Growing Pumpkins for Cooking, Eating, and Carving

The versatile pumpkin is a rewarding addition to any garden: it offers an easy project for novice gardeners and a challenge for competitive growers, its shell can be used for serving or carving into jack-o'-lanterns, and its meat and seeds are delicious in a variety of recipes.

| October/November 1992

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.

Pumpkin Varieties

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.

Tips for Growing Pumpkins

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.

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