As we move into October, an often-overlooked vegetable becomes quite popular – the pumpkin. This North American native has been in cultivation for food many thousands of years and now is also a popular seasonal decoration. The pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit family of vegetables which include squash, melon and cucumber. The pumpkin is a cultivar of winter squash and is usually round, smooth skinned and slightly ribbed. The most common colors are orange to deep yellow to dark green and now there are white and blue varieties. Winter squash are grown during the warm season but because they keep well after harvesting, many can store until winter. It is interesting to note that in other parts of the world, all winter squash are known as pumpkins.
Because of our long hot growing season, it is possible to grow multiple plantings of pumpkins and other winter squash. Pumpkins are usually direct seeded once the soil has warmed up (65 degrees or more) in the spring and can be seeded until mid-summer for later harvests. The plants will do best in well fertilized and well drained garden soil with full sun exposure. Pumpkin roots are relatively shallow so even watering is needed for best production. Pumpkins are a vining plant and will cover a large area as and many varieties will require 100 days or more to fully mature. It is important to consider the space and time requirement in the garden before planting too many pumpkins. The Cucurbita pepo pumpkin cultivars (the most common garden cultivars) typically weigh 5 to 20 pounds depending on variety. The Cucurbita maxima cultivars often grown for competitive showing can weigh over a ton under ideal conditions.
Like most squash, pumpkins produce both a male and a female flower on the same plant. The female flower must be fertilized to produce fruit. Pollination is usually done by insects, but the gardener can do the pollination in a pinch. Pumpkins tend to have the same pest and disease problems as other squash types including squash bugs, cucumber beetles, squash vine borer and various fungal issues. These may require treatment if the problem is severe enough. Since beneficial pollinators will be active during the day, treatment is best done near evening or very early in the morning.
There are a lot of new varieties developed with improved disease resistance, smaller plant characteristics, interesting colors and improved flesh consistency. Small varieties to try in a backyard garden include Baby Bear, Jack Be Little, Munchkin, Mystic and Small Sugar. The “All American Selections” winners web site is another good source for varieties to try. In a really small garden, bush varieties of other winter squash – such as acorn squash – will yield a similar tasting if not looking fruit.
Mature pumpkins will have a very hard skin which is almost too hard to scratch with a fingernail. The stem of the pumpkin will be very hard and will probably require pruners to cut. Pumpkins can be stored for 2 to 3 months if kept in a cool, dark and dry environment. For best storage, fruit should be harvested before temperatures get below 50 degrees.
Besides the flesh, many other parts of the pumpkin are edible. The flowers are wonderful raw in a salad or flash fried with or without a stuffing. Roasted seeds are eaten like sunflower seeds. Some varieties of pumpkin are specifically grown to extract oil from the seeds. The tender leaves of the plant can also be eaten as a cooked green. Immature young pumpkin can be prepared like zucchini and other summer squash. Pumpkins are loaded with a variety of nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are loaded with beta-carotene.
The flesh of mature pumpkin can be boiled, steamed, fried or roasted. Pumpkin is used in lots of sweet preparations like pies, puddings cheesecake, cookies, empanadas and breads. It is also used in many savory recipes roasted or in soups, chili and stews. With a bit of added cheese, pumpkin makes a wonderful stuffing for ravioli. Pureed pumpkin can also be made into pasta. Used as a tureen, the shell of a carefully cleaned pumpkin will also make an interesting presentation.
If you have the space in your garden, give the pumpkin (or a close squash relative) a spot. Even if it gets too big to eat, it still makes a great autumn decoration.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor