When you think of pumpkins, you probably picture jagged-toothed jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies. But the versatile pumpkin has far more going for it than these traditional uses. Pumpkin is delicious raw, baked, boiled, and stir-fried. The hollowed-out shells make perfect baking and serving containers; the seeds and meat can be dried and ground into flour or eaten as a snack. Best of all, growing pumpkins is incredibly easy.
When I was growing up, there were two kinds of pumpkin. The smaller ones had firm flesh and made delicious pies. The larger ones had stringy, watery meat and were good only for carving into jack-o'-lanterns. Today, we recognize a wider variety, including: the giant pumpkin, a huge, orange-colored winter squash and Australia's blue-skinned Queensland pumpkin (both C. maxima ); the deep South's tan-colored big cheese pumpkin (C. moschata); and the Southwest's green-striped Cushaw (C. mixta). Sizes range from miniatures that will fit in the palm of your hand to record-breakers large enough to carve into a child's play house.
According to leading expert Glenn Drowns of Iowa, the true pumpkin is Curcubita pepo. The Curcubita family includes all varieties of winter and summer squash as well as pumpkins. Pepo, the true pumpkin, comes from the Greek pepon, meaning "ripened by the sun." This pumpkin was introduced by Indians to the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. As the early settlers moved into areas unfavorable to the growth of C. pepo, they had troubles getting their pumpkin seeds to grow. So they looked for something similar that would grow, and called it a "pumpkin."
Among true pumpkins alone, you'll find plenty of variety. Miniature pumpkins like Little Lantern and Jack Be Little are only three inches across, making them perfect for single servings and holiday centerpieces. The miniature Baby Boo and the standard-size Lumina are unusual in having pearly white skin. The carving pumpkin, Autumn Gold, turns golden before it's fully ripe, making it ideal where the growing season is short. Naked-seed pumpkins like Triple Treat and Lady Godiva produce seeds without hulls—a handy trait if you like snacking on fresh toasted pumpkin seeds but don't enjoy cracking shells between your teeth.
Not only are pumpkins varied and versatile, but as garden plants they offer both easy rewards for the novice and challenging demands for the expert. If you're worried about saving space in your garden, here are a few tips: Grow pumpkins together with corn; grow a bush variety requiring as little as 1/3 the space of a vining type—you'll get fewer pumpkins per plant, but they will be of normal size; or trellis a small- to medium-size variety, tying heavier fruits in slings fashioned from stretchy hosiery so they won't break off the vine.
Pumpkins need full sun, protection from wind, and rich, well-drained soil. Seeds sprout best in 70°F soil but rot quickly in cooler soil. If your growing season is short, give your pumpkins a jumpstart by planting seeds indoors, moving plants outside after the danger of frost has passed. Use individual pots to minimize root disturbance when you transplant. But don't start your seeds more than a month before you plan to set them out. Pumpkins grow fast—if plants become root-bound, they won't do well when transplanted.
To prepare your soil for planting, dig it to a depth of eight inches and work in a generous amount of compost or rotted manure. Then plant pumpkins either in rows or in hills. For rows, space plants four feet apart (two feet for bush varieties); space rows at least eight feet apart (five feet for bush). When planting seeds, put them one inch deep and six to 12 inches apart, thinning as the strongest plants emerge.
Hills, which are flat mounds of heaped dirt with a depression at the center, should be at least 10 feet apart (four feet for bush varieties). Plant six seeds per hill, thinning to no more than three plants when seedlings are two inches high. Each vine will grow to a diameter of 12 to 25 feet, overlapping and shading out weeds. Minimize weed growth and dried soil by spreading a generous layer of clean straw or other mulch.
One of intriguing aspects about pumpkins is that each plant has both male and female flowers, requiring cross-pollination.
If you have plenty of bees around, they'll do the trick. Otherwise, hand pollinate: Pick a male blossom (one without a round bulge at its base) and rub the center against that of a female blossom (one with a baby-pumpkin bulge).
Pumpkins require 90 to 120 days to mature. Ideal growing temperatures are 80°F to 85°F days and 60°F to 65°F nights. Plants also need lots of water. In areas of low rainfall, water thoroughly at least once a week.
Competitive gardening is big business. Prizes for giant pumpkins run as high as $10,000, and seeds from a record-breaker are worth as much as $25 each.
Ed Gancarz of Wrightstown, New Jersey holds the world record with his 816.5-pounder. Like most competitive growers, Gancarz plants the maxima, Atlantic Giant. The rest of us would be happy with 100 to 400 pound maximas such as Big Max and Big Moon, or with Prizewinner—Burpee offers an annual $10,000 prize for the largest Prizewinner over 500 pounds. Whenever you grow pumpkins for competition, find out whether or not the rules allow you to enter a maxima. Bringing the wrong kind of pumpkin can get you disqualified.
As you might expect, prima donna pumpkins need plenty of pampering. Space plants up to 50 feet apart, apply fertilizer, and water in copious quantities. When fruits reach the size of baseballs, remove all but one from each runner. When they reach basketball size, remove all but one from each plant, selecting one that's at least four feet from the center of the vine so it won't yank out its own roots later on.
Remove any new pumpkins so they don't rob nutrients from the Big One. Bury the tips of new growth to encourage auxiliary root growth. The more roots the plant has, the better it can feed the little monster, which should put on at least five pounds a day throughout August and September.
The biggest challenges in growing these giants are avoiding splitting and transporting the bulky pumpkin to the competition. Even the pros scratch their heads over what causes splitting—it seems to be a matter of bad luck. As for moving your pride and joy, the World Pumpkin Federation offers tarps with eight handles to help you carry it—with a gang of friends of course.
The chief insect pests are vine borer, squash bug, and cucumber beetle. Diseases run the gamut from bacteria and viruses to fungi. Control bacteria and viruses by controlling insects. Minimize fungal attacks by watering only in the morning and applying water to the soil, not the leaves.
The vine borer, a fat, white caterpillar, burrows into a stem and destroys it. Evidence of its existence is a small hole at the stem's base and a pile of greenish saw dust beneath it. To control borers, destroy their egg clusters. If a borer gets by you, inject the stem base with predatory nematodes or Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Or split open the stem, remove the borer, and bury the slit part to encourage new root growth. If a vine doesn't revive, remove it.
Squash bugs are easy to recognize by their shield shapes and the triangular design on their fiat backs. They suck juices from leaves, causing them to dry out and turn black. Look for reddish egg clusters under leaves and destroy them. If bugs become too numerous to control, apply sabadilla dust to leaves.
The cucumber beetle, about 1/4-inch long, may be yellow or orange, striped or spotted. They transmit bacteria and viruses while moving from plant to plant. Spread diatomaceous earth around the plants' bases to kill larvae emerging from the soil. If they persist, dust with rotenone. Destroy old vines at the end of each season to discourage beetles from overwintering.
As pumpkins mature, vines die back, fruits turn from yellow to bright orange, and rinds harden. Leave the pumpkins on the vine until just before the first hard frost. Pick your pumpkins with at least a two-inch stem. Cut, rather than break, them from the vine and they will keep better. Take care not to bruise them, which leads to early decay.
For cooking, I look for a pumpkin with firm, sweet flesh, usually found in varieties with "sugar" in their names—Small Sugar, Sweet Sugar, Sugar Pie. Glenn the expert, on the other hand, swears by Winter Luxury. This proves that when it comes to pumpkins, there's something for everyone.
At the annual Pumpkin Festival in Morton, Illinois (Pumpkin Capital of the World), you can sample pumpkin pie, ice cream, pancakes, and even chili. If you'd like to create your own, here's a few to get you started.
Pumpkin purée is easy to make, contains about 80 calories per cup, and is high in potassium and Vitamin A.
First, wash the pumpkin, cut it in half, and scrape out the seeds. Place the halves in a baking pan, cut side down, with about an inch of water.
Bake them at 350°F until tender, one to two hours depending on their size. To speed things up, quarter the pumpkin and microwave it—cover cut sizes with plastic wrap, place pieces on a paper towel, and heat on high for about 20 minutes, rearranging them every four minutes.
The meat is done when it can be easily pierced with a fork. Scrape it from the rind and mash it or whirl it smooth in a food processor. If you have more purée than you can use in six days, pack it into plastic containers and freeze it for up to a year. Pumpkin purée goes well with any meal, heated with a little butter or brown sugar.
Any time you clean out a pumpkin, separate the seeds from the fibrous pulp, dry them, and spread them on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Sprinkle them with a little salt, if you wish, and bake them at 250°F for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
This variation of an old favorite comes from Pumpkin Happy, a hand-lettered booklet by Erik Knud-Hansen, available from Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
2 cups pumpkin purée
4 cups stock (meat or vegetable)
2 stalks celery, chopped finely
1/2 teaspoon salt or 2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup heavy (or sour) cream
Combine pumpkin, stock, celery, onion, and seasoning in a sauce pan. Simmer over low heat 1/2 to 1 hour, stirring often. Just before serving, stir in cream and reheat; do not boil. Serve garnished with tomato, parsley, and paprika. If desired, pour a little wine or sherry on top.
The jack-o'-lantern dates back to the days of Jack the Irishman, who, as punishment for playing pranks on the Devil, was sentenced to wander the world carrying a lantern to light his way. Any pumpkin is good carving material, provided it's big enough for your design, has enough structural strength to withstand carving, and has a flat bottom to stand on.
Begin by cutting a lid. Carve a circle around the stem, angling your knife or pumpkin-carving saw toward the center so the lid won't fall inward. Scrape out the seeds and fibrous pulp. As for the design, you can draw it directly on the pumpkin or draw it on paper, tape the paper onto the pumpkin, and fold or snip the paper to conform to curves. Transfer the pattern by poking perforations in the rind at 1/4-inch intervals with a tack, nail, or official pumpkin poker. If you have trouble seeing the dots, connect them with a felt-tip pen.
With a sharp knife or a carving saw, cut along the dotted lines. First cut out small features like eyes, then cut larger ones like the mouth. If you wish, attach the cut-out eyes to the outside with toothpicks, making ears. When your jack-o'-lantern is done, rub all cut edges with petroleum jelly to slow drying.
If you light your jack-o'-lantern with a candle, let the candle burn a few moments with the lid on, then create a chimney by boring a hole into the blackened portion of the lid. Use a candle holder that screws into the flesh and you can tilt the pumpkin for easy lighting without scorching your fingers.
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