high yielding with uniform size. “Outraces” powdery mildew by maturing so quickly. 12-16 pounds. Strong handle. Flat/round shape. Good for wholesale, U-Pick. Kid-friendly size.
Renegade PMR9513-1813-18 pounds. Superior pumpkin for wholesale bin sales. Reliable, predictable size and shape. Exceptional uniformity. Very stout handle. Rich color.
Cargo PMR10020-25Slightly upright, good for carving faces. Strong handle. Great value in the large size class.
Gumdrop PMR10011-13Small jack-o-lantern pumpkin. Great size for kids. Bold color. Round to gumdrop-shaped. Long, very strong handle. Short vine.
Igor10025-35Igor was a happy accident in breeding. It has dark orange skin, deep ribs, hunchback-style shoulders and a consistent tall barrel shape. They call Igor “uniformly creepy.” It’s also very high-yielding for its size class.
Polar Bear10030-50Very big and very white. Can get up to 100 pounds. As a cucurbita maxima (most pumpkins are cucurbita pepo), it’s more of a hubbard or kabocha squash, so the handle is more spongy. It’s also high-yielding, as maximas are known for their vigor.
Cinnamon Girl PMR853-5Best pie pumpkin, with smooth texture and neutral flavor. Perfect size for pie or for use as a small decorative pumpkin.
Pipsqueak PMR5Little upright pumpkin. Long, whimsical handles with a nice green color contrast to the orange skin. Bright orange color with fine ribbing.
Shiver1001.5-2.5Beautiful white tabletop pumpkin. Snowball size, with a proper handle. Excellent color retention. Bush habit.
One of the pumpkins Johnny’s didn’t mention is Blaze, a new addition for them in 2021. Blaze pumpkins are growing vigorously in our garden, with high yields and gorgeous colors. This is a photo from mid-June; the pumpkins are already beginning to ripen.

A Sneak Peek at New Varieties for 2022

Johnny’s also gave webinar attendees a sneak peek at two new varieties coming in 2022. These are:

  • Duchess – a medium round pumpkin with heavy, narrow ribs. Duchess weights 19-21 pounds, has excellent yields for its size class and excellent uniformity. Its ribs and intense orange color stand out in the low-angle light of autumn.
  • Jack of Hearts – a small, blocky jack-o-lantern style pumpkin with a mighty handle. Cannon-ball size, about 6-7 pounds in weight. Jack of Hearts has a unique appearance with narrow ribs, rich color and a star-shaped stem attachment. In trials it’s proving to be a great size for kids to carry out of a U-Pick field.
Jarrahdale pumpkins do extremely well in our Southern California garden.

Growing Pumpkins in San Diego

When it came to Q&A time, I was pretty quick to type in my questions, primarily about pumpkin-growing in San Diego. Johnny’s is located in Maine, which has a very different climate than ours, and so I wanted to understand how to adapt some of the information they were offering to zones 9 and 10. Here’s what I learned:

  • Generally in the south (across the southern part of the U.S.), pumpkins don’t grow as large. They suggested subtracting 10-15% of the weight that they publish on their website/in their catalogs to predict pumpkin size and weight of the same variety grown in San Diego.
  • They noted that they trial pumpkins in a number of locations around the country and that most pumpkins they offer should do well throughout the U.S. However, they also have anecdotal reports of Cargo, Gumdrop, Pipsqueak and Renegade doing well across the southern U.S.
  • They also said that maximas tend to set fruit better across the southern U.S. These include Cinderella pumpkins and one of my favorites, Jarrahdale. Jarrahdale is not an F1 hybrid, so it hasn’t been bred for powdery mildew resistance. However, it’s done extremely well in our garden last year and this year, my first two years of really trying to grow pumpkins.

One More Tip

One interesting tip that came out of the webinar: you don’t need pumpkins to make pumpkin pie. In fact, the growers at Johnny’s prefer to use butternut squash. The sweetness of the pie doesn’t come from the pumpkin; it comes from the added sugar. So if you don’t need to worry about sweetness, you want to focus on finding a squash with smooth texture, and butternut squash has great texture.

I’m so thankful that Johnny’s and other growers and breeders are working on continuing to develop pumpkins. I love them and scream with glee every time I see one emerge on a vine in our garden. Good luck with your pumpkin-growing this season!