Insects and Pumpkins, Not Always a Happy Pair

Bees in my organic garden.

If you want to grow pumpkins organically, you might be tempted to think otherwise really quickly. There are organic methods that work, but the bugs that infect or damage are some of the most challenging around.

By the nature of the long growing season of hot, dry weather, pumpkins face an uphill battle from the start. Also at this time, insects start to think about depositing their young. Fungal and foliar disease of Cucurbits is pretty common too if the evenings cool and are wet. Leaf Spot and Downy Mildew are two examples.

One thing pumpkins need is a lot of fertility, especially a good supply of nitrogen and potassium. They prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline soil, but one not past pH 7.5. They need compost soils that are well draining. These optimal conditions are made for rapid new growth, prime for hungry, growing garden pests.

A borer larvae is in the stem of the pumpkin. This was a shot taken early evening, forgive the graininess. The larvae is about 3/8 inch long and hard to photograph by hand.

A little known fact is that ….

A single pumpkin flower needs to get eight to twelve visits from bees or other pollinating insects in order to set fruit. Adequate pollination is one of biggest hurdles that pumpkin growers must face, because pumpkin flowers are only fertile for one day before they drop. The small pumpkin above still has the dried flower attached. On female flowers, the fruit forms right below the flower.

Think about that one for a minute,  to accomplish pollination, each flower needs a gang of pollinators before the flower is shriveled by the next day. See the image to the left?

If you provide a haven for bees with a wide selection of flowering plants in an organic garden, half your battle may be won. I do not use pesticides or herbicides, and have a large variety of insects visiting, both good and bad.

The trick is to encourage the good insects to control those less desirable. Many predatory wasps (predatory in that they hunt out other species, often paralyzed, to feed to the larvae) are in my garden, and most pest insects have at least one wasp species (of the over 100,000 species that exist) that preys on it. Parasitic wasps are critically important in natural control for many agriculture crops. The adults feed on nectar, and are therefore  good pollinators too. Predatory flies also contribute, so I can be unsure of what insect is helping out my pumpkin, but the pumpkin is doing well despite some damage, like seen below.

But can you keep pumpkins without spraying insecticides for Squash Bugs, Striped or Spotted Cucumber Beetles, and Squash Vine Borers? With a bit of work, you can. I did no work for my pumpkin and the plant did get the Spotted Cucumber beetle below. Also, in the second image of the post,  the borer larvae. But as I mentioned, other insects must be helping out because damage is minimal for having no insect control on my part.

Typically, four things help in keeping pumpkins healthy and insects to a minimum:

  • Keep them out of the wind.
  • Use floating row cover.
  • Rotate crops year to year.
  • Keep the garden neat and clean.

These steps aid in keeping disease and insect damage down. The only problem with row cover, is the balance of adequate insect pollinators to pest insect control. It is necessary to keep the row cover on until the pumpkin plants start to flower, but that is no guarantee. If you really want to insure growing pumpkins, the row cover must be pulled in the early morning for the pollinators, and returned for the rest of the day to ward off pest insects. It is work for sure.

So how am I faring with my pumpkin, the one I did not plant, but grew on its own?  Well, finding out stuff for sure.

The sad, dead bee above was something I noticed by accident. I was checking to see if flowers were male or female, and by opening those that shriveled and closed, out popped a couple of bees. I found that bees get trapped inside the shriveled flowers and have no escape if sealed in the sticky flower. That is what happened to the bee above. It was literally cooked alive in the heat. Below, the smart bee is making an exit.

But honestly, my pumpkin is doing pretty well growing on its own in a tub of partially decomposed compost. It has three white pumpkins (variety could be Lumina or Snowman) one big, and two small. Keeping it alive in this heat is a challenge, because I did not even water it until recently.

Oh, I Love Those Bees!!!

I decided to keep it for all the bees that it was attracting. There are many bees in the garden, and many plants that they really adore.

Here is one of the pumpkins comfortably resting on a bed of boxwood.

Here is a bee liking what she has found. Nothing like showing your appreciation!

The pumpkin flowers are really large and pretty. They have interesting form in every stage.

Oh, so prickly and green, but it opens…..

The boxwood is supporting the flowers on the vines as they weave around the garden. Did you know that male flowers grow on longer stems?

The leaves are very big, over a foot across.

Does this bee not look like it is warning me to stay away?

Or this one, checking me out. I showed these two bees in other posts, but these are different views. They look like bee art to me, so I had to show them again.

The flowers are very hairy and the hairs are quite prickly on the stems. Use gloves when tending your pumpkin.

Here you can see the pumpkin plant weaving through the bed. It is growing from one of my three-foot diameter, black tree growers pots that is used to make compost. The compost in this pot was not yet decomposed. It is full of leaves, kitchen scraps and grass clippings.

The pumpkins are nested in the boxwood, and the largest one, sits on a clay saucer slightly raised above the ground. Make sure to locate your pumpkin directly off the ground because pumpkins are susceptible to rot.  I carefully repositioned it because it was getting too heavy and flattening the boxwood. The other two, when larger, will also be moved.

This is a shot of the uncomposted debris. See, I have spiders helping on insect patrol too. This is the home of a wolf spider above. Below a few very tiny garden spiders in amongst the pumpkins and Hydrangea.

Tiny Huh? You gotta love nature, little predators and all!

Droopy leaves? The 97° day is to blame. The pumpkin is sitting on a 8 inch saucer. The pumpkin weighs about eight or nine pounds.

I have grown many types of squash from the Family Cucurbitaceae, before, but never pumpkins. I never had the room, and it is recommended to give them plenty of room for the health of the plant. And in my case… the health of all the surrounding plants.

As a master gardener, I give advice on growing vegetables, and the way I am growing and caring for my pumpkin is not the way I would counsel others to try. But it is good to know that nature fends for herself in many ways that really don’t need human intervention.

A new trend in vegetable gardening is cohabiting your veggies with your ornamental garden plants. I did it last year, using colorful lettuces as a border edge. I mixed in tomatoes and peppers right in with the perennials.

But, I would not suggest a pumpkin.

The vine tendrils are strangling some of the flowers, but no worries here because the lilies and Monarda will sprout unharmed next year, and the Boxwood is being tended to. To the left, the tendrils constricted the Monarda in half. They are tenacious.

Ideas for the harvest???

Ideas for holidays???

On a less serious note, I am just having way too much fun with my white pumpkin than any gardener should have, and pumpkins are yummy too. White pumpkins have sweeter meat for baking than the orange varieties, so I have heard.  It will be worth a try.

Recipe at: And We Have Pie and Much More

Our next Open Garden Walk Garden on Wednesday will be a pretty one not far from the one with the towering trees in the town of Williamsville. It is in a sunnier location, but like the garden in the woods, has many paths through the rear yard, making the garden feel much larger than it is in reality.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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37 Responses to Insects and Pumpkins, Not Always a Happy Pair

  1. A.M.B. says:

    My four-year-old daughters really liked these pictures! They planted tomatoes for the first time this summer and have been fascinated by the bees (although sadly, one of my girls was stung three times a few weeks ago and is now afraid to hang around the plants!).

  2. Karen says:

    Wow! Never knew that growing pumpkins was so complicated. I will appreciate my Jack O’Lantern even more this year. Great photos as always.

  3. Bom says:

    Haha! I think you’ve disuaded from growing organic pumpkins. Just kidding. Not a lot of pumpkins locally, they are actually sold special. Do you also cook your flowers? We have more squash and zucchini here and usually cook the flowers as fritters of as a vegetable stew.

  4. Indie says:

    Mmm.. pumpkin pie! Oh, how I can’t wait for fall!
    I also have a couple pumpkin plants that have grown on their own, thanks to me burying last fall’s pumpkins for compost in one of my beds. I’ve been neglecting it, but the plants have still managed to assert themselves quite a bit! (Thankfully they are in an empty part of the flower bed.) No pumpkins yet though. That is interesting that it needs so many pollinators.

    • They are kinda like tomatoes and pop up in the darnedest places. I was surprised to find out that they needed so many pollinators too. I just read it not long ago, but noticed how many bees are on each flower all day long. It is always a crowd.

  5. Anarya Andir says:

    Stunning photographs – as usual 🙂

  6. Barbie says:

    This is SUCH an amazing post! THank you so much. I will read through it carefully!! It is a big problem here too!

  7. Andrea says:

    I am very familiar with cucurbits and we have some squash yearly in our property. If we don’t get plenty of female flowers, we hand pollinate them. I taught mother how to do that and my nephew does it as a matter of play, so every female flower get fertilized, however worms usually get them ahead of us, so they don’t mature well. We also dont use pesticide or fertilizers, so they protect themselves. By the way, i didn’t think that a closed green squash flower can be so lovely, if it is from your camera. I also have lots of opened yellow flowers and tendrils, but my lens cannot get the bees!

    • They are really easy to pollinate yourself, but on a large scale, like at the huge pumpkin farms that I have shown before, that would not be so feasible I think. But this year, I am going to ask them about this. Also, about insects and disease. Maybe they just go on quantity and acceptable loss, that or spray.

  8. bee1designs/Barbara Evans says:

    Love ‘Spider-2’!

  9. im in love with your bee shots, totaly great photography work

  10. b-a-g says:

    I’ve heard of hand-pollinating pumpkins by transferring pollen from the male flower to the female but I’ve never tried it. The pumpkins on your dining table look beautiful.

    • Thanks for adding that. I should have mentioned it in the post, but I really was thinking more large scale with the big pumpkin growers and how they must handle pollination. My pumpkin would have been fine with no pumpkins as I was only letting it grow for the bees.

  11. I actually have had to hand pollinate if the pollinators are not active. I found they became more active and I had no problems once the female flowers opened. Of course that is a challenge on these hot nights. I love growing pumpkins just for the flowers and the pollinators.

    • I figured you would pollinate yourself if nature was not cooperating. But getting female flowers this year has been the problem. What I hear is there is less being produced. An abundance of male flowers seems to be the norm. I was lucky to have three pumpkins develop on one plant it seems.

  12. The last time I grew pumpkins, my kids were really little. They were fascinated by how big they were. I have a cantaloupe that came up between two shrubs in the front garden. I’m looking forward to harvest. 🙂

  13. Nicole says:

    I like the new layout of your blog! Very nice! The pictures of the bees are just fascinating! And your pumpkin is so great!!!! Like the fall decor ideas too!

  14. Love the up and close photos – thanks for sharing:)

  15. I know nothing about organic pumpkins 🙂 but your photos are perfect!

  16. Denise says:

    Bees art indeed!

  17. Love your bees, those are some amazing photos. We have squash vine borers creating issues here. Another Master Gardener and I are doing on site clinics in neighborhoods…the bores were a big topic.
    Love those white pumpkins…would be a lot of fun to decorate with them…and cook with as well.

    • Funny how quick they found my one pumpkin plant. I have not had squash here for years. I did not use any protection either, so I guess I was lucky the plants are not ruined by the borers.

  18. Is that Peponapis pruinosa in there! I love the squash bees!

    • Thank you so much. I never knew there was a Squash Bee. I looked it up immediately online and was surprised to see them all over squash flowers. I did see Carpenter Bees go inside the flowers along with much smaller sweat bees and flies. But that gang of Peponapis pruinosa really astounded me. I never remember so many of them on any other squash I grew at home or even at the farm, where all kinds of squash was planted, even pumpkins. My pumpkin was only allowed to grow for the bees, and an update, more squash beetles, Spotted and Striped have arrived. Luckily, the three pumpkins are all about 12 inches across and ready to pick. It is bug heaven out there. The spiders are picking off leaf hoppers left and right. One of the spiders, I have an image of the leaf hopper flapping to no avail. Too bad it was a bit blurry, what drama. Thanks again, I really learned something today.

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