Pumpkin Fruit Set and Fruit Retention

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Pumpkins have become an important income source for many Delmarva vegetable growers including u-pick, local sales and regional wholesale.

Each year we see pumpkin fields with poor fruit set or fruit retention. In larger pumpkin sizes, each plant will normally carry 1-2 fruits. The large vining plants also need considerable space – 25 to 50 square feet per plant. While planting jack-o’-lantern types at higher densities might at first seem to be a way to achieve higher yields, interplant competition will increase and you can decrease fruit retention because of this competition. Matching pumpkin types with space requirements is very important to optimize fruit set.

A major reason for poor fruit set is high temperatures during flowering in July. Day temperatures in the 90s or night temperatures in the high 70s will cause flower and small fruit abortion. For pumpkin growers that do wholesale and start shipping right after Labor Day, this will limit early pumpkin availability. Varieties vary considerably in their ability to tolerate heat and to set under hot conditions. Inadequate irrigation and excessive water stress can also reduce fruit set, increase abortions, and reduce fruit retention. High temperatures and water stress reduce photosynthesis and the ability of the plant to carry fruits. Drought can also cause a higher than normal male/female flower ratio, thus affecting the amount of fruit per plant.

Another major factor that will reduce fruit set is poor pollination. Misshapen fruit can also result from inadequate pollination. A pumpkin plant has both male and female flowers and the first female flower opens one week after the first male opens. The flowers only last a few hours, blooming at dawn and closing later in the morning but well before noon. Pollinators need to be active during this short period.

Native pollinators can be very effective in pollinating pumpkins and some research has shown that most of the fruit set is occurring because of these native pollinators. Bumblebees and squash bees are native bees active in pumpkins. The squash bee is of particular interest because it has evolved along with pumpkins and squash in the Americas and is dependent on pollen from pumpkin and squash plants.

Other research has shown that honeybees do provide additional pollination benefits above what native pollinators are providing. In research from Illinois, Walters and Taylor found that while pumpkin fruit number was not increased with the addition of honeybees, pumpkin weights and size were increased significantly. Research has shown that 10-15 visits by honeybees transferring 1200 pollen grains will result in full fruit set.

Too much available nitrogen can also delay pumpkin fruit set so that many of the pumpkins that are produced do not reach maturity in time. Pumpkins do not normally need more than 80 lbs/acre N to grow a crop. Fertilizing above 100 lbs/acre N may cause the pumpkins to put on excessive vine growth and delay fruiting.