What are pepitas? Pepitas are the nutritious edible seeds from thinner-skinned hulless pumpkins. The difference between pumpkin seeds and pepita seeds is not just the seeds, but the pumpkin itself. Although they're both members of the cucurbit family, pepita seeds are smaller than pumpkin seeds and don't have the hard, white outer coating that regular pumpkin seeds have, but removing the outer covering from pumpkin seeds doesn't make them pepitas. The name pepita is part of "pepita de calabaza". Pepita means "little seed" or "nugget", in Spanish and "calabaza" means squash or pumpkin, so the name translates to "little seed of pumpkin". Pepita seeds, like pumpkin seeds, contain healthy fats as well as protein, fiber, potassium, iron and zinc, and an array of beneficial plant compounds known as phytosterols.
As mentioned, pepita pumpkins are different than regular pumpkins so you'll need to look for a particular type of pumpkin seed. Some pepita pumpkin names are Lady Godiva, Naked Bear, Williams Naked Seeded, and Styrian Hulless. The pumpkins we grew are called Kakai Hulless and came from High Mowing seeds. Some search terms to use to find pepita pumpkins are: hulless pumpkins, naked seed pumpkins, oilseed pumpkins, and Styrian pumpkins.
All pumpkins need a fair amount of space, full sun, and well-drained soil. The normal spacing for pumpkins is three to four feet between plants and five to six feet between rows. The bed you see below is 20' x 4' and has two pumpkins plants in it, but there was easily room for one more plant. They usually have a seed to harvest time frame of 90 to 110 days, but we can attest that's not always accurate. Pumpkins need a good amount of water (about a gallon each week) so they'll need to be watered if there's not enough rain. We had a blistering hot and dry summer this year by Northeast standards so we watered the pumpkins at least twice a week. Pumpkins are normally heavy feeders but this was our first time growing pepita pumpkins and whenever we grow an unfamiliar crop we keep fertilizing to a bare minimum, preferring to see how well the crop does on its own. The raised bed was prepped in mid-April with Happy Frog All-Purpose 5-5-5- fertilizer, and after the pumpkins were transplanted, they received one application of Neptune Harvest Fish Emulsion at the three week mark. That's the only fertilizing the plants received. Almost all plants benefit from mulch and we use straw for all our plants not just the pumpkins, and the straw kept the pumpkins clean and up off the soil as they grew.
The Kakai Hulless seed pack said 100 days and since we're in the cool Northeast (Zone 5), we normally add ten days to the harvest time of any long-season heat-loving crop like tomatoes and cucumbers (and pumpkins). The pumpkin seeds were started in 3" seed packs on May 18th, transplanted outside on June 9th, and were cut off the vine on August 7th and 9th. That's only 82 days instead of the 110-120 days we were expecting. The problem that arose from the early harvest time was curing the pepita seeds for storage. The plan was to use a dehydrator for half the seeds and toast/roast the other half. We have an Excalibur dehydrator that works really well, but the middle of August is still very hot and humid and we don't have any air conditioning, so the seeds didn't dehydrate as well as they normally would have. Turning on the oven to roast the seeds simply was not an option given the excessively hot summer, so the pepita seeds were toasted and not roasted. The next time we grow pepitas, we'll definitely start them later in the season. The image below shows the growth of the pumpkins from the end of June to harvesting on August 7th.
Like most cucurbits, the pumpkins were bothered by several pests to the point that we had to keep them under row cover almost the entire season. We transplanted them outside on June 9th, covered them for a few days to help with transplant shock because the nights are still quite cool in early June, then planned on leaving them uncovered for the rest of the season. The cucumber beetles and Japanese beetles descended the first week in July and we were picking off 12-15 beetles every morning, so we had to put the row cover back on after less than three weeks. We used Agribon AG-15 which is more of an insect barrier than row cover, and it helped lessen heat retention.
Even with the row cover on, it took another week or two to finally get the beetles out of the bed and off the plants. Spraying any of our crops is not an option so crop rotation and sanitation are important. The last time cucurbits (cucumbers) were grown was three years ago in a different bed, and once the cucumbers were harvested for the season the roots and foliage were taken to the municipal compost pile, not put into our compost pile. All the foliage and roots from the pumpkins this season also went to the municipal compost pile. There were no issues with squash borers or squash bugs, but was that probably due to the row cover. Cucumber beetles can spread disease but we caught the infestation early enough so there weren't any problems with disease, and although the pumpkins ended up a bit smaller than expected, they were healthy.
Keeping the plants under row cover meant we had to hand pollinate the pumpkins, but we've done that before with cucumbers so it wasn't really an issue, and was preferable to witnessing the damage from the beetles. If you've never hand pollinated a crop before, the Missouri Botanical Garden has a good tutorial with pictures, and YouTube probably has a few videos. We used both methods - a very soft paintbrush as well as stripping off the petals from the male flower and 'painting' the female flower. Hand pollinating pumpkins is as much about timing as it is about proper technique because the female flowers are only open for a short period (about 24 hours) so you'll need to check the plants daily once they start to flower.
It was relatively easy to figure out when the Kakai pumpkins were ripening because they start out light green, turn darker green as they grow, and the orange stripes get more pronounced and darker as the pumpkin matures. A few other clues are when the pumpkins stop increasing in size, they lose some of their glossy sheen, and the foliage starts to die back. Once they're ready to harvest, cut the pumpkins off the vine leaving as much stem as possible on the pumpkins. Pumpkins need some time to cure once they've been cut - anywhere from a few days to a few weeks depending on the size of the pumpkin and the weather. Our pumpkins were small so they were left in the raised bed for about a week, still under row cover. If the weather had been cooler they would have needed more curing time. The image below shows the pepita pumpkin size and color on July 7th (left), and again on August 7th (right).
Getting the pepita seeds out of the pumpkin was very easy. Just cut the top as you would a regular Halloween pumpkin to make it easier to slice the pumpkin in half, then scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Once the pulp and seeds are in a bowl, pick up a section of pulp, and pop the pepita seeds into another bowl. It sounds tedious but it goes quickly. There shouldn't be too much pulp in the bowl, but the seeds will be kind of slippery so they'll need to be rinsed several times. Once the seeds were clean, they were put on a clean tea towel to dry for a few hours before being toasted. The image below shows some of the raw pepita seeds and the sliced pumpkin.
The pepita seeds are easy to toast on the stove top. You don't need to use a cast iron skillet but it should be a fairly heavy pan for even heat distribution. We used our regular Calphalon Contemporary 10" pan - it's so old that the nonstick coating is no longer non-stick and it's like a lightweight cast iron skillet. Put the pepita seeds into the pan over medium or medium low heat - you don't need to add any oil. Don't crowd the pan or the seeds won't toast well. Once they start to swell, start to give them an occasional stir or shake the pan. A few of the seeds should start to pop, and if they jump out of the pan lower the heat a little and keep shaking or stirring the pepitas until they're evenly toasted. It only takes maybe ten minutes, so keep an eye on the seeds or else they'll burn.
Here's a video that follows the pepita pumpkin growing season: