All the Halloween jack-o-lanterns may be heading to the compost pile, but it's by no means the end of pumpkin season. These bright orange fruits -- which they are, botanically speaking, at least -- are a treasured part of many folks' Thanksgiving celebrations. Whether or not the Pilgrims consumed it at the first Thanksgiving feast, pumpkin pie has become a enduring part of many a holiday meal. But pumpkins are for more than just carving and pies. Their sweet flesh can be used in many dishes, from bread to soup -- even pumpkin ravioli! And pumpkins deliver great nutrition as well, being loaded with the healthful antioxidant beta-carotene, as well as fiber, Vitamin C, and other nutrients. So plan now to have a prime patch of pumpkins next summer for both seasonal decorations and some tasty eating.
In choosing what varieties of pumpkin to plant, your first decision will be whether you plan to carve or eat them. Varieties bred for size are great for jack-o-lanterns, but their flesh is often tough and stringy. Smaller varieties, called sugar or pie pumpkins, have tender flesh that provides the best eating.
If you are interested in trying to grow a record-setting pumpkin, be sure to select a variety that's been specially bred to size up to mammoth proportions. And pumpkins are not limited to the color orange anymore. Varieties with ghostly white skins will add a eerie dimension to your Halloween decorating.
Here's a sampling of our panoply of pumpkins for eating, carving, decorating, and prize winning:
'Halloween or Jack-o-lantern' (100 days) - The name says it all. Perfect for carving, these medium-size pumpkins are bright orange with thick, firm flesh.
'Howden' (115 days) - The fruits of this heavy yielder average about 20 pounds, are a deep, rich orange color, and keep well.
'Mammoth Gold' (105 days) - These nearly round, faintly ribbed fruits are golden orange and are suited to both decorating and pie making.
'Small Sugar' (115 days) - The 6 to 8 pound, deep orange fruits are prized for pie making and other culinary uses.
'Jack Be Little' (95 days) - A high yielder that produces true midget pumpkins small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
'Big Max' (120 days) - Producing fruits in the 50 to 70 pound range, this is a great choice for winning prizes, but its thick, yellow-orange flesh is also good in pies.
'Little October' (95-100 days) - This miniature pumpkin averages 8-12 ounces, with a round to semi-flat shape and a deep, burnt orange color.
Pumpkins do best in light, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0-6.8 that's been enriched with lots of organic matter. And they like it warm, so wait until the soil is at least 60 degrees F before planting, usually a week or two after the last spring frost date. Gardeners in cooler climates can get plants off to a faster start by spreading black plastic to warm the soil for a couple of weeks before planting time.
They can also get a bit of a head start by starting seeds early indoors in peat pots 2 to 3 weeks before the last frost date. Pumpkin seedlings grow quickly and young vines transplant best, so don't start seeds indoors any earlier.
For most gardeners, direct seeding gives the best results for the least effort. You can either plant seeds in "hills" (which are not actually raised), sowing 4-6 seeds in a circle about a foot across and thinning to the two strongest vines, or in rows, spacing plants 3-5 feet apart in the row and allowing at least 8 feet between rows. When growing semi-bush varieties, plants can be spaced 1-3 feet apart in rows 4 feet apart.
Place row covers over newly seeded or transplanted pumpkins to keep out pests such as cucumber beetles and squash bugs, but be sure to remove them when the plants begin to flower so bees can get in for pollination.
Make sure your vines get consistent water throughout the season. An organic mulch such as straw will keep weeds down and help conserve soil moisture. Keep vines vigorous with a dose of soluble fertilizer such as fish emulsion every few weeks.
To help keep your vines in bounds and encourage pumpkins to mature faster, you can pinch off the tips of the vines after they have set fruit. As your pumpkins grow, you may want to carefully rotate them so they develop a symmetrical shape.
Harvest pumpkins when they have developed their mature coloration and the rind is tough enough that you can't dent it with your thumbnail. Cut pumpkins from the vine, leaving a 2-5 inch stem. Pick them before a hard frost, especially if you plan on storing them for more than about a month. For the longest storage, cure pumpkins by keeping them in a warm (85 degrees F), humid spot for 10 days. Wipe the pumpkins with a 10% solution of household bleach to kill mold spores, then store in a cool (50-55 degrees F), well-ventilated spot.
You may not break the world record, which stands at a whopping 1810.5 pounds as of October 2010, on your first try. But here are some tips to get you started growing a behemoth.
Start with seeds of a variety bred to grow extra large, like 'Dill's Atlantic Giant'.
Give your plants a head start by sowing seeds early indoors in peat pots.
Give vines adequate space to develop. Each plant of a giant pumpkin needs about 2500 square feet of garden space.
Beef up the soil in the pumpkin patch with lots of compost and work a granular fertilizer into the soil a few days before setting out your transplants.
Once fruits have set, begin feeding with a soluble fertilizer high in nitrogen every couple of weeks.
Giant pumpkin vines are thirsty. Make sure they get about an inch of water a week consistently throughout the season. Use drip irrigation or water in the morning so foliage is dry by nightfall.
Let each vine initially set 4 to 6 fruits. When fruits reach the size of volleyballs, select the best one on each vine and remove the rest.
Carefully clip the roots that form at the nodes along the stem three feet out from the stem end of the fruit. This will let the vine move upward as the pumpkin grows in size, reducing the likelihood of stem splitting.
Shade the developing pumpkin with burlap. This keeps the rind from hardening too soon and allows the fruit to expand as much as growing conditions and its genetic potential allow.
Q: I grew gourds to use for fall decorations. How do I preserve them?
A: Start by harvesting your gourds when they are fully mature. Check that the stems and the tendrils growing from them are both dry and the surface of the gourds is hard. Try to harvest before frost hits. Carefully cut the gourds from the vine, leaving a few inches of stem, treating them gently so as not to bruise them. Remember that uncured gourds are heavy, so don't pick them up by their stems, which might break off. Wash the shells with a disinfectant solution of 1/2 cup of white vinegar or bleach in 2 quarts of water to remove dirt and fungi. Then spread the gourds out on a raised screen in a dry, well-ventilated spot, making sure they don't touch one another. Turn them regularly as they dry. Drying time will depend on the size of the gourd, but usually takes at least 4 weeks for thin-shelled gourds, even longer for hard-shelled ones. You'll be able to hear the seeds rattle inside the gourd and it will feel lightweight when it is completely dry. After the gourd is dry, clean the surface with rubbing alcohol, let it dry, then seal with floor wax or paint, if desired.